I don’t know if you saw the results of the Headlines Today poll on the Gujarat Assembly election. The poll was conducted a couple of weeks ago and the results were released on October 4. The election is still some time away and the pollsters did their work before the campaign got into full swing. So yes, it is possible to argue that these responses – and therefore, the results – are premature and that things will change significantly between now and election day.
Except that I don’t think they will. The results of the poll confirm what most of us already feel intuitively. The BJP will win Gujarat with roughly the same number of seats as it has in the current Assembly (around 114-117). The Congress may win a couple of extra seats but basically, there is no improvement in the party’s performance. Keshubhai Patel will not make a significant difference to the election results and his party will find it hard to win more than a couple of seats.
Further, Modi is the only political leader of any consequence in Gujarat. No other politician really shows up on the radar and Congress leaders have no presence at all in the state. Moreover, this will be a personal victory for Modi. Respondents offered overwhelming approval when it came to his performance and his own personality seemed more important than loyalty to the BJP when it came to assessing the factors that influenced the voting decision.
The Congress will dispute these figures. I have heard Congress leaders say that voter fatigue has set in and that the people of Gujarat are getting fed up of Modi. I have also heard it said that Keshubhai will take away Patel votes and will act as a spoiler in many constituencies. The Congress’ view appears to be that Modi has the edge but that the race is much closer than these results suggest.
I am not an astrologer and neither have I travelled through Gujarat recently so I won’t comment on the validity of the Congress’ assessment. But, as a general rule, I put my faith in pollsters who are relatively detached over politicians who have a stake in the outcome. So, I am taking the line that these results are accurate and that Modi will win Gujarat, not by a greater landslide, but in the same way that he won it the last time around.
What does this mean for the national situation?
Modi’s supporters will treat the victory as proof of Modi’s stature. They will argue that these results confirm what has long been suspected: that the Congress is on the slide. And they will push to make Modi the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, arguing that only he can lead the party to a victory at the next parliamentary elections.
I can understand their sentiments. But I am not sure that a Gujarat victory can translate into a national mandate.
First of all, there is no evidence to suggest that Modi can win elections outside of Gujarat. Of course he is popular within his own state but then we have seen many popular regional leaders through the decades: MGR, NTR, Mamata Banerjee, and even Naveen Patnaik, whose record in office rivals Modi’s. While we admire regional leaders for their hold over their states, we don’t necessarily believe that their popularity can win elections in other states.
Certainly, this has been true of the BJP through the ages. AB Vajpayee was from Gwalior but he avoided being seen as a regional leader and contested elections from all over the country. LK Advani may have got into Parliament from Gujarat but he is no regional leader. His stature is national. Sushma Swaraj is not seen as a Haryana politician. Arun Jaitley has only the most tenuous connection with the politics of the Delhi Assembly or of Punjab.
The BJP has always taken the line that national leaders must be above regional politics. And even when there have been popular regional leaders within the party, they have rarely been given a national role. For instance, two BJP chief ministers of Rajasthan – B.S. Shekhawat and more recently, Vasundhara Raje – have been all-powerful in their states. But the Rajasthan politician who achieved national prominence was Jaswant Singh, who routinely finds it difficult to win elections in his own state.
Those who believe that Modi should become leader of the BJP at a national level challenge the very foundations of the BJP’s leadership policy. Not unnaturally, BJP leaders are quick to point out that Modi has not demonstrated that he is a great vote-winner in other states. When he has campaigned for BJP candidates outside of Gujarat, the results have been mixed. Certainly, there is nothing to suggest that Modi’s endorsement guarantees victory outside of Gujarat. This distinction is crucial because the campaign to make Modi Prime Minister hinges on numbers. The BJP recalls that when AB Vajpayee formed his 13-day government, no coalition was possible because the BJP simply did not have a large enough presence in Parliament. On the other hand, once the BJP improved its tally, Vajpayee was able to form a government with the support of allies.
This experience has led to the view that with 140 seats, the BJP will not be able to impose its will or its Prime Minister on potential allies. But once the party has 180 seats, the allies will have to fall in line and accept the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate even if that candidate is Narendra Modi.
There are two problems with this argument. The first is that I am not sure that even a BJP with 180 MPs could find the 100 or so MPs it needs from other parties to form a government if it says Modi will be Prime Minister. (After I appeared on Headlines Today to discuss the poll results, Sanghis tweeted that I had said that Modi would have no difficulty becoming PM if the BJP got 180 seats. I was also supposed to have said that the Congress would get 19 per cent of the total votes which would come from Muslims. Though the Sanghis went berserk, tweeting these alleged statements to each other, I had actually said neither of these things. Joseph Goebbels is alive and well and wearing khakhi chaddis…)
Where would these MPs come from? We can rule out Mamata Banerjee and Nitish Kumar. Even if Chandrababu Naidu or Jagan Reddy win enough seats to contribute to an NDA coalition, neither can accept Modi as Prime Minister without kissing their Muslim vote bases goodbye. Bal Thackeray has already said that he prefers Sushma Swaraj as Prime Minister over Modi. I doubt if Naveen Patnaik, who is a decent and honourable man, would support a government headed by Modi. So, who then would help make up the numbers? The Akalis perhaps. Jayalalitha, almost certainly. And perhaps a few others. But does that add up to the 100 or so MPs who will be required?
I am not sure it does.
Besides, how will the BJP win 180 seats on its own? So far at least, even those polls that suggest that the BJP will do better than the Congress do not give the party anything like that figure. Modi’s supporters say that there is a way around this. If the party declared that Modi would be its prime ministerial candidate, then this would consolidate the Hindu vote and help the BJP reach 180. This may or may not be true, but so far at least there is no hard evidence to support this faith in Modi’s vote-winning abilities outside of Gujarat.
Plus, there is a second factor. One reason why the Congress has fared so badly in recent times is because it has lost much of the Muslim vote. Would the prospect of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister terrify Muslims enough for them not to fritter their votes away on regional parties but to vote as a bloc in favour of the Congress? The Congress certainly believes it would. And privately, some Congressmen say that the only way their party can return to power is if the BJP declares that Narendra Modi will be its prime ministerial candidate. Even before the Muslim vote is consolidated, such leaders as Nitish Kumar will refuse to enter into seat-sharing arrangements with the BJP, thereby affecting the BJP’s overall tally. And Mamata Banerjee is unpredictable enough to return to the Congress fold in the event of such a development.
So, here’s where we stand: the Congress is wrong. Modi is still the titan of Gujarat politics. He will win the forthcoming Assembly elections. But no, that victory will not bring him any nearer to Race Course Road.