Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi led the BJP to victory for a record third time on Thursday in a verdict that silenced his critics and strengthened his prospects of being the party’s prime ministerial candidate in 2014.
The 62-year-old saffron strongman, a favourite of big industry and city voters, led his party to a tally of 115 seats in the 182-seat assembly, just a couple short of its 2007 tally and considered a significant achievement in the face of a more organised opposition and rebellion within his own ranks.
National interest in the election has centred around whether the BJP will position the controversial state leader as its candidate for PM, and Modi appeared to make a pitch for a national role in his victory speech.
“This is not a victory for Narendra Modi. It is a victory for the six crore people of Gujarat,” he told a crowd of more than 10,000 gathered in the congested lanes of Khanpur, a Muslim-dominated area in Ahmedabad that also houses the BJP’s state headquarters.
“It is a victory for all those people of the country who are yearning for development. Through this verdict… I would like to tell (them) that we have to build a campaign for good governance,” said the bespectacled leader, dressed in his trademark short-sleeved saffron kurta.
Significantly, Modi opted to address the gathering in Hindi rather than Gujarati, which he normally favours. As national TV cameras lapped up the action, the normally combative CM steered clear of naming any rival or taking a personal dig in his 45-minute speech.
Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi greets supporters during the celebrations of assembly elections in Ahmadabad. AP photo
The euphoric crowd chanted “Delhi, Delhi”, willing him to embark on the road to becoming India’s second Gujarati PM after Morarji Desai, but Modi made light of the suggestion, saying he would “visit Delhi on the 27th of this month, if that was the wish of his supporters”. Modi will be sworn in as CM on December 26.
Any prime ministerial ambitions Modi may harbour face hurdles from his political opponents as well as from detractors within his own party, who see him as a divisive figure that could drive allies away.
The ruling UPA sought to play down the significance of the win, with finance minister P Chidambaram saying the results would have no implications for the 2014 general elections which were “still 16 months away”.
“Today we are celebrating our victory in Gujarat. Let’s focus our discussion on Gujarat,” BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar told NDTV when asked if the party would pick Modi as its PM candidate.
Also, a closer scrutiny of the results showed a worrying rural-urban divide in Gujarat’s politics.
The BJP swept the cities but fared poorly in rural areas, a trend that undermined Modi's claims on development. It also lost 1 percentage point from its vote share in the last election.
From a strategic standpoint, the Congress improved its performance over last time, winning a couple more seats and holding on to its vote share, analysts said.
In the eyes of many outside the state, Modi's reputation has yet to recover from communal riots in 2002 that his detractors say he did little to stop.
He has never apologised to the Muslim community for the violence.
On Thursday, he told the crowd: "Give me your blessings so that I don't make any mistake… so that nobody is hurt by a mistake committed by me," though it was not clear for what he was seeking forgiveness.
Before coming to the rally, Modi even visited his mentor-turned-rival Keshubhai Patel, who had walked out of the BJP earlier this year to float a new party to contest the elections.
Patel's party, despite a lot of hype, ended up with a dismal show, winning just two seats. Modi's visit appeared to be aimed at a possible reconciliation with the rebels who had left the party with Patel.