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Gujarat election results 2017: The BJP will now focus on delivering and completing iconic projects

The resounding urban mandate will ensure that the commitment to projects such as the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train will remain as firm as before

analysis Updated: Dec 19, 2017 07:45 IST
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal among youth voters in the under-25 age group hasn’t waned, suggesting that the optimism over the future that was a feature of the 2014 general election hasn’t been replaced by despondency.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal among youth voters in the under-25 age group hasn’t waned, suggesting that the optimism over the future that was a feature of the 2014 general election hasn’t been replaced by despondency.(Reuters File Photo)

Traditionally, the post-results mood in political circles follows a script: the winner celebrates and claims to be “humbled” by the verdict and the downcast losers promise a bout of “introspection”. The Gujarat assembly outcome was accompanied by some confused responses. There were celebrations in BJP circles but they were relatively less boisterous. And the Congress alternated between whoops of delight over the auspicious beginning to Rahul Gandhi’s presidency and lament over a missed opportunity to oust the BJP, not to mention gripes over the efficacy of EVMs.

The confusion was understandable. In normal circumstances, the first-past-the-post system exaggerates legislative majorities, as happened in the 2014 general election. With a vote share of over 49 % — hugely impressive by any yardstick — the BJP should have improved on its 2012 tally. Yet, it lost seats and at one point in the morning looked like being overtaken by the Congress, leading to a panic stock market response. The Gujarat outcome was a rare case of the seat tally broadly reflecting the popular vote. The BJP won handsomely in the urban areas — producing what psephologists call ‘wasted majorities’— and lost narrowly in many seats. Most important, the Congress edged past it in 33 of the 54 seats of Saurashtra, despite both parties having a near equal share of the popular vote in the region. If every vote had an equal value, the BJP would have won resoundingly but the uneven subregional voting pattern ensured that the party’s sixth consecutive victory in Gujarat was narrow.

This quirky outcome is likely to make a political dissection of the Gujarat results difficult. Media reports suggested that the ruling party was confronted with huge dissatisfaction over GST. Yet, in the four Surat constituencies that were at the epicentre of the anti-GST stir, the BJP won. Likewise, in the major Patidar-dominated clusters, particularly in North Gujarat, there was both a division of Patel votes and a counter-mobilisation of other backward castes. Consequently, the BJP did reasonably well, winning 22 of the 39 seats where Patidars were a numerical force. The BJP election machine, it would seem, was slowed down, not merely by the momentum of energetic campaigns by the Hardik-Alpesh-Jignesh youthful troika, but more by farmer resentment over the minimum support price of cotton and groundnut in Saurashtra.

It is important to micro-analyse the outcome in the context of an emerging narrative that the Gujarat verdict is likely to prod the Narendra Modi government towards a populist correction. The result certainly suggests localised grievances played a big role in the BJP securing a reduced majority but there is no evidence of a generalised disquiet over the government’s policies. Indeed, exit polls indicate that Modi’s appeal among youth voters in the under-25 age group hasn’t waned, suggesting that the optimism over the future that was a feature of the 2014 general election hasn’t been replaced by despondency. More to the point, the prime minister’s personal appeal among voters hasn’t been affected. Nor were Gujarat’s voters put off by his aggressive campaigning in the concluding stages of the campaign. The BJP, in fact, did significantly better in the constituencies that polled in the second phase, indicating the continuing identification of the BJP with Modi.

The prime minister and the BJP leadership are likely to mull over the Gujarat outcome in the coming days. On the face of it, they are unlikely to press for a review of existing policies. Instead, there will be renewed thrust on delivery and the speedy completion of outstanding projects. The resounding urban mandate will ensure that the commitment to iconic projects such as the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train will remain as firm as before. However, there is likely to be equal attention paid to welfare schemes. The possibility of the government introducing a Universal Basic Income Scheme in the Budget of 2018 shouldn’t also be discounted.

Facets of the government response may also be dictated by the Congress response to the Gujarat verdict. Apart from the sustained projection of Rahul Gandhi as a mature and responsible leader, the Congress may persist with facilitating a coalition of local protest movements. The decimation of the traditional leadership in Gujarat and the emergence of new leaders may encourage the Congress to experiment with a new form of protest politics, some of which may even be retrograde. If this happens, the urge to sharpen the BJP government’s reformist impulses to highlight its distinctiveness will become irresistible. If the Congress focuses on protest, Modi is likely to cast himself as the architect of a performing government.

Swapan Dasgupta is a Rajya Sabha MP, senior journalist and political commentator

The views expressed are personal