Gujarat election results: 6 takeaways from the Modi-Rahul battle | Barkha Dutt
If Gujarat’s gladiatorial contest were a game of cricket, today you’d hear Ravi Shastri pull out his favourite cliché: ‘Cricket has won.’
The BJP’s win in the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and its party president Amit Shah is a little bit like that. It reinforces the primacy of Modi as First among Equals; it is indisputably his sprint run in the closing laps that pulled the BJP across the finish line. But it also shows that the challengers did not roll over and play dead; the other side too has upped its game and restored competition to what the BJP expected to be a walkover.
Here are some preliminary takeaways as the final numbers settle down:
MODITVA SAVES THE DAY: The push by Modi with 34 rallies compressed within a fortnight made the difference between disaster and victory. The BJP’s own estimates on Gujarat were more conservative than the exit polls on TV; many of its leaders were preparing for a ‘scrape through’ win. Minus Modi the final surge would have been impossible. A sixth straight term is no ordinary achievement, and after the Gujarat and Himachal wins, the BJP has replaced Congress as the nation’s pan-India party with control over 19 states. The last time a single political group controlled 18 states was the Congress 24 years ago.
THE ‘PAPPU’ JOKE IS DONE AND OVER: Rahul Gandhi led a spirited fight and was often tactical in his decisions- the suspension of Mani Shankar Aiyar, the temple-visits, the subtle dialing-back of Muslim-minority politics - all of these were atypical choices for the Old Congress. The biggest shift from previous elections since 2014 is that Gandhi was no longer singled out as the butt of the jokes. There were as many mock-ups and memes of BJP leaders as there were those of the Congress. Though as many epitaphs have been written for Rahul Gandhi as have editorials on his ‘evolution’ - even his worst detractors would concede that the new Congress President has crossed the Rubicon in politics. That he chose to take over the party before he knew whether Gujarat would be a loss or win speaks to that finality. With its win the BJP remains India’s dominant political force; but Rahul Gandhi can lay claim to the hint of a resurrected opposition.
URBAN-RURAL DIVIDE; WARNINGS FOR BOTH: In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP managed to play to class-envy and market demonetisation as a clean-up of a corrupt system. In Gujarat’s agrarian belts, especially among its groundnut and cotton farmers, economic distress and the ensuing anger with the party was real. In urban and semi-urban pockets, however, the Modi brand continues to transcend anti-incumbent anger. The Congress has not yet managed to throw up a local leadership that is acceptable across classes.
POLITICS REMAINS BIPOLAR BUT VOTERS CRAVE NEW AND YOUNG LEADERS: The rise of Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani; Patidar firebrand Hardik Patel and OBC leader Alpesh Thakore signal an appetite for youthful leadership that is still unvarnished by overexposure and long stints in power. It’s moot to wonder how they would have performed without the backing of a big national party (in this case, the Congress) but their emergence underscores two facts: the opposition will use caste leaders to fragment the BJP’s plans for Hindu consolidation and strong local faces may be the only card left to play in an age where Modi holds all the aces.
VIKAS PLUS HINDUTVA-NATIONALISM BLEND REMAINS BJP COCKTAIL: The BJP has understood that its fragility and strength both derive from the state of the economy. The Congress has understood that a critique of the economy - rather than religious identity debates - is the more bankable political currency. But the BJP formula is intact: in the run up to 2019 it will talk of infrastructure, corruption-free governance, and strong leadership and punctuate it with muscular nationalism and political Hindutva. When necessary Modi will make himself the issue and appeal to the voter to endorse him against a system he will present as hostile & prejudicial.
THE EVMs DEBATE IS NONSENSE AND MUST END: Having put up a tough fight against the BJP and given it some seriously nervous moments, it is entirely disingenuous for the opposition to attribute the shortfall to rigged machines. In fact, its tally is decent, hardly embarrassing and points to an honestly fought battle. To whine about the gap is a little bit like TV anchors who complain about ratings - till their networks do well. The EVM debate is a red herring; a healthy democracy needs to shut it down.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author
The views expressed are personal