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Gujarat election result: PM Modi comes to BJP’s rescue, yet again

The Gujarat election results bear the stamp of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mass appeal. It won’t be an exaggeration to say he swung the verdict in BJP’s favour in a close contest with the Congress.

india Updated: Dec 18, 2017 21:26 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Gujarat election result,Narendra Modi,BJP
PM Narendra Modi shows his ink-marked finger after casting his vote outside a polling station during the last phase of Gujarat assembly elections in Ahmedabad.(Reuters Photo)

As Narendra Modi walked on to the stage in Rajkot one evening in early December, the crowd transformed. Restless and lacklustre until then, it broke into cheers and chants. When Modi took the mike and asked “Kem cho (How are you)?”, the applause interspersed with the cry of “Maja maa (All is well)”. The crowd then reciprocated and asked him how he was doing. And Modi said, “Exactly as I was.”

After he established a connection, Modi involved the audience in a speech that moved every few minutes from India’s global to Gujarat’s provincial achievements. He ended with telling Rajkot, like he had told audiences elsewhere, that Gujarat had the best deal – a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the state, and Narendra Bhai, just a phone call away, at the Centre.

In those 43 minutes, it was clear that Modi’s bond with his people would be hard for the opposition to overcome. And that is what happened.

Monday’s verdict is a verdict, yet again, for Narendra Modi. The numbers show that the BJP was fragile. This was an election where the party just about made it. Let alone its stated ambition of 150 seats, it fell well short of its 2012 numbers of 115 seats. But, at the end of the day, it won. And it won only because of the prime minister.

The outcome reflects the faith Gujarat’s electorate has in the man they consider their own, and forgive all transgressions of the BJP government in Gandhinagar. Modi’s campaign, vigorous as ever, offers clues about the themes he will return with to the larger electorate in 2019. The outcome has also shown how indispensable he is to the BJP’s fortunes.

The message

The Modi campaign had four key themes.

The first was, undoubtedly, vikas or development – defined in broad terms of both infrastructure and welfare. When Congress began its campaigning by mocking Gujarat’s model of development, Modi himself gave the slogan – “I am vikas, I am Gujarat” – to emphasise that the BJP will own its development model. Modi focused on roads, water and irrigation, law and order, electrification, public expenditure on education, and industrialisation.

The state-specific vikas narrative was coupled with the Centre’s achievements. And here, Modi made an appeal to distinct classes. To the middle-class in the cities, he spoke of the government’s schemes for affordable housing and reduction of stent prices. To the poor, he spoke of new toilets and used it to demolish the Congress narrative of how his sarkar or government was one for the rich. Rally after rally, he asked, with names, whether Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani needed public toilets or if the poor needed them. Ujjwala, the LPG scheme which had resonated with the Uttar Pradesh electorate, struck a chord with Gujarat’s women too.

Two, Modi’s campaign focused on how he was providing a clean government. He made both demonetisation and Goods and Service Tax (GST) fit into the larger narrative of how this was the citizen’s contribution to the battle against corruption. It was tricky because these economic policies had tangibly hurt ordinary voters, but by framing it as long-term good and putting his own integrity on the line, Modi was able to partly neutralise the anger. As a voter told us in Tapi, a tribal district, “Modi is cleaning accumulated dirt.”

Three, the PM, towards the end of the campaign, infused a flavour of Hindutva. It was done sometimes subtly and sometimes crudely. By alluding to Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as Aurangzeb Raj, Modi was reinforcing what had been a subtext of the BJP campaign – that the return of the Congress would mean the return of ‘Muslim Raj’. By picking up Kapil Sibal’s appearance in the Ram Janmabhoomi case and his plea that hearings be delayed, Modi was able to frame the Congress party as opposed to the temple – and Gujarat’s Hindus, anecdotal evidence suggests, are keen on the temple in Ayodhya. By suggesting that there was a plot hatched at Mani Shankar Aiyar’s house between Pakistan and Congress to defeat the BJP in Gujarat, he resorted to the classic technique of the Hindu right – of portraying opponents as the fifth column even as the BJP stands firm defending the national interest. All of this may not have converted sceptics but it energised the BJP’s base.

Finally, perhaps most crucially, by using Aiyar’s “neech” comment, the Modi made this election about himself. In one public rally, he spent 18 minutes documenting every abuse that Congress and opposition leaders had hurled at him. He told his home constituents how much pain he had encountered. Modi was asking the Gujarati electorate simple questions by the end: do you trust me; will you let me down; when everyone is against me, will you stand by me; who else but me, sitting in Delhi, can work for you? The Gujarati electorate responded with Monday’s verdict. You could call it a “trust vote” or, as a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) intellectual put it, a “mercy vote” for Modi.

The next battle

The Gujarat specifics aside, it is these four themes with which Modi will return to India in 2019. He will focus on the Centre’s infrastructure and welfare achievements; on anti-corruption measures; on fusing Hindutva with nationalism, and he will put himself on the line.

It has worked in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat this year. And it has worked despite disruptive measures such as demonetisation and GST; despite grim economic conditions with youth disenchantment and rural distress; despite two decades of anti-incumbency in Gujarat; and despite weak local leaders.

The BJP may well have reason to worry that in each election campaign, they have to rely – to such an enormous degree – on Modi’s appeal. He is their ultimate weapon and often their only weapon. And creating another generation of mass leaders, both nationally in general and in Gujarat in particular, must be an urgent task.

But for now, this is another Modi moment. He will know there are key vulnerabilities that have to be addressed if he wants to remain India’s most powerful and popular leader. Today, he has saved his party; he has saved his image.

First Published: Dec 18, 2017 11:11 IST