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What Gujarat 2017 result means for BJP’s future election narrative

While the BJP’s narrative, post the Gujarat election results, will continue to prioritise its governance record and its Hindutva moorings, the party will also have to work hard on two other areas where it was on the defensive.

india Updated: Dec 18, 2017 17:35 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Gujarat,election result,BJP
BJP supporters celebrate outside the party headquarters in New Delhi after early counting of votes indicated a comfortable win in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.(AFP)

Elections, Narendra Modi is understood to often tell political colleagues, are fought on performance, but that is not enough – they also need an “emotional” connect.

The emotional thrust in Gujarat was provided by the Congress duo of Kapil Sibal and Mani Shankar Aiyar -- with the former appearing in the Supreme Court case on Ram Janmabhoomi and asking for a delay in judgment, and the latter calling Modi “neech”. Alert to political possibilities, the BJP ran with both issues. The first was used to project Congress as against Hindu sentiments, and the second to say the Congress was insulting Modi, the son of the soil.

The BJP’s narrative, post the victory in Gujarat, will continue to prioritise two elements -- its governance record and its Hindutva moorings. It will, however, also have to work hard on two other areas where it was on the defensive -- joblessness and rural distress, which almost cost the party the polls.

The twin track

The BJP, as Modi’s speeches showed, is banking on central welfare schemes to reach out to the poorer voters. Most leaders, in most rallies, highlighted the benefits of the Ujjwala LPG scheme and claimed how construction of toilets had changed lives. This was an effort to expand the party’s class base. Acutely conscious that it was seen as a party of the well-to-do, the BJP consciously attempted to project itself as sensitive to poor. Vikas -- roads, water, electricity -- became the rallying cry to mobilise a cross-section of classes.

But BJP’s political-ideological core comes to the fore in every election. That is why it is not a surprise that the party stokes Hindu anxieties each time. It has excluded Muslims from its own electoral matrix and believes that consolidating the majority often requires painting the Muslim as the other. The references to ‘Aurangzeb Raj’, the repeated commitment to the Ram Temple, and the subtle hints that Congress would empower Muslims, are tricks that will continue to be replicated.

The gaps

But there are two areas in which the BJP narrative has been clearly vulnerable and will need correction before 2019.

The first is employment. The problem is this: most young people in rural and semi-urban India still want government jobs. There aren’t enough of these and so they seek reservation. Then, they seek stable private-sector jobs. But despite its manufacturing and big-industry push, Gujarat has been unable to absorb those who join the workforce. The challenge is acute all over the country. Aspirations get unleashed. Young people invest in education and go to private institutes with high fees, but find returns inadequate or non-existent. The government is struggling with a policy response. The BJP was propelled to victory by the young, and the young are now getting unhappy.

The BJP’s narrative, despite attempts to go beyond the urban, also hit a roadblock in rural Gujarat. This could well be a pointer of the larger trend. The problem is farmers are not getting enough prices to offset their expenses, let alone leave them with profits. No government can keep increasing MSPs for both its fiscal and inflationary consequences, but there is expectation of greater support. And the BJP is struggling to find a response.

Post Gujarat 2017, expect the BJP to focus on welfare and Hindutva. At the same time, expect it to be challenged on jobs and farmer discontent. The battle of the narratives will continue.

First Published: Dec 18, 2017 15:39 IST