This Article is From Dec 10, 2022

Opinion: State Elections Offer Big Lessons On How To Counter BJP

Since 2014, the BJP's intellectual and political opponents have, too often, chosen to comfort themselves after each BJP win with a series of consoling fantasies. The BJP wins because of EVM-tampering. The BJP wins purely on money power. The BJP wins because of Hindutva. The BJP wins because voters don't know what's good for them; if they did, they would vote for Rahul Gandhi (there is more than a whiff here of Bertolt Brecht's satirical call "to dissolve the people and elect another"). The BJP won in Gujarat because AAP divided the anti-BJP vote.

There is truth, sometimes a lot of truth, to many of these claims. An asymmetric access to corporate money power (now legalised in the form of electoral bonds) is a large factor in the BJP's dominance (as it once was in Congress dominance); the entry of AAP did divide the anti-BJP vote in Gujarat; Hindu majoritarianism has, on several occasions, helped win elections; the normalisation of that majoritarianism says as much about the electorate as its representatives.

The trouble is that each claim is taken to an absurd extreme, and other facts or phenomena are simply wished away. The net result is a refusal to properly confront the reality of BJP dominance, and thus to be capable of actually challenging it.


Amit Shah and Narendra Modi (File photo)

The truly salient story of this Gujarat election is not Opposition division, but BJP hegemony. After 27 years of incumbency, the BJP won not just its highest ever vote-share in Gujarat, but its highest in any state election anywhere. A united Opposition will not defeat an incumbent that wins 52.5% of votes cast. The BJP's vote-share was comparable to that of the Left Front in West Bengal at its 1980s peak.

The Congress won 17 seats in Gujarat. If we were to take the seats in which they finished second, and give them every single AAP, or for that matter AIMIM, vote, their tally would rise to 33, and the BJP's would fall to 140. It would still be by some distance the Congress' worst-ever performance in the state.

While Narendra Modi is PM, Gujarat is the closest thing India has to a one-party state, even more than Andhra Pradesh or Odisha. The fusion of Hindutva, Gujarati sub-nationalism, favourite-son-as-PM and charismatic authority that Modi embodies in Gujarat is without obvious precedent in Indian history. So too is the extent to which Hindutva now dominates Gujarati Hindu society.

Much analysis of the election has claimed that the BJP won "despite widespread discontent". Too little attention was paid to the manner in which the BJP had pre-emptively addressed that discontent. In September 2021, the party high command dismissed not only Vijay Rupani but his entire Cabinet. It was the non-violent equivalent of the purges one associates with one-party regimes. The message was that there is only one true ruler - Modi - and as long as voters keep faith with him, he will ensure accountability.


Vijay Rupani and PM Modi (File photo)

If, before the Gujarat election, the question on most lips was who will come second, after the election, the trickiest question may be how to assess AAP's performance. Judged against the party's stated ambitions, a result of five seats and 13% of the vote is a failure that all but justifies the BJP's repeated assertions that AAP was a non-factor except in the Delhi media.

But those numbers require a little unpacking. AAP's returns show a party that, for now, is confined to a few areas of Gujarat. The vast majority of the 40 or so seats in which AAP came first or second came from a handful of urban or semi-urban districts (Surat, Bhavnagar, Jamnagar, Rajkot) or from the tribal belt. Conversely, there are large parts of Gujarat where the party barely exists. There were 51 seats where it won less than 5% of the vote, and 19 seats where it won less than 2%.

AAP's results are those of a party making its effective debut in a large state. It does not yet have a pan-Gujarat organisation. One way of interpreting Arvind Kejriwal's pre-election predictions of victory is delusion; a more plausible one is simple ambition. Another way of looking at AAP's performance is that it was more impressive than anything the BJP has yet managed in four of the five southern states, or for that matter Punjab.


Arvind Kejriwal in Gujarat

On this view, the time to judge AAP in Gujarat is 2027. In both Delhi and Punjab, the party has been prematurely written off before. Its ambition and staying power cannot be questioned. Yet there are reasons to be skeptical of how high its ceiling might be in Gujarat. One is the extent of BJP hegemony, at least as long as Modi is around. Another is the self-defeating and at times risible manner in which the party tried to prove its Hindutva credentials, as sadly exemplified by Arvind Kejriwal's proposal for placing deities on currency notes.

AAP is attempting to grow, state by state, as the Jan Sangh/BJP once did, except at 3x speed, and without a coherent ideological programme or the resources of a social movement. Its core message of developmental populism will have limited returns in the many states where voters are broadly satisfied with the incumbent government. Its current approach also carries too great a risk of over-promising.

Over-promising, in the form of the politically fruitful but fiscally reckless Old Pension Scheme, was also a factor in the Congress' win in Himachal. The importance of this win is not to be underestimated. It came at a time when many within the party - forget about its critics - no longer believed it capable of winning anything. Himachal had a record of anti-incumbency, and an unpopular Chief Minister - but both those things were also true of Uttarakhand.

If Uttarakhand spoke to a party adept at missing open goals, Himachal shows how and where the Congress still can win. We have known since 2014 that in state elections, the BJP is far from invincible. Since the start of 2015, its strike rate in assembly elections (excluding those states in which it was not a viable contender for power) is under 50%. That strike rate rises against the Congress, because the latter is often organisationally dysfunctional and because it is easier to nationalise a state election when the opponent is a fellow national party.


Priyanka Gandhi in Himachal Pradesh

Himachal saw an organizationally-resilient Congress that kept infighting in check (at least until results day), focused its resources on winnable seats (unusually, the Congress was much more "efficient" than the BJP in turning votes into seats) and, above all, kept the election local, a referendum on the Chief Minister rather than the Prime Minister. The Karnataka Congress would profit from each of these lessons. On Twitter, the familiar vidwans of chamchagiri were quick to credit the Congress' victory to Priyanka Gandhi. But with the party High Command focused on Bharat Jodo Yatra, victory in Himachal was a local phenomenon.

Intriguingly, Supriya Shrinate, the Congress' combative head of social media, who has consistently sought to separate the Yatra from these elections, said on results day that, come 2023, we could judge the success of the Yatra in electoral terms - the terms being the Congress' performance in Karnataka, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

The contrast between Gujarat and Himachal lies not merely in the identity of the winning party, but in what each says about the political salience of BJP Chief Ministers. The elevation of Bhupendra Patel, a little-known first-time MLA, seemed to take to the extreme a policy that the BJP High vommand had developed in states such as Haryana, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Himachal and Karnataka - choosing a Chief Minister without a political base of their own, in a manner reminiscent of the Indira-era Congress.

Gujarat might seem a vindication of this strategy, Himachal a repudiation; but the lessons of Himachal are ultimately more generalisable. It is too easily dismissed as a mere "small hill state". Nowhere does the identity of a BJP Chief Minister matter less than in Gujarat, where voters place Modi at the head of the ticket whatever it actually says on the nomination form.

Indian politics remain competitive at the state level. The total identification of the BJP with Narendra Modi benefits the party in Gujarat and in Lok Sabha elections. In most state elections, however, the BJP High Command's penchant for the pliant and uncharismatic is more liability than strength. It is no accident that the one state where the BJP has decisively departed from this strategy is the one in which it has done best, electorally - Uttar Pradesh.

(Keshava Guha is a writer of literary and political journalism, and the author of 'Accidental Magic'.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.