This Article is From Dec 19, 2017

Yes, Modi Won - But Gujarat Shows 2019 Is Wide Open

As expected, the Congress lost Gujarat. It would have indeed been truly earth-shattering news had they won. Gujarat under the BJP, like the days when the Left dominated West Bengal, is effectively a one-party state in which the BJP has been in power for so long that it completely dominates all forms of power - political, economic, social and even cultural. Beyond a certain point, the effects of anti-incumbency invert themselves and make it even harder for any opposition to assert itself.

The BJP's leadership can and should congratulate itself on its ability to keep its winning streak going. The energy it showed in the last few weeks, in particular, is reminiscent of the Australian team under Steve Waugh: miss no opportunity, give no quarter, winning is everything. It never takes it easy. Does anyone doubt that tonight, Amit Shah will not be sitting down to a celebration, but to a careful post-mortem? In terms of pure political engineering, the BJP is so far ahead in the game that it seems the others aren't even playing.

The Congress' loss in Gujarat, however, was close enough in terms of the number of seats - as well as in the margins in some of the seats that it lost - that it should examine what worked to get it this far, and what it might have done in addition to go the extra mile. For one, I am not sure the absence of a clear chief ministerial candidate was an asset. If nothing else, a clean new face at the state level would have hampered Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ultimately partially successful attempt to turn a state-level election into a referendum on him, his status as a Gujarati icon, and issues like Pakistan.

In addition, the Congress' decision to renominate several of its existing MLAs - perhaps forced on it by a perceived need for their votes to re-elect Ahmed Patel to the Rajya Sabha - will unquestionably have hurt in an election in which there was such widespread discontent. It's also worth noting that many of the Congress' supposed leaders - such as Siddharth Patel and Tushar Choudhary - did not bring in the votes that they should have. In several seats the Congress lost, its margin of loss was lower than the votes polled by sympathetic third parties like the Nationalist Congress Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party, indicating that it needs also to work harder on the unity of opposition forces.

Finally, while I may understand the political incentive for Rahul Gandhi to launch his now-famous "temple run", and for he and his partymen to stress his supposed personal faith, can we now accept that it is a bad idea both politically and morally? Morally, because if the Congress decides to give in to the BJP's narrative by stressing that it is as Hindu as anyone, then it is a betrayal of its own values and of many of its most loyal voters who expect it to rise above such considerations. Rahul Gandhi must find a way to combat his party's "anti-Hindu" image without adding to the snse of threat felt by religious minorities, free-thinkers and secularists. The longer he plays this dangerous game, the more likely that India's secular fabric will fray even further. Politically, we will see secularists withdraw from political engagement, and Muslims will not turn out, or vote for "their own" parties like the MIM. After all, did it really help in Gujarat? Did the areas in south and central Gujarat that thought the Congress was an anti-Hindu party vote for it after Gandhi's temple run? A word of advice to Rahul Gandhi: you can't (and shouldn't) counter Hindutva with anything but liberalism. Fight on the BJP's terms, and India will lose. Also, you will lose. Which, incidentally, you did.

I don't see this result as a vindication of Rahul Gandhi's leadership of the Congress - after all, he hasn't exactly won an election yet. It's tough to deny, however, that he is not as much of a public joke as he was. Objectively, we are also beginning to see the signs of how he intends to differentiate himself from the enormously popular Prime Minister - by playing up the notion that he is a "nice guy" and the Congress is a "nice" party. He underlined that in his tweet after the verdict, in which he said that the Congress "fought anger with dignity" and that "the Congress' greatest strength is its decency and courage".

I don't know if this will work going forward. After all, this election was special: in this differentiation, he was aided by the nature of the BJP's campaign in Gujarat, which descended to new lows of polarisation when the prime minister himself implied that his predecessor in 7 Race Course Road was in cahoots with Pakistan to install Ahmed Patel as chief minister of Gujarat. Rather hilariously, Amit Shah in his post-poll press conference called the BJP's victory one for "development" over "polarisation". Somebody or the other said something along the lines of if you tell a lie, make it a big one, and Shah clearly took that advice to heart.

Yet, if the BJP machine pulled back against whatever disadvantages it was fighting - discontent over GST, job shortages, and farmer distress - the Congress' disadvantages should also be acknowledged. Six months ago, it went into a campaign in the most BJP-leaning state in the country, the home state of Narendra Modi. It had nothing in its arsenal. It had a leader widely mocked, all the institutions at state and national level arrayed against it, far less money and fewer resources. In addition, building its narrative seemed impossible:  practically every major news outlet in Gujarat and Delhi was and is determined to aid the BJP. You can understand why, even after losing the election, they are not feeling as disheartened as all that.

As I write this, one 'North Korean' news channel is running the headline: "Modi PM till 2024?" Well, he might well be. His popularity remains extraordinary. But, for me, the lesson from Gujarat is different. It is a simple reminder that India's is still a fractured polity. And when you look at the 2014 electoral map, you remember another thing: the BJP's sweep of the north and west was unprecedented. It was a remarkable achievement, a perfect 10, a hole-in-one, six sixes in an over. But everyone seems to have so quickly adapted to that result that we have forgotten that nobody can hit six sixes in every over. Gujarat should remind us of this. Getting to 282 again is not that easy. Even in its impregnable bastion of Gujarat, the BJP's margins are fraying. Rural areas and the jobless are losing patience. The opposition is no longer a joke. Modi's in pole position still - but 2019 is wide open.

(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)

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