The recent double victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state elections of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh was another electoral feather in the ruling party’s cap. However, the Gujarat victory was hard fought due to the surprisingly strong performance of the Indian National Congress. Though the Congress lost Gujarat, the party is emerging as a formidable political opponent to the BJP and can divide its voter base. Five states go to poll this year—Karnataka, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland, and Meghalaya. The BJP must learn some lessons from Gujarat and apply them in these five states if it wants to keep a winning streak going into the 2019 general elections.
One of the critical lessons for the BJP from these elections seems to be the revival of the Congress party. While a BJP victory in Himachal Pradesh was expected, that Gujarat was a tough nut to crack came as quite a shocker since the Congress provided tough competition in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state. Unlike the claims made by BJP President Amit Shah, the party was unable to secure a grand victory in Gujarat even after ruling for 23 years. The BJP’s seat tally fell significantly, going from winning 115 in 2012 to merely 99 in 2017, while Congress saw a considerable increase, picking up 80 seats in 2017 as opposed to 61 in 2012.
Rahul Gandhi, as Congress’ newly-elected president, held more than 30 rallies in Gujarat, questioned Modi’s development model in the state, and made an attempt to create a broader social coalition by aligning with young leaders such as Hardik Patel from the Patidar community, Jignesh Mevani representing Dalits, and Alpesh Thakore from the Other Backward Classes (OBC) community. Additionally, highlighting of important issues such as unemployment, the agriculture crisis in the state and farmers’ plight by the Congress party during their campaign may have been a factor in the BJP performing poorly in rural areas where this resonated most. If the Congress continues to generate such discontent among the electorate in Gujarat in the coming year, it will be difficult for the BJP to get a majority in the state in the 2019 general elections despite the fact that Prime Minister Modi served as a Chief Minister of Gujarat for over 12 years. Therefore, the BJP would do well to revisit the agricultural calamity in the state, particularly in the Saurashtra region, and create more jobs for the youth to have a good chance of holding on to the state in 2019.
Another important takeaway from the BJP victories in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh is that they were more victories for the leader and not for the party, which may create problems for the party down the road. It was Modi’s unchallenged leadership, strong organizational skills, Gujarati pride, and Hindu nationalism that give him an upper hand in Gujarat. Despite growing discontent against the economic policies of the party, such as demonetization and the Goods and Service Tax, the people of Gujarat seem to have trust in Modi. However, this raises an important question: what will happen to the BJP after Narendra Modi? Will the party go through the same leadership crisis that it criticizes the Congress for? It is unfortunate to note that the ruling party seems to be a one-man show despite having other prominent, seasoned leaders such as L.K Advani, Rajnath Singh, and others.
This is especially important as the BJP prepares for state elections in 2018 because Congress holds power in three out of the five states going to the polls—Karnataka, Mizoram and Meghalaya. However, the Congress too needs to up the ante if it wants to succeed in these elections, by forming grassroots organizations, building a strong coalition, and promoting regional leaders.
As Modi’s campaign moves further away from his home state to contest elections in north-east and south India, and facing strong competition by the Congress party, 2018 may prove to be an interesting election year before parties stake claim to ruling the country in the grand general elections of 2019.
Image 1: Al Jazeera English via Flickr
Image 2: Sam Panthaky via Getty