What the subterranean shift in Gujarat means for the BJP

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In the north of the Arctic Circle, the sun rarely sets and in the south of the Antarctic Circle, the sun seldom rises. Politics in Gujarat during the previous two decades has been like such polar weather. The power of the ideologically belligerent and politically expansive Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) never seemed to dip beneath the horizon and the Congress party never seemed to rise from its chosen state of disinterestedness and its procrastination to play its ordained role of an effective opposition.

The results of the latest Gujarat assembly elections have not brought about a visible change in the prevailing political weather in the state. However, a high-sensitivity political seismograph cannot miss the subterranean tremors and shifts that are felt while the BJP celebrates one more victory in Gujarat and the Congress expectedly faces a volley of questions on the capability of its newly anointed president Rahul Gandhi to deliver a much-desired electoral victory for his party. The subterranean shift in Gujarat is indicated by the unmistakable signal that the two decades-old BJP-dominated system that offered a marginal space for any sort of opposition is giving way to a normal sort of democratic politics in which the BJP will face a strong and assertive opposition in the state legislature.

The BJP has managed only a face-saving victory with a slender majority of seven seats, down 19 from the previous tally of 116 secured in 2012. This narrow win could be achieved through a total dependence on the charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The results have once again confirmed that Gujarat is a ‘Modi pradesh’. That Modi was less inspirational and more combative in his campaign did not matter much. Modi’s winning ways seemed to defy all laws of anti-incumbency and diminishing political utility. Rahul Gandhi’s soft Hindutva and a fresh social coalition strategy customized for Gujarat elections could not dent Modi’s image as a near superhuman leader possessing almost miraculous powers that has sunk into the psyche of ordinary Gujaratis.

Modi possesses a keen sense of perceiving what Gujaratis feel and what kind of issues they are likely to respond to. He used effective mind management techniques towards the final phase of his campaign to deflect attention from the adverse publicity over goods and services tax (GST)-related difficulties to small traders, corporatist orientation of the so-called Gujarat model of development and rising discontent among agriculturists. He succeeded in scaring a good number of dissatisfied Patidars, members of other backward classes (OBCs) and small traders that Congress’ return to power would be an apocalyptic occurrence in many ways.

The BJP’s win on the PM‘s home turf came in the wake of the biggest challenge to its ideology and hegemony thrown up by the spirited resistance of the young trio of Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani. The party’s campaign was substantially assisted by deep penetration made by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliated organizations into the state’s civil society and its diverse professional, religious and cultural institutions, including the tribal communities that constitute about 15% of the population.

The tens of thousands of Patidars and others who thronged the public meetings of Hardik Patel do not seem to have drifted away from him while casting their votes. In all probability, about 25-30% of Patidars, particularly in the Saurashtra region and in the rural constituencies, voted for the Congress. However, the Patidar consolidation seemed to have triggered a counter-mobilization of some of the traditionally anti-Patidar backward castes in favour of the BJP. There is no other way one can explain the easy wins that the BJP scored in the Patidar-dominated seats in Surat and Mehsana districts.

The evident resurgence of the Congress in Gujarat is the most remarkable outcome of this state election. The Congress came back with gusto from being an underdog that was reduced to its lowest-ever vote share of 33% in the state and proportionate leads in only 13 assembly segments in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Its leader of opposition Shankarsinh Vaghela and 13 legislators deserted the party a few months ago. Organizational shortcomings, shortage of cadre, factionalism and inability to project a CM face constrained its comeback bid. Serious errors in candidate selection, particularly for the OBC and Patidar-dominated seats, under pressure from Alpesh Thakor and Hardik Patel, cost it dearly as it lost its bastion of north Gujarat to the BJP.

Hegemonic parties that derive their legitimacy from the invocation of cultural identity and religious appeal are capable of recovering their lost ground easily through the use of state infrastructure and cultural symbolism. The Congress in Gujarat, therefore, requires to fashion innovative strategies to attract urban voters and youth who have voted overwhelmingly for the BJP in this election. It must continue to press the new BJP government to channelize issues that affect the day-to-day life of the common people. It must further nurture its connect with the Dalits, Patidars, Adivasis, OBCs, youth and farmers to repair its damaged credibility due to the relentlessly negative social media campaign by the BJP. Only a broad coalition of social and economic forces that is based on a concrete and bottom-up socio-economic agenda can successfully take on the politics of charisma, neo-liberal developmental mindset and majoritarian mobilizations.