This election, that was expected to be a cakewalk for the BJP, has turned on its head and become an extraordinary poll.
Two developments on Thursday provided divergent indications on the Gujarat elections. The first came sequentially later in the day. T.C.A. Anant, chief statistician of India and secretary in the ministry of statistics and programme implementation, put figures on the table which provided an indication that the economy had probably begun a slow turnaround. He declared the latest data pointed to a “trend reversal”. Union finance minister Arun Jaitley, reacting to the just-released figures, said these indicated that “perhaps the impact of two significant structural reforms — demonetisation and GST — is behind us”. Senior Congress leader and former finance minister P. Chidambaram too expressed happiness at the rebound, but also advised caution. Such watchfulness, however, is not politically suitable, particularly for a party that, to say the least, has its back to the wall.
According to Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani, the latest GDP figures will “seal the mouths” of those who have been creating noise like “crows”. He did not hide the intention that in the remaining days of the election campaign in the state, Mr Anant’s figures would be flaunted like a certificate by party leaders. No BJP leader is willing to accept the reason that just as it took more than one quarter’s declining figures before the positive sentiment towards the government began slipping, it will require the trend to be maintained at least over the next 3-4 quarters before there can be a sense among people once again that the economy is buoyant.
The second development, possibly more indicative, was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s declaration in the morning. He said he was aware of “the big political price I will have to pay for the steps I have taken, the path I have chosen and the destination I want to take the country to. But I am ready for it”, and went on to speak about the “legacy” left behind for the NDA by the UPA. Mr Modi is not known to make off-the-cuff statements, and more so in a prepared text backed by speech-prompters. The question is why did he talk about a “political price” just days before he winds up his political campaign in Gujarat? Is the Prime Minister sensing that the state’s terrain has turned against him, and that the people are no longer as supportive as always? Was his declaration a standard procedure of a political leader preparing excuses for failing to deliver?
The sense on the ground is that although a result is never a foregone conclusion till the EVMs start getting tallied, the BJP faces a huge trust deficit. This election, that was expected to be a cakewalk for the BJP a few months ago, has turned on its head and become an extraordinary poll. Across the state, people are daring to speak against the BJP. In 2012 and 2014 most people were willing to worship the ground on which Mr Modi walked. Today, the “god” has been brought down from the pedestal and adjectives are ascribed to him that are best not mentioned. The collective disenchantment of different social and demographic groups may still not add up to a defeat for the BJP, but the likely erosion in the vote of the BJP is sure to have wide political ramifications.
The effect will be felt in other states that go to the polls before the 2019 general election, and these include BJP strongholds in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The BJP is the incumbent in these states and like the experience in Gujarat is demonstrating, it is never easy to defend a bastion when compared to being a challenger.
The problems staring at the BJP in Gujarat mainly stem from political neglect of a terrain that was taken for granted. After having created the headlines for so long, party leaders made the grave error of beginning to believe their own spin doctors. The state had been showing signs of unease since the middle of 2015 and this was also in part due to factionalism in the party. The Patidar agitation could not have become so widespread had it not received support from sections in the rank and file of the BJP. Besides disregarding mounting problems, the state BJP leadership and even Amit Shah is accused of arrogance. It has been the classical instance of hubris taking over. From November 27, Mr Modi embarked on an unprecedented campaign blitz with the aim to touch base in each of the 33 districts of the state. The idea is that through his 35-odd speeches, he will personally reach out to a cluster of five to six Assembly segments. This massive personal outreach has been necessitated by the realisation in the party that only Mr Modi stands in the way of preventing an electoral embarrassment. The problem for the BJP is acuter because a non-emphatic victory will be an indication of the slowing of the Modi juggernaut, and that too within months of the spectacular victory in Uttar Pradesh.
If the story so far been of slippages in the BJP camp, it has also seen the quiet ascendance of the Congress and its leadership. For the first time in several elections, it has witnessed a clamour for party nominations. In contrast to the past elections, particularly 2012 and 2014, local workers of the party display enthusiasm that matches the BJP. In Morbi, one of the touchdown spots of Mr Modi, where the Congress is repeating its candidate who lost by a slender margin in 2012, a unique feature is that the candidate is being accompanied on his village campaign sorties by other claimants within the party to the seat. The Congress has also appointed coordinators, or prabharis, for each of the 182 seats, which indicates that though the party machinery may still be short of the BJP in terms of infrastructure and manpower, a revival of the party organisation is visible. Further progress on this front will, however, depend on an encouraging verdict.