In the end, it all came down to spin. Every party said it had won. And every party said that the other parties had lost.
The BJP has reasons to be proud of its historic victory in Gujarat. It has now equaled the Left’s record of seven successive victories in West Bengal. By winning over 50 per cent of the votes, it could claim with justification that it had the support of the majority of the people of Gujarat.
It did not want to focus on its defeat in the municipal elections in Delhi, where its record of running the corporation was broken after more than a decade. And it was not eager to talk about the stunning defeat in Himachal Pradesh, which it clearly did not expect.
The Congress reminded us that it was still electable – even in North India, in a state where the majority of the population spoke Hindi. The victory in Himachal Pradesh was proof, it said, that the BJP did not hold sway in every Hindi-speaking state. Even in a high-stakes battle where the BJP president J. P. Nadda had taken personal charge of the campaign and where the Congress was massively outspent, it could still pull off a convincing victory.
Nobody in the party talked about the fact that the Congress has now become extinct in Delhi or that it had lazily thrown away the advantages it had gained during the last assembly election in Gujarat. And that it had now gone down to a humiliating defeat.
Also read: What explains three different outcomes—Delhi to Gujarat to Himachal
Consequence of calculation or confusion?
For AAP, it was all about Delhi. For years and years, it had been hassled by the BJP-run municipalities, which prevented the party from imposing its will on Delhi. Now, with the municipal corporation within its grip, it has demonstrated that it was the party of Delhi.
Bizarrely, it even tried to portray its pathetic showing in Gujarat (around 5 seats and nothing like the 20 per cent vote share that sympathetic analysts had predicted) as a triumph. It was now a national party, it crowed.
Take away all the spin (and the lies) and a few things are clear.
First, Gujarat has never seen a more popular leader than Narendra Modi. Some of this is based on his charisma, but a lot of it has to do with the way Gujarat has been transformed since he came to power. Under Modi’s rule (first as the chief minister and then as prime minister), Gujarat has soared economically, and Gujarati pride has reached new heights.
The two most powerful people in India – Modi and Amit Shah – are Gujaratis. The two richest people in India – Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani – are Gujaratis. The state’s cities and towns are filled with millionaires, many of whom have made fortunes in such areas as the pharmaceutical business.
There are parallels with the Left’s record of seven wins in Bengal: a charismatic leader, ethnic pride, and well-organised party cadres around every polling booth. But there are two significant differences. The Left destroyed Bengal’s economy; the BJP has rebuilt Gujarat’s economy.
And while Bengalis voted for the Left because they felt it helped Bengal stand out from the rest of India, Gujaratis voted for the BJP because they felt Modi and Shah’s BJP had helped Gujaratis take over all of India. And yet, those results show that there are problems within the BJP.
The Himachal Pradesh defeat was partly caused by anti-incumbency but also by rebellions in the state unit. No matter how much money the BJP spent, it could not get its act together. And the MCD defeat reinforced the reality that even in North India, the BJP is not the invincible fighting machine it claims to be.
Second, it is not clear whether the Congress’s performance in these elections was a consequence of calculation or confusion. Or, given that this is the Congress, both calculation and confusion.
Also read: Savarkar, Nehru, Bose: India belongs to no single ideology. No politician gets this today
Waiting for Karnataka
There is a view that the Congress, underfunded and demoralised as it is, has decided on a new strategy. It will not treat every election as a fight-to-the-finish. Instead, it will conserve its resources, choose its battles, and put in a real effort only in those states where it thinks it has a chance of victory.
According to this view, the Congress recognised that it stood no chance in Gujarat and decided not to squander resources, time, and energy on the campaign. It also knew that it no longer had any real presence in Delhi municipal politics. So why waste money on the MCD elections?
It is surely far better to wait for Karnataka, where the Congress has a real chance of defeating the BJP next year. And it seemed much more sensible to focus on a small state like Himachal Pradesh, where a campaign would not be enormously expensive and victory seemed possible.
If this is indeed the strategy, then it makes sense. On the other hand, it also means that the Congress is willing to abandon its position as the national alternative to the BJP and to let others encroach on that space.
Is that wise? And anyhow, how did the Congress get to this state in Gujarat? Isn’t that just incompetence and poor political management? And then finally, there is the AAP factor. People sometimes make the mistake of treating AAP as a challenger to the BJP. It is not – at least not outside of Delhi.
When Arvind Kejriwal fights elections in the rest of India, it is the Congress he is challenging. Even before he founded AAP, his attack was always concentrated on the Congress, right from his ‘India Against Corruption’ days. Even now, his strategy is to go to states where the Congress is weak and try to supplant it.
In the Delhi municipal elections, the BJP kept its vote share. AAP gained at the expense of the Congress. In Gujarat, the BJP actually increased its vote share. AAP’s votes only came from the Congress share.
In the one state outside Delhi, where AAP has won power, the BJP was not a player. AAP won Punjab basically because the Congress gave it an electoral victory as a gift through a series of blunders and misjudgments about people.
Contrary to the rhetoric Kejriwal employs, (“I am sure we are forming the government in Gujarat,” he said, before going on to win 5 seats) he is no threat to the BJP. He will do well in states where the Congress screws up or does not put up a fight, but rarely will he do well enough to form a government in any of the states AAP is now targeting.
Forget the spin. These are the real takeaways: the Congress is playing a strategic game, which may or may not be wise. Modi is the most popular leader in India but the BJP is not invincible. And AAP will remain a major problem for the Congress but it is no more than a noisy nuisance for the BJP.
Vir Sanghvi is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Tarannum Khan)