A victory tempered with a wake-up call is how the BJP’s return to power in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home State of Gujarat for a sixth consecutive term can be summed up. Winning a State election after being in power for 22 years is no mean task, a feat that comes next only to the Left Front’s performance in West Bengal. The credit goes to Modi, whose personal image and connect with the people saved the day for the BJP, which was up against a plethora of challenges including anti-incumbency, rural distress, social unrest and a formidable fight by a rejuvenated Congress. At the end of the counting day that saw the pendulum of fortunes swinging wildly, it turned out to be a twin win for the saffron party as it wrested power from the Congress in Himachal Pradesh and retained Gujarat where high political stakes had turned the campaign vitriolic. Though the Congress failed to capitalise on the anti-incumbency factor and cross the Rubicon, it showed, for the first time in many years, signs of a good fight and turned what was seen as a cakewalk for the BJP till a few months ago into a close race. It is not just defeats but even victories throw up lessons. A big lesson for BJP is that the much-touted ‘Gujarat model of development’ is faltering, particularly in rural areas. There is a clear urban-rural divide in the State with urban areas largely favouring the BJP and the Congress making significant inroads into rural constituencies, particularly in the Saurashtra-Kutch region.
While the improved tally for the Congress in Gujarat comes as a shot in the arm for Rahul Gandhi who has just taken over party’s reins, it needs to draw lessons from this election in order to take on the BJP in the 2019 general elections. After remaining inactive and clueless in Gujarat for several years, the opposition party woke up in the last minute and chose to piggyback on local community leaders Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani. By outsourcing the opposition’s task of taming the ruling party to local caste leaders, the Congress came across as a diffident player unsure of leading the poll battle on its own. The Gujarat victory clearly reinforces the fact that Modi remains the most potent weapon in BJP’s armoury. His blistering campaign addressing 34 rallies in two weeks turned the tide in the ruling party’s favour and helped it overcome the political odds. The BJP’s victory in 15 of the 16 seats in Surat and surrounding areas, dominated by traders and businessmen, demolished the fears that the double whammy impact of demonetisation and GST on the business community could be the undoing of the ruling party.