What India’s BJP lost in the Gujarat elections

The ruling BJP’s narrow win in Gujarat shows that all is not lost for the opposition.

Gujarat elections - Congress
Supporters of India's main opposition Congress party cheer for Rahul Gandhi during an election campaign meeting ahead of the second phase of Gujarat state assembly elections [Amit Dave/Reuters]

The narrow victory India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) secured in the assembly elections in the western state of Gujarat and northern state of Himachal Pradesh has brought some relief to its leadership.

While both states gave the mandate to the BJP, it was the win in Gujarat that really mattered for the party. Gujarat, a long-time stronghold of the BJP, is the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who used to be chief minister there in the early 2000s. It is also the state that Modi promotes as a “model of development”.

Naturally, the victory was seen as a mark of approval for the Modi government’s rule, especially the economic policies it has introduced since 2014

The BJP won 99 seats in the 182-member state house, crossing the 92 seat halfway mark required to rule. But this was in no way an easy or definitive victory for the party.

A closer look at the results also shows that there are signs of reinvigoration of the opposition Congress Party, and there are reasons for the BJP to worry about its positions in Gujarat.

Indigenous opposition in Gujarat

BJP’s victory was predictable. The party is in control of the central government, so it had immense financial and organisational resources at its disposal. Also, immediately before the election, the party’s fortunes were on the rise across India. It had very recently won elections in Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in India very convincingly.

Moreover, the BJP had successfully painted an image of Congress as a pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu party.

Yet not all was quiet and smooth in Gujarat. Before the elections, the state saw massive protests by traders against a new taxation regime introduced by the central government. There were reports of widespread resentment in rural areas and farmers were on a war path against the ruling party. Repeated atrocities against Dalits had shaken the conscience of the country, and the Dalits were out on the street, blaming the BJP for the violence.

As a result of these disturbances, the much-hailed Gujarat model came under scrutiny in the public arena, and some community leaders openly criticised it. For the first time since 2002, a space for a substantive discussion on the issues of education, health, farming, trading, small industries and land was created in Gujarat.

Public unrest also made space for new community leaders to emerge. Hardik Patel, a 24-year-old activist of the socially and politically dominant Patidar caste, which has been a traditional support base for the BJP, led an aggressive campaign against the government and Modi himself.

Similarly, Jignesh Mevani, a 35-year-old lawyer and former trade unionist, led a strong movement after the mob lynching of Dalits by members of the so-called upper castes. Alpesh Thakor, a 40-year-old leader from the upper-caste Kshatriya community, also mobilised people in opposition to the BJP.

The emergence of these three leaders was significant, as they were opposition voices coming from within Gujarat. Earlier efforts against the Gujarat government did not have strong local or indigenous voices to back them. Modi as State Minister succeeded in convincing the Hindus of Gujarat that opposition to him was actually an insult to them and Gujarat. But it seems that since he’s moved from Gujarat to Delhi, other local party leaders were not as successful in controlling public opinion.

This is the context in which the recent assembly election was fought. Modi’s key policies, which have been severely criticised by opposition parties and economists as well, were being tested. The discontent in Gujarat was apparent. 

An unequal battle

Rahul Gandhi was fighting an unequal battle with his back to the wall. But he negotiated with the local agitators and managed to bring them into the Congress platform. Thakor joined the party, Patel declared his support openly, and Congress Party supported Mevani’s candidacy by allowing him to fight for a secure seat in the assembly that was held by the Congress Party since the last election. These moves changed the perception of Congress being an outsiders’ party with no local stakeholders.

Gandhi also framed his campaign in economic language, constantly talking about the distress of the farmers and the unemployed youth. He presented himself as a devout Hindu, thus deflecting BJP attempts to brand him an imposter and pseudo-Hindu. Gandhi also strategically refrained from talking about the atrocities and isolation faced by the minorities in Gujarat.

Gandhi’s success in making the Congress party a stronger contender in the Gujarat election made the BJP desperate and forced it to move further into its safe majoritarian platform. The whole central cabinet and entire party machinery were sent into the state to campaign. The winter session of parliament was delayed to allow Modi and his ministers to campaign in Gujarat.

Personally leading BJP’s efforts in Gujarat, Modi used his time-tested formula of fearmongering against Muslims and Pakistan. He went as far as telling the electorate that there was a Pakistan-inspired conspiracy hatched by the former prime minister, former vice president and a senior Congress leader to interfere in the Gujarat elections.

‘A victory in defeat’ for Congress

The pollsters predicted an easy win for the ruling BJP, but the election results told a different story. The BJP failed to touch the three-digit mark, and Congress managed to enhance its tally considerably from the previous election.

Interestingly the Gujarati media, which is conventionally seen as pro-BJP, called this result a “defeat in victory” for the BJP and a “victory in defeat” for the Congress. The leader of the far-right Shiv Sena party in Gujarat, an ally of the BJP, has also classified this result as a moral defeat for the Modi-led BJP.

BJP’s victory, of course, shows that Modi still holds significant sway in his home state and that anti-minority sentiments in Gujarat are still an effective political tool.

However, on the whole, the results are a much-needed breather for parliamentary democracy in India. Against all odds, the opposition has carved out a fighting space for itself. The Congress Party has managed to demonstrate that it is still in the reckoning. Its leader Rahul Gandhi has shaken off the image of a reluctant leader who ducks and shies away from a rough battle.

Modi’s image, despite the electoral win, has taken a severe blow in the eyes of the public and the media. This has opened up many possibilities for politics of India and the 2019 parliamentary election which till yesterday was seen as yet another easy win for the BJP. Suddenly, it now seems that the 2019 vote is open game.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.