Gujarat Polls 2017: Heads I Lose, Tails You Win
(Source: BloombergQuint)

Gujarat Polls 2017: Heads I Lose, Tails You Win

BloombergQuintOpinion

There’s a wonderful story in cricket: an umpire was simply refusing to declare a batsman out, despite a couple of plumb leg-before-wicket strikes. So when the batsman’s stumps were knocked out of the ground, the bowler looked at the umpire quizzically:

Umpire: “He is bowled.”

Bowler: “I know that sir, but is he out?”

Gujarat’s election results are as quizzically inscrutable. The BJP formed the government, but did it “win”? And the Congress lost, but did it “win” a psychological upper? Whoever wants to answer this question will have to stretch his neck out and wait for it to be chopped!

There comes a “resurrection moment” in politics. Mrs. Indira Gandhi saw it in Karnataka in 1978; VP Singh in Allahabad a decade later; the Labour party in the United Kingdom this year; and I am willing to bet that a Rahul-led Congress has witnessed some such moment today. Here, my neck is now stretched out taut. Haul up the guillotine, but here are my Five Key Takeaways from Gujarat Assembly Polls 2017.

One: It was Gujarat; it was Modi, but Rahul had the gumption to put himself up for a potential political slaughter.

Prime Minister Modi is the epitome of Gujarat, the iconic son of the soil who dare not be challenged. And here was Rahul Gandhi, an outsider, a man smarting from successive political defeats, written off and lampooned in the media. But he had the guts to go head to head against the Superman. He got into the Lion’s Den when he could have stayed out of it. The Lion could have crushed him, and his obituaries would have screamed aloud from every nook and cranny. But he came tantalizingly close – just 4 percentage points away (up 12 percentage points from 2014, and 6 percentage points from 2012) – to vanquishing somebody who was seen until this morning as politically indestructible and immortal.

So Prime Minister Modi did not win, and Rahul did not lose. 

On the index of political courage, Rahul scored. That’s my primary takeaway from Monday’s dramatic results.

Congress party supporters hold a cut-out of newly appointed party chief Rahul Gandhi, in Ahmedabad on December 16, 2017. (Photograph: PTI) 
Congress party supporters hold a cut-out of newly appointed party chief Rahul Gandhi, in Ahmedabad on December 16, 2017. (Photograph: PTI) 

Two: BJP’s spectacular Uttar Pradesh victory was not a trend-line, but the peak.

I remember saying this to my editors even then – BJP and Prime Minister Modi have peaked with UP. Most political pundits were seeing the UP juggernaut as a trend that was likely to accelerate towards an even bigger BJP victory in 2019; but to me, the UP victory was the culmination of BJP’s incumbency advantage.

All the state elections that the BJP had won since 2014 – Haryana, Maharashtra, UP, Uttarakhand etc – were those where the BJP was the underdog riding on Prime Minister Modi’s 2014 tail-(whirl)winds.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves at people at road show at Ramnagar. (Photo: PTI) 
Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves at people at road show at Ramnagar. (Photo: PTI) 

Three: BJP is struggling to neutralise a double-incumbency disadvantage.

Punjab, Delhi University, Goa, Bawana, Chitrakoot, UP local polls – I have deliberately mixed up students’ unions, municipalities, panchayats, by-elections and assembly polls. Except for in Bawana (where it had an indirect double incumbency disadvantage since it had fielded an AAP defector), the BJP weathered stunning reverses wherever it was in power at both levels, local and national. This rings an ominous warning for the party in the upcoming polls: first, the Lok Sabha by-elections in Phulpur, Gorakhpur, Ajmer, Alwar, and a Muslim-dominated constituency in Bihar. This will be followed by assembly polls in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhatisgarh. The Congress could go for the kill in all. And it could use its “resurrection” in Gujarat to ensure that it’s no longer starved of funds from donors who would now like to hedge their bets!

Four: After successfully spinning demonetisation and GST, the BJP is now suffering its bite.

Prime Minister Modi was exceptionally successful in spinning demonetisation as a “pro-honest and anti-rich” crusade, especially within the first few months. People willingly suffered terrible hardship, but politically endorsed what they saw as an audacious assault that felled the dishonest to their knees.

His spectacular victories in UP and Uttarakhand owed as much to the initial popularity of demonetisation as to the shortcomings of the incumbents. 

But once the sheen wore off, and got compounded by botch-ups of a flawed GST architecture, the misery of ordinary people is now beginning to visit the BJP. The Prime Minister will have to work exceptionally hard and be open to practical suggestions from even his adversaries (something he is loath to do) to take the sting out of this dual-bite.

Traders gather for an auction at a market in Rajkot, Gujarat, India. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
Traders gather for an auction at a market in Rajkot, Gujarat, India. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

Five: 2019 is wide open; Rahul/Congress would be the fulcrum, and a united opposition is an imperative.

As soon as the BJP’s four-fifth victory in the UP assembly was proclaimed, pundits had begun to call game, set, and match in 2019. It was all over for Rahul Gandhi, Congress, and the opposition. The BJP would ride in, on its own, with 350 seats in the Lok Sabha in 2019, so go figure! But that narrative has today been effectively culled in Gujarat, ironically, the Prime Minister’s janam-and-karma bhoomi (the land of his birth and achievements).

2019 is wide open, provided a broad alliance of the Congress, DMK, TMC, BSP, and SP can be crafted.

Rahul should do everything to whip that into shape – and be sure that the formidable Modi-Shah combination will do everything to scuttle it. On that shall now hinge the battle for 2019.

Leaders of India’s opposition parties meet on May 26, 2017. (Photograph: PTI)
Leaders of India’s opposition parties meet on May 26, 2017. (Photograph: PTI)

Those were my five takeaways from Gujarat. Before I conclude, I would like to slip in a sixth, provided the Prime Minister is open to suggestions:

Six: Prime Minister Modi must re-pivot to the Centre; else the moderate vote he won in 2014 could slip away in 2019.

If you look at Lok Sabha polls from 1999 onwards, the BJP and Congress have kept about 50 percent of the national vote between themselves, averaging about 25 percent apiece (don’t hold me to precise arithmetic, because the last decimal point here is not in contention). In 2014, Modi broke the barricade by apportioning five percentage points of the centrist Congress vote for himself (by burnishing his development credentials, lowering the communal/religious pitch and appealing to secular Indians). So he got 30 percent plus, and Congress slipped to 20 percent minus, in 2014. That gave him the astronomical victory.

Monday’s Gujarat poll shows that unless Prime Minister Modi is willing to visibly re-pivot to the Center, and stamp out, ruthlessly, his swivel towards or indulgence of the “right fringe”, he could lose this five percentage points’ moderate vote back to the Congress.

That would pull the BJP/Congress back into the 25 percent apiece bracket.

And that would simply mean that 2019 will become a wide-open race.

Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.

(Catch all the updates from the Gujarat elections here and Himachal Pradesh polls here)

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