Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP President Amit Shah, Home Minister Rajnath Singh during the BJP Central Election Committee meeting in New Delhi on November 17, 2017. (Photograph: Vijay Verma/PTI) 

Gujarat Elections And Onward, Unfamiliar Tests For Modi

BloombergQuintOpinion

No state election is the same and no party can stick to an identical strategy in poll after poll. The political terrains vary, each state has its own history and social composition is dissimilar. Different states also go to polls at different times. Because these are at separate points in the timeline of a party or its leader, issues that have to be emphasised necessarily get altered. After all, people’s perceptions change. For instance, in October-December 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party followed its success in the parliamentary elections which elected Modi with victories in the states of Maharashtra, Haryana, and Jharkhand because the sentiment which drove the mandate had not faded. Even in Jammu and Kashmir, the party did overwhelmingly well in Hindu-dominated Jammu region.

Yet, in a couple of months in February 2015 the party was routed in an unprecedented manner in Delhi. Out of 70 seats on offer, the Modi-led party could win only three. The setback was followed by another defeat, this time in the larger and more politically significant Bihar. In October 2015, the BJP won only 53 seats in the 243 member House.

In the next round of polls in 2016, the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal, Assam and the Union Territory of Puducherry went to the hustings. A circumspect BJP aimed to form a government only in Assam and it succeeded by winning 89 out of the 126 seats. In the elections held earlier this year in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur and Goa, the party fancied its chances mainly in UP, Uttarakhand, and Goa, the last of which it was in power. In Punjab, it was also in power in partnership with the Akali Dal but the BJP was the junior partner and not the face of the alliance. The party won overwhelming majorities in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand but failed in Goa. Despite this, it formed governments in Goa and Manipur by forming questionable post-poll alliances.

In Maharashtra, Haryana, and Jharkhand, the BJP projected no chief ministerial candidate yet it chose to project Kiran Bedi in Delhi. In Bihar, the party once again did not name anyone as its chief ministerial face but in Assam, it projected Sarbananda Sonowal. It was back to no-CM-face in U.P. and Uttarakhand though in Goa, the incumbent Laxmikant Parsekar was cast aside only after the numbers did not completely favour the party. The BJP has opted to name Prem Kumar Dhumal as its face in Himachal Pradesh and Vijay Rupani remains its nominee if the party returns to power in Gujarat.

Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani releases a book on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad on November 17, 2017. (Photograph: PTI)
Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani releases a book on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad on November 17, 2017. (Photograph: PTI)

Incumbent, Not Challenger

There is yet another difference between states that necessitate alterations in strategy and this is most evident in Gujarat.

It is the first big and politically significant state since Modi became prime minister where the BJP is not a challenger attempting to depose the ruling party but is the incumbent.

In fact, the challenge that the BJP is facing was hardly expected because the party was in power for 22 years of which 15 have been with Modi at the helm, as chief minister or even after that. The principal test that the BJP faces in Gujarat is that unlike in other states, for instance in UP most recently, and previously in Haryana and Maharashtra where it could go to people by shaming the state government and accusing the government. In Gujarat, it is the incumbent and has to ward off any negativity that may have accumulated over the years.

The BJP has visibly been on the back foot since August 30 when the Reserve Bank of India released its annual report estimating that almost 99 percent of the scrapped Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes had returned into the banking system after demonetisation. The additional problem is that in Gujarat, Modi cannot play the memory card, that is telling people that life under BJP rule was better than under Congress governance.

Almost fifty percent of the voters in the state are below 35 years of age and do not have any significant memory of life under Congress rule.

Whatever impressions they may have of how good or bad was the quality of amenities available then, is based on generational percolation and its role is often significantly less than personal experience.

The bustling Chowk Bazaar in Surat, Gujarat. 
The bustling Chowk Bazaar in Surat, Gujarat. 

The yardstick of judging the BJP government in the state will mainly be based on comparing life when Modi was chief minister and thereafter. The fact that there have been two chief ministers since then, is a big negative because it establishes that post-Modi, the BJP has struggled to put up a credible leadership. Added to the local issues, the vote is also going to be decided on the basis of people’s perception of the performance of the central government.

As it has been seen repeatedly, during elections, the most important memory is immediate recollection. In March, the people had overwhelmingly accepted Modi’s word that demonetisation, despite hardships, was aimed at alleviating poverty and the step would destroy and abundance of black money. The Gujarat election is the first poll that will determine whether support for demonetisation remains or has fizzled out. The disquiet is palpable among the top BJP leaders and is evident through several symptoms including the delayed announcement of the poll schedule. It shows that there is no certainty if the BJP will be able to pull this one off with a margin that demonstrates no erosion of brand Modi.

With Gujarat, Modi is, in fact, entering a completely new cycle of elections.

Consider this: between now and the next parliamentary elections, there will be assembly polls in 13 states before or along with those for Lok Sabha. If one is to add those that will be held within six months of the parliamentary round, the total is 16.

Phase-wise, the first lot will be in the first quarter of 2018 when Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Tripura are due for elections and of these, the BJP has been eyeing its chances in Meghalaya and Tripura and in the latter it wishes to project itself as the primary challenger to the Left Front government. Karnataka is the next state that will see people decide the government they will have for the next five years and here too the BJP is a challenger to Congress in a triangular contest.

The next bunch is in October-November 2018 when the BJP states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh go to vote along with Mizoram — another state that the BJP is eyeing in partnership with the Mizo National Front.

MP incidentally is a tricky state for the BJP because it would have been in power in the state for fifteen years, long enough time for an anti-incumbent sentiment to test the ruling party — like in Gujarat.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan with wrestler Sushil Kumar, Sakshi Malik and others in Indore on November 18, 2017. (Photograph: PTI)
Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan with wrestler Sushil Kumar, Sakshi Malik and others in Indore on November 18, 2017. (Photograph: PTI)

Rajasthan is already beset with an anti-incumbent sentiment and similar is the case in Chhattisgarh. This would make it important for the Centre to ensure delivery offsets the erosion of popularity in the BJP-ruled states.

The completion of polls in this phase will provide just a short break in the election season for the parliamentary bugle will be sounded by February-March 2019. Along with Lok Sabha elections, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh, and Sikkim will also go to the hustings. And by the end of 2019, it will be time again for Maharashtra, Haryana, and Jharkhand.

It is evident that in the run-up to 2019, India will see Modi the campaigner in a different mode. It is also likely that the government at the centre hereafter will be a ‘sop-centric’ regime given the fact that it is incumbent on the government to revive the economy. Already the decision to lower Goods and Services Tax rates to offset rising anger among pepole and small businesses is expected to cause a revenue loss to the tune of Rs 20,000 crore.

The party knows that the unhappiness of people is unlikely to go away swiftly. The situation for the BJP will be even more awkward if the Gujarat result is even marginally unfavourable for the party. Modi will be mindful of the fact a simple majority will do the party no good. Clearly, the honeymoon of Modi with the electorate is over as retaining states will not be as easy as defeating incumbents, especially poor performers.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a journalist and the author of ‘Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’ .

The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.