If numbers are the only criteria to judge the performance of a political party in an election then BJP has won Gujarat yet again and there cannot be two opinions about that. The electoral number game throws up clear winners and clear losers. The BJP won. The Congress lost.
But it is equally true that Narendra Modi’s BJP just about managed to retain the throne. The clear take away from the Gujarat elections is not Modi’s win but newly-elected Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s almost matador-like challenge to the rival camp and managing to shake off its complacency.
A reluctant Rahul Gandhi appeared more confident than tentative as he stepped up his political campaign in Gujarat. He appeared more in command over the issues he raked up during his election rallies. He debunked the development model the ruling party swore by. He appeared in total control of self as he took on Modi, his barbs never missing their target setting the BJP house aflutter.
Rahul matched BJP’s tempo and temper blow by blow, rally after rally, one venue after another - always trying to be one up on his more resourceful opponent in rhetoric and plain speak. He didn’t have much of a choice there; Gujarat was giving him a window to take on Modi directly, inside PM’s own den.
If Modi can be credited with capitalizing on the reach and spread of social media to its advantage in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Rahul Gandhi took to the virtual world with an unprecedented ferocity and conviction challenging Gujarat’s groom and the best man rolled into one – Prime Minister Narendra himself – through a series of Twitter questions ranging from Dalit atrocities to rising unemployment.
This was an election that would best be remembered for Rahul Gandhi coming of age and taking on Modi one on one, during campaigns, in political rallies and on virtual platforms as well.
Having strings of defeats under his belt Rahul had little to lose and almost nothing to hide. So when opponents questioned his bonafide as a Hindu the entire congress machinery wasted little time to pronounce Rahul was a ‘janeudhari’ twice-born Hindu and a Shiv bhakt at that.
No psephology shall be able to prove if ‘Shiv-bhakt and janeudhari’ Rahul proved to be a strong vote-catcher after that episode but in such a charged, high decibel campaign every small issue has the potential to become the trigger for vote conversion.
Rahul either fell into the opposition trap or used counter-strategy to blunt opposition missile is purely in the realm of conjecture. But the panic to share bonafides of party’s top leader in public shall serve as a cogent reminder to the Congress every time questions shall be raised about party ever shying off from toeing a soft hindutva line.
But who would have imagined Modi’s ‘Vikas’ model shall fall by the wayside in Gujarat of which he has been the longest serving chief minister and that the Prime Minister will manage to barely scrape through in his home state. This was the first time Modi’s ‘asmita’ was at stake; never as four-time CM, but as PM who couldn’t afford to lose Gujarat.
On the other hand, though the Congress lost despite hopes raised by Rahul the magic figure of 92 was never out of sight. At a point in time as the counting progressed both BJP and Congress were neck to neck.
In the end, the Congress managed to garner 30 per cent more seats than it got in 2012 in spite of PM Modi’s imposing presence as BJP’s star campaigner. In the process, PM Modi tot up lowest ever tally for BJP since 2001 when he first became CM.
Did demonetization and GST play a role in BJP’s Gujarat poll outcome? Maybe they did and no one except the Prime Minister will have to take the blame. Modi claimed he had factored this into his political strategy. He, however, did not bargain his victory margin would stand abysmally reduced.
If it was tough for the BJP to retain its citadel having realized the under currents of anti-incumbency ahead of elections, it was never easy for Rahul’s Congress to challenge a party which held not just the state but ruled the Centre. Gujarat boasted of Modi and Shah, latter BJP Chief himself. Rahul walked into the battle zone under severe handicaps and without donning battle fatigues.
On the one hand he had to rely on old and worn-out soldiers like Shaktisinh Gohil and Arjun Modhwadia who both lost the elections. Unlike Capt Amrinder Singh in Punjab who was gung-ho about taking on Akalis yet again, Rahul had no CM face to offer to his voters in Gujarat.
Even outside Gujarat, Kapil Sibbal’s flip-flops in the Supreme Court over the issue of triple talaq and Mani Shankar Aiyar’s ‘neech’ comment did not augur well for a party aiming to dethrone a sticky opponent.
And yet in so many other ways the ground for a possible change had already been laid by the new kids on the block - Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mewani and Alpesh Thakor. The issue of unemployment, caste reservations and Dalit atrocities had thrown up quite an unexpected permutations and combinations of forces that if aligned together could upset power balance in the elections.
Rahul had to work his strategy towards cashing in on anti-BJP sentiments the three youngsters promised to have mobilized. Though Hardik gamble didn't pay off, Patels voted for the Congress in Saurashtra region of Gujarat in large numbers. Out of 54 seats in Kutch and Saurashtra, Congress bagged almost 30 seats.
But a string of whirlwind rallies, changing power equations, new found friendships, cashing in on anti-incumbency, raking up caste issues and playing to majority sentiments together worked up to give a result way below the majority mark, a case of so near yet so far.
In an electoral system driven on the principle of first past the post numbers assume extraordinary importance. Content is important but you ignore the number at your own peril. Rahul will have to confront that humongous reality sooner than later, just as Modi will have to digest the bitter pill of having to put up with Congress-yukt Bharat.
Rahul didn’t win Gujarat. The results showed Modi too is vulnerable.