Modi stays afloat in Gujarat, but the tide may be turning | This Week In Asia

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In the end, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), registered yet another victory in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat. But it was the kind of victory where the winners were more relieved than overjoyed. And the losers were not despondent but encouraged.

Gujarat is Modi’s bastion. He made his reputation there as a charismatic chief minister with administrative skills and remains its favourite son, the most popular leader to emerge from the region in the past five decades.

But it is also where he earned international notoriety in 2002 over accusations that his administration did not do enough to protect Muslims during bloody sectarian riots. Though many countries (including the United States) refused Modi a visa after those riots, his popularity within his own party soared, and in 2014 he led the BJP to the biggest national electoral victory since 1984.

So, when elections for the state assembly in Gujarat were announced, the polls were seen as a walkover. Not only were the people of Gujarat excited that one of their own had become prime minister, but Modi’s BJP had just won a landslide victory in the major state of Uttar Pradesh. So high were the BJP’s confidence levels that its party president Amit Shah (a key Modi confidant from his Gujarat days) declared that the BJP would win 150 of Gujarat’s 182 seats.

At the time, the boast seemed credible. The BJP had won 60 per cent of Gujarat’s votes in the 2014 parliamentary election. Its principal opposition, the Indian National Congress, had no organisational machinery in Gujarat and no state-level leader. Moreover, a few months before the polls, 14 Congress legislators revolted and supported the BJP.

But when the results came in today, it was clear that Shah’s confidence was misplaced. The BJP still won, as all opinion polls had said it would, but it was not the sweeping victory Shah had predicted and considerably below levels predicted by some exit polls.

Current figures suggest that the BJP will win under 100 seats, a drop from the 115 it won in the last election. The Congress, which went into the election as a no-hoper, managed a respectable performance in defeat, winning 81 seats, a gain on the 61 it won last time.

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As the results came in, the BJP argued with some justification that a win was a win. And indeed there are few instances in recent Indian electoral history where a party has won a fifth consecutive term. To be able to shrug off the anti-incumbency factor after more than two decades is a not inconsiderable achievement.

But equally, it was clear that the Modi juggernaut, seemingly unstoppable since the Uttar Pradesh landslide victory, had slowed. And though the final results were a relief, the campaign had been full of nervous moments that the BJP never anticipated.

Initially, Modi had said that the election would be about vikas or development. But the Congress made inroads mocking his claims, suggesting that development had ground to a halt. It also focused on the downsides of demonetisation, one of Modi’s pet schemes, such as its massive inconvenience and the subsequent implementation of a goods and services tax, a new federal tax.

The BJP made some attempts to counter these criticisms, announcing many reforms in the structure of the new tax, but it was unable to effectively counter the discontentment among a caste group called the Patidars, or Patels, who had long been BJP supporters. When the Congress linking up with the young leaders of this group, the BJP recognised that it had a battle on its hands.

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The biggest surprise for the BJP however, was the performance of Rahul Gandhi. Since 2014, Gandhi, son of the then Congress President Sonia Gandhi and heir apparent (he eventually became Congress president just as the Gujarat election ended), has been caricatured by the BJP as an entitled buffoon with no political skills. But during the Gujarat campaign, he got his act together, became an effective campaigner and attracted huge crowds to his political events.

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