The BJP’s victory in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, keeping one state and wresting the other from the Congress, is no mean achievement. It continues the party’s enviable winning streak, taking the count of the states that it rules, singly and along with allies, to 19 out of 29; it marks its sixth consecutive win in Gujarat after 22 years of incumbency; it shows that the BJP machine has the skill and resources to simultaneously, and equally successfully, play both roles, of challenger and of incumbent.
The odds had seemed especially stacked against the BJP this time in its citadel of Gujarat, with discontents brewing on several fronts, among the state’s Patels, Dalits, OBCs and more generally because of rural distress and glitches in the transition to the GST regime amid the hangover of demonetisation.
Its main political opponent, the Congress, seemed more energised under an apparently more resolute Rahul Gandhi and a troika of newly minted leaders — Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor — had pooled their efforts and energies with it. And yet, the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine led the party back to rule another day, albeit with a reduced seat tally.
Party president Amit Shah has characterised the BJP’s triumph in Gujarat as the vanquishing of casteism, dynasty and the politics of appeasement. Prime Minister Modi, whose campaign played a singular role in powering his party’s victory, has spoken of it as a win for “vikas”, while warning Gujarat’s people that they will need to remain vigilant against conspiracies, ostensibly by mysterious forces that sought to sabotage the BJP’s chances in the first place.
Both men have earned the right to define and describe their victory in their own terms. And yet, they might be doing injustice to their formidable achievement if they read the BJP’s mandate in ways that continue to cast the victor in the role of the victim, or refuse to call an end to a particularly bitter electoral campaign even after the election is won. This is the moment for the BJP to celebrate its victory, of course. But this is also the moment for it to, if not reflect on its own unseemly spectre-mongering, then to acknowledge the challenge of addressing the stirrings of unease among the people that have become visible in a state it continues to dominate.
For the Congress, and its newly anointed president, the message from Gujarat is that it needs to try harder. If the winner does not take all, then it can be said that the Congress has covered some distance in its journey through Gujarat. It has narrowed the gap with the BJP, and considerably improved its vote share. It has re-learnt the art of joining forces, making allies. But it isn’t enough. Both in terms of party organisation, political agenda and leadership, the Congress has a long way to go before it can present itself to the people as an alternative to the BJP, and be accepted as one.