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As the nation awaits the Gujarat verdict…..

By Sandeep Shastri

With the last vote having been cast in the Gujarat Assembly poll, on Thursday evening the attention shifted to the Exit Polls all of which predicted a victory for the BJP in both Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. As one eagerly awaits for Monday, the day of counting, it would be useful to reflect on what factors arecontributing to what is being projected by the exit polls and its implications for political developments at the national level.

As the nation awaits the Gujarat verdict…..

Coming first to the less emphasized smaller state, Himachal Pradesh. The BJP seems to be set to come to power in this picturesque hill state. The state has a reputation in the recent past of not giving a second chance to the ruling party androtating power between the BJP and the Congress.

The Congress did not makes its task any easier with a lack lustre five year performance under a Chief Minster who faced a surfeit of complications and corruption allegations. Age too was not on his side and the Congress did not think it fit to bring in a change of leadership mid way through its term.

The BJP had further bolstered it s chanced by announcing P.K.Dhumal as its Chief Ministerial nominee thus putting an end to any infighting below the surface and capitalizing on his reasonably good image and capacity to lead the campaign with greater energy and enthusiasm. Come Monday, a defeat for the Congress in Himachal Pradesh would add one more loss to a party that has been unable to hold on to the States it is in power, especially after the crushing defet of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. This places much more pressure on the party to do well in Karnataka which is the next big round of elections. The Karnataka analysis will of course be a subject of a separate analysis!

Gujarat has seen an electoral contest marked by a high decibel, acerbic and often vitriolic campaign between the principal opponents. Soon after Uttar Pradesh, many in the BJP assumed that Gujarat would be an easy and effortless cake walk. The exit poll trends indicate a different picture and the BJP and its leadership had to make that extra effort to hold on to a state that they have been in power for over two decades.

If the exit polls trends come true on Monday, it is clear that the BJP victory in Gujarat is on account of the personal effort and charisma of the Prime Minister who in a way single handedly led the party campaign in the state, especially in the last two weeks. It is also patently clear, that if not for the presence of the Prime Minister, it would have been difficult for the BJP to stave off anti-incumbency.

The disenchantment of the Gujarat voter with the track record of the state government is discernible. Rural Gujarat seems to express this disquiet more stridently and the Congress appears to have gained considerable ground in the villages and small towns. What appears to have helped the BJP is its continued presence and popularity in urban areas.

It is also important to record that to challenge twenty two years of incumbency requires a sustained effort with a credible and visible leadership on the ground. The Congress seems to have woken up to its responsibilities as an Opposition rather late in the day. This helped the ruling party contain the anti-incumbency sentiment.

Discontent with the ruling party could not translate itself into a vote for the opposition as the alternative did not appear to generate the needed confidence of the voter. Further, the real Opposition seemed to be led by the triumvirate - Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani, who aligned themselves to the anti-BJP platform even as they remained outside the Congress party. On the other hand, though the BJP had little to offer in terms of a local face, the presence of the Prime Minister as the true face of the party, appeared to have helped stave off the negative impact of two decades of incumbency.

What would be the larger national ramifications of these two state election verdicts. If the exit poll predictions hold good, the headline would clearly be that the BJP has emerged triumphant in both states. Yet, the deeper narrative cannot be lost sight of. If BJP comes back to power with a similar or significantly lesser tally as compared to 2012, it would truly be a stunted victory.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have carried the day, it raises important questions about the capacity of the BJP local leadership to deliver. In 2018, the BJP would be facing the polls in three states where it would have to defend its performance. In Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh they would be seeking a fourth successive term. Its advantage in all the three states is the presence of Chief Ministers who are leaders in their own right.

On the other hand, the Congress too appears to be privileging its new strategy of empowering its state level leaders to galvanize their campaigns. Karnataka would see the next big electoral contest where the BJP would once again showcase Brand Modi. Given the deep dissensions in the State BJP and the fact that there were in power five years ago and did not cover themselves in too much of glory would once again force the party to depend on the national leadership. On the other hand, the Congress has clearly entered the electoral contest under the leadership of its Chief Minister. If the exit poll results hold good, Gujarat would see a strong recovery for the Congress and under a new Party President they may well aim at changing the narrative from a personality based contest to an issue and policy based debate with the ruling BJP. As 2017 draws to a close, 2018 is likely to herald a witness a keen contest between key players setting the stage for the big battle of 2019.

(Dr Sandeep Shastri is a leading psephologist and political scientist)

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