The future direction of politics also depends on the performance of Cong govt in HP and coordination between the MCD and the Delhi govt
The verdict of the Assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh along with that for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi underscores the BJP’s continuing electoral hegemony in large parts of India. This dominance has to be recognised despite the victories of the Congress in the hill state and the Aam Aadmi Party in the capital’s municipal body. The BJP’s most spectacular performance ever was in Gujarat, where it enhanced both seats and vote share, as well as made an electoral breakthrough into social communities that till now backed the Congress — for instance, in seats reserved for tribals. The tidal nature of the result from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state considerably neutralises the BJP’s defeats in Himachal Pradesh (where the internal undercurrents of tensions contributed to the BJP being voted out) and in the MCD, contentiously revived after three existing municipalities were merged earlier this year.
However, this move was counter-productive because, as the results showed, the BJP would have secured a majority in the East Delhi Municipal Corporation if the three eponymous local bodies in north, south and east Delhi were not merged. In any case, the BJP would not exactly be unhappy with its showing in the capital as it came in the face of expectations of a sweep by the AAP.
The BJP’s victory in Gujarat is a watershed for several reasons. For a start, in its seventh consecutive victorious Assembly elections in the state since 1995 (equalling the number of the Left Front’s victories in West Bengal in 1977-2011), the party has not just won the highest number of seats, but it also polled upward of 50 per cent in Assembly polls for the first time. However, even though the BJP bettered the Congress’ mark under Madhavsinh Solanki in 1985 (it won 149 seats), it fell short of the latter’s vote share of 55.6 per cent. Despite the BJP being short by three per cent from the best-ever Congress performance, this victory remains extraordinary because it was fought in the name of Narendra Modi and he personally led the campaign from front. The party’s performance contrasts the 2017 mark when the BJP won the lowest-ever number of seats since 1995 — 99 seats. This indicates the emergence of Mr Modi as a political idol. Success in this Assembly election is different from the party’s achievements in 2014 and 2019 (winning all 26 seats on both occasions) because in the Lok Sabha polls, the people vote for him to be Prime Minister. In this case, he sought the electorate’s support for a proxy chief minister, Bhupendra Patel, who was appointed to the post in September 2021 when little-known and barely mentioned by Mr Modi in his speeches.
The Gujarat results have similarities with the BJP’s victories earlier this year in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The verdict in the two northern states underlined that voters were not making their choice on the basis of performance, delivery and governance and on issues that surfaced in the wake of the farmers’ agitation. Despite the widespread belief that the Central and state governments failed miserably in its management of the Covid-19 pandemic from March 2020 onward, people still voted for the BJP. Elections in these states were held before memories of virtual absence of the government during the terrifying second wave of Covid-19 faded. The BJP victory demonstrated that people were being driven to their choice by a questionable political narrative crafted by Mr Modi and his party. In Gujarat too, voters did not form their choice on the basis of issues related to people’s mismanagement, livelihoods, price rise and inflation — as borne out by the results from the three Assembly seats in Morbi where the bridge disaster killed more than 140 people. A post-poll survey conducted by CSDS-Lokniti highlighted a paradox of electoral behaviour: people continued expressing high levels of satisfaction with the BJPled Central and state governments; and although dissatisfied on issues like price rise and unemployment, the people of Gujarat placed trust in Mr Modi to find a solution to these issues.
To a great extent, the exponential rise in the number of seats for the BJP was the result of a mere 3.5 per cent increase of vote share for the party from the 2017 level of 49 per cent. This was principally due to the advent of the AAP as a significant political force in the state. Although the votes it polled and the seats it won was comparable to the performance of Shankersinh Vaghela’s breakaway All India Rashtriya Janata Party in 1998 (four seats and 11.7 per cent vote share), the damage to the Congress was greater because after Mr Modi’s advent in 2001, the BJP established a firm stranglehold in the state and increased its vote share by almost five to six percentage points for it to always hover at close to the 50 per cent mark during Assembly polls.
The moot question for the future of Indian politics and elections is whether the AAP will be a one-election wonder like the AIRJP, or if it will remain a force in the state, even challenging the Congress’ position as the BJP’s principal opponent. On this issue, the capacity of the Congress to stage a comeback, as well as the AAP’s capacity to not just maintain presence but also flag issues that enable it to play a frontal role in the Opposition space, will be the deciding factor. The AAP’s continued growth in Gujarat over the next year will directly impact its ambition of venturing into states where the battlefield, as in Gujarat, is primarily bipolar, with the Congress being the BJP’s principal adversary.
Of these states that include Himachal, elections are due in November 2023 in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. There are reports that the AAP is evaluating prospects in Karnataka too, where elections are due in March-May next year. The AAP’s capacity to continue as a significant political force in Gujarat shall determine if the party and its leader Arvind Kejriwal will emerge as a significant political force for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. In its absence, he will be forced to scale down ambition and consider a shot at emerging as the national alternative to the BJP after 2024.
The future direction of politics in the country also depends on the performance of the Congress government in Himachal Pradesh and coordination between the MCD and the Delhi government. While the Congress shall have to deliver its promises from the word go, Mr Kejriwal and his party can no longer deflect responsibility on civic matters vested in the MCD.