22 December 2017 14:50:43 IST

A long-time ‘deskie’, Baskar has spent much of his journalism career on the editorial desk. A keen follower of economic and political matters, he likes to view economic issues from a political economy lens as he believes the economic structure of a society is deeply embedded in its political and social ethos. Apart from writing the PolitEco column for BLoC, Baskar writes book reviews and articles on politics, economics and sports for the BL web edition. Reading and watching films are his other interests, though the choice of books and films are rather eclectic.  A keen follower of sports, especially his beloved Tottenham Hotspur FC, Baskar is an avid long-distance runner.  He hopes to learn music some day!

Gujarat – when defeat seems like a victory

The election campaign threw some much-needed light on India’s two biggest national political parties

It is only the arena of electoral politics that all participants can claim victory; and so it was in the recently-concluded Gujarat polls.

The BJP bucked anti-incumbency and won the crucial Gujarat polls for the sixth consecutive term, so it was the obvious victor.

The Congress could also claim victory in defeat as it gave the BJP a run for its money and will take some comfort in having put up its best show in the last three decades in the state by stopping the BJP from reaching the 100-seat mark.

Rahul Gandhi, the recently-anointed Congress President, ran a spirited campaign and gave the BJP leaders sleepless nights. As senior journalist Swaminthan Anklesaria Aiyar cheekily remarked in a recent column, the Gujarat results have helped Rahul Gandhi shed his ‘pappu’ image.

Campaign drama

The reasons for BJP’s victory and Congress’ loss have been analysed threadbare by now and there are some important takeaways for us.

Once the going got tough for the ruling BJP, all talk of development and vikas was set aside. Its leaders, starting from the Prime Minister himself, predictably fell back on their time-tested communal agenda. What resulted was an extraordinarily vicious and acrimonious campaign, where invective and innuendo were liberally thrown at the Congress and the electorate polarised on communal lines.

Pakistan too, unsurprisingly, made its entry in campaign speeches and the most outrageous allegations were leveled at the Congress. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who rarely makes an appearance in Assembly elections’ campaigns, was forced to vehemently deny the BJP’s allegations. But the damage had been done and the BJP knew its message had resonated among a section of the electorate.

For the BJP it was Prime Minister Narendra Modi, once again, who was its star campaigner. At the end of the day, it was perhaps his charisma that saved the day for the ruling party. The Gujarat election victory validates that Modi is the most powerful politician the country has seen in sometime.

Teaching experience

But this victory must also set some alarm bells in the ruling party camp. First is the nature of the win. After winning UP in the aftermath of demonetisation, that the BJP had to struggle to retain power in Gujarat — often seen as BJP’s backyard — must be causing some concern among the party’s top brass.

For the Congress, things must have looked really bleak when party veteran Keshubhai Patel left the party to float his own outfit in July. But thanks to Rahul Gandhi’s new found vigour and shrewd alliances with Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mewani, the Congress put up its best show in decades and stopped BJP from reaching the 100-seat mark.

For the BJP, the urban centres — traditionally its stronghold — came to its rescue, whereas the Congress was able to better tap the seething rural resentment, as its strong showing there shows.

Comparing charisma

But apart from the campaign and the election results, the Gujarat elections also threw up some interesting vignettes.

When Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014, he was often compared with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Racip Tayyip Erdogan. But the more perceptive commentators compared him with Indira Gandhi. This comparison came to the fore once again during the Gujarat elections.

The BJP is becoming an increasing centralised party with the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo calling the shots. It is also becoming an increasingly personality-centric party which relies heavily on Modi’s charisma and campaigning to win elections. In this sense the party is beginning to resemble the Congress under Indira Gandhi.

Secularism and all its friends

On the other hand, the Congress during its campaigning studiously avoided using the ‘S’ word — secularism — even once, as it feared the Hindu backlash. The Grand Old Party went out if its way to be seen as a Hindu-friendly party, as seen by the number of temple visits made by Rahul Gandhi.

In secularism’s more ‘innocent times’, Congress and other non-BJP parties during electioneering often used to meet Muslim clerics, and visit famous mosques in a show of solidarity to the minority community. Thankfully those days of shallow tokenism are behind us.

But what is happening now is more disturbing as even avowedly secular parties like the Congress are loath to be seen with Muslim community leaders during campaigning — ensuring a near erasure of this community as seen during the Gujarat election campaign.

Thanks to its ‘soft Hindutva’ plank, the Congress is fast becoming a diluted version of the ruling party, or a ‘BJP-lite’.

So we are seeing an interesting convergence between two of the largest national parties in India, where the ruling BJP is fast resembling the Congress in its organisational structure and the Grand Old Party seems to be only too happy to borrow the majoritarian elements from the BJP.

Going ahead, when the country gets ready for another bout of State elections in 2018 and the 2019 general elections, it will be interesting to see how this ‘convergence’ factor plays out within both these parties.