The BJP has retained power in Gujarat and defeated the ruling Congress convincingly in Himachal Pradesh with a nearly two-thirds majority. While the Himachal result was a foregone conclusion, it was Gujarat on which the whole nation's eyes were on Monday. Despite exit poll predictions of a comfortable win for BJP, the Congress has put up a tough fight and restricted the saffron party in its strongest bastion to just 99 seats, 16 short of the BJP's tally in 2012, while itself gaining 16 seats to win 77, its highest tally in Gujarat since 1985. The result has come as a morale booster for the moribund Congress. But the BJP can heave a sigh of relief - it has scored a creditable win despite facing anti-incumbency after 22 years in power.
The Gujarat election stands out for what has happened to the image and reputation of the two protagonists who led their respective parties from the front - Congress's Rahul Gandhi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. By many accounts, Gujarat, Modi's home state, was angry with its "son of the soil", and large sections of people seemed to want to "teach him a lesson" for a number of reasons - demonetisation, the GST foul-up, for 'betraying' Patidars, and so on. Modi did overcome it all, but he had to stoop to conquer. He made concessions to Surat's jewellers, compromising his proclaimed fight against black money, and made many concessions on GST to please Gujarat's traders and businessmen. But these were par for the course. What took the sheen off him, however, was his fall from the 'vikas purush' pedestal to the depths of rhetoric, sometimes couched in the language of Gujarati pride, sometimes in the figment of a Congress-Pakistan conspiracy against him. The desperation made him 'un-prime ministerial'. With a tally of just 99, one must wonder if, for Modi, this wasn't a pyrrhic victory. Still, as the BJP says, a win is a win.
It was the loser in this election, Rahul Gandhi, who perhaps gained the most. Rahul, newly anointed Congress president, is seen to have shown that he can put up a fight against the seemingly invincible Modi even on his home ground. That he did so by keeping his own campaign focused on Gujarat's problems and development issues and always above-the-belt should give Modi and the BJP cause for worry. More importantly, by gathering Gujarat's three young rebels - Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mewani - with him, Rahul may have returned Congress to its original form and purpose - that of being the umbrella social coalition of India. If he continues with that approach in other states, too, there may yet be hope for India's Grand Old Party.