The challenge: Gujarat BJP without Modi at the helm

The challenge: Gujarat BJP without Modi at the helm
The BJP will be fighting the Gujarat elections — slated for December — without Narendra Modi at the helm in the state this time. Modi had won the three previous elections in the state in 2002, 2007 and 2012.

The myth has grown, but it is a partly justified myth, that Modi is the force behind the BJP’s dominance in the state and therefore it is Modi who won three elections, not the BJP. The opposition Congress has contributed to this myth because it fought those elections on an anti-Modi platform. Its Modi-centric campaigns boomeranged each time. But it must be remembered that before Modi, the BJP had won in the state in 1995 and 1998 under Keshubhai Patel.   

It is possible that the voters of Gujarat could reward the BJP yet again this December, this time because a Gujarati is holding the most powerful position in the country, which had not happened after the brief tenure of Morarji Desai as prime minister in the short-lived Janata Party government between 1977-79. But it may not be easy for the BJP, because Gujarat may not want a proxy of Modi to be chief minister.

Secondly, they may also view the fact that Modi had chosen to retain the Varanasi parliamentary seat and thus ‘betrayed’ Gujarat after the last Lok Sabha elections. So, he is a prime minister who is a Member of Parliament from Uttar Pradesh, not Gujarat. Or, the people of Gujarat could easily forgive Modi’s political opportunism in view of his past record in the state.

As of now, no leader has emerged out of Modi’s shadow in the Gujarat BJP. Chief Minister Vijay Rupani could very well be a competent person, but he has not yet acquired the image of being his own man. It is Modi who continues to tower over Gujarat politics, and it is Modi’s shadow and vice-regent, party president Amit Shah, who overshadows the party in the state. Shah’s claim that he is working for the party and the party is supreme for him does not mean much, because Modi and he are the party in the state. No one else matters.

It will be argued that Modi is the supreme leader of the BJP and that the party fights and wins elections in the states on the strength of his name and reputation. The Modi magic seemed to have worked in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections in March this year, and it will be argued that it will work with greater efficacy in his own home state. But it must be remembered that the Modi magic did not work in Delhi, Bihar, Punjab, Manipur and Goa assembly elections. So, the BJP’s supreme leader is not invincible at the hustings. All that he and his party can hope for is that Modi’s home state will not let him down.

There is also the ironic fact that Modi has been defending the Election Commission against the criticism of the Congress over the delay in the announcement of polling dates. Contrast this with his snide remarks against “James Michael Lyngdoh” during the 2002 elections when the then chief election commissioner Lyngdoh put off elections in the aftermath of the February-March 2002 communal riots when about 2,000 — 1,000 as per the then Modi government’s count — Muslims were killed in the aftermath of the Godhra train massacre of 58 Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists.

Modi did not own up moral responsibility for the riots and displayed moral turpitude which would have been punished in any other democratic contest, but nearly half of Gujarat’s electorate — 49.85% of voters to be exact — stood by him in the 2002 election. Though the seats won in the subsequent elections had decreased marginally — from 127 in a house of 182 in 2002 to 117 in 2007 and 115 in 2012 — the percentage of votes have hovered at 48%.

BJP dominance

Political sociologists must explain why the BJP has been able to cast this mesmerising effect on the electorate since 1995. The continued dominance of the BJP is nothing unprecedented: the CPI(M)-led Left Front had lorded it over West Bengal for 33 years. West Bengal continued to be a backward state after three decades of Communist rule.

Gujarat, after 20 years under the BJP, is not really the most developed state in the country either. Gujarat’s gross state domestic product (GSDP) grew at a compounded annual growth rate of 12.02% between 2004-05 and 2014-15. In the same period, Karnataka grew at 13.93%. It is not the economic performance that decides the fate of a party at election time, though it would be a major factor.

It is for the people of Gujarat to decide whether they want a change in the state government. What could count is the fact that Modi is not at the helm of affairs in Gujarat. He did enjoy immense confidence of the people, but now that he has moved away, the Gujarat electorate could have second thoughts. If the BJP manages to retain power in Gandhinagar, then it would mean that the people have voted for the party and not for an individual.

The BJP’s dilemma is this: whether to fight

the election in the shade of Modi or to fight as a political party. When Jyoti Basu stepped down, and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee took over in West Bengal in 2000, he won two elections, 2001 and 2006, on his own. But Modi hovers like a shadow — a benign one, according to his supporters — on  Gujarat, and BJP will have to decide whether it wants to come out of the shadow.

(The writer is a political commentator)

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