There are two ways to look at the Gujarat election results. You can either say it was a tremendous achievement on the part of the BJP to have beaten the anti-incumbency of five consecutive terms in office to retain power. You can also see it as the first sign of the shrinking support for the BJP in what was been dubbed as Hindutva’s original laboratory. And both of these two assessments would be correct and backed by strong arguments. The first can be explained away on the ground that except for West Bengal, there have not been many instances of the same party – or combination of parties – winning six successive elections in post-Independence India. In defence of the second, it can be pointed out that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah had to stake everything – shunning all talk of the ‘Gujarat model’ and development and running a very negative campaign focused on berating the new Congress President, his family and his party in the vilest possible terms and invoking ‘Gujarati Asmita’ in a desperate bid to retain power.
Likewise, there are two ways to look at what the election result in Gujarat means for Rahul Gandhi’s leadership qualities. You can either say that he is no match for Modi or see the Gujarat election as his coming of age moment. And again, neither of the two assessments would be far off the mark and there are strong arguments to back both. There is no denying the fact that more than anything else, it was Modi’s charisma that won the day for the BJP in this election. But at the same time, it was no mean achievement on the part of the Congress scion, who had precious little to show for any election campaign that he has led so far, to have given the well oiled BJP election machinery a run for its money in what is the home state of both Modi and Shah.
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How things will go from here till the next general elections in 2019? There are two ways of looking at this question too and neither of them can be dismissed offhand either. One can argue that the BJP, having peaked in the UP election, is now on a downward slide and could end up much weaker than it was in 2014 by the time the next elections are due. It is also possible that the ruling party, having seen the downslide in public support in its strongest base, would embark on a course correction to be battle ready for 2019.
Notwithstanding these binaries, however, there are some takeaways from the Gujarat election that cannot be disputed. One of them is that Rahul Gandhi has outlived his ‘Pappu’ image and can no longer be dismissed as a political lightweight with nothing to commend him except his lineage. Just as it was all about Modi on the BJP side, it was Rahul who dominated the electoral discourse from start to finish. Pitted against someone who has been dubbed ‘unbeatable’ in his home turf, the new Congress chief certainly put up a spirited show despite the poor state of his party organization in the state. The results also showed that like his mother, Rahul too has developed what it takes to forge alliances that give him the numbers.
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Conversely, the outcome has proved that while Modi’s charisma may have saved the BJP the blushes in what is its bastion, there is no guarantee that it would be good enough to win elections in the five states that go to polls next year or in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. In any case, Modi would be in no position to devote the amount of time, attention and energy he did during the Gujarat campaign in any of these states or in the country as a whole.
Secondly, things can change pretty quickly in politics. After the UP elections, the commentariat had virtually handed a landslide victory to the BJP – some giving it 350+ seats on its own – in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls on a platter. But the Gujarat verdict has shown the extent to which public support for it has eroded in just eight months. Much can happen between now and general election time. But whether the downhill slide would continue or be arrested would depend on whether the BJP – as also the Congress – draw the right lessons from the Gujarat verdict and are willing – and able – to apply the required correctives.