Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assembly Elections – Some Takeaways

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The Gujarat Assembly elections were billed as the mother of all state elections as was obvious from the high profile, high decibel and high personality driven campaigns mounted by both major parties – BJP and Congress. Given that it is the parent state of Mr Modi, one can understand why it was billed as such. The task of Congress in Gujarat was made a lot easier by the sustained anti BJP campaign started by the three young rebels – Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor. By the time poll fever gripped the state, these leaders had already made sufficient inroads in many parts of the state to veer some voters away from BJP. This resulted in nearly a score of extra seats for Congress in the final tally. Their impact on the final result cannot be underestimated.

For Congress, Himachal Pradesh appeared to be an also ran state since they seemed to have conceded defeat even before any vote was cast. The final results too showed the same with Congress reduced to just 21 seats as against its earlier tally of 36. It does appear that Congress was fighting a credibility crisis and in its wisdom focussed only on Gujarat to regain some of its lost prestige at the cost of Himachal. For a party that aspires to regain its past glories as the number one political party in the country this was very surprising. Perhaps Congress think tank felt that a sizeable gain in Modi back yard would give Rahul Gandhi, the new Congress President, a boost in his quest to take effective control of the party. Was this once again a case of political sycophancy where interests of an individual with a Gandhi name prevailed over party needs? Holding on to power in a state, however small it may be, certainly makes more sense politically than gaining a few more seats in another to boost the credibility of an individual. No wonder Congress lost Himachal Pradesh to BJP who won 44 of the 68 seats.

There is no doubt that BJP pulled all stops when it came to mounting its campaign in Gujarat. It certainly did not want to lose in Prime Minister’s home state. Did the Prime minister do the right thing by getting involved too heavily in campaigning in the state? Did he give Rahul Gandhi undue importance by getting in to a one to one slugfest with him on many occasions? Was Mr Modi forced to react to Rahul’s charges and statements unlike in the past where it was always Congress that was on the back foot? Would it have paid greater dividends to BJP if Mr Modi had ignored Rahul and dismissed him as someone not worthy of his concern? Maybe such a strategy would have given Congress something more to think about. In the bargain has BJP given Rahul Gandhi more credibility than he deserved? In hindsight it does appear that BJP could have done things differently and the Prime Minister should not have got involved in some of the baser parts of the campaign.

The dinner hosted by Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar for Mr Kasuri, former Foreign Minister of Pakistan, and Mr Sahil Mohammad, Pakistan’s High Commission in India, on 06 December 17 too came in for heavy criticism and rightly so. If during run up to an important election, senior leaders of country’s premier political party get involved in a tête-à-tête with such personalities from Pakistan tongues will wag. More so when the brain behind this is known to have openly sought removal of Mr Modi and his government during a panel discussion on Pakistan National TV while on a visit to that country in November 2015. As per Mr Kasuri’s own admission he has been actively engaged in Track II diplomacy between the two countries. Therefore despite whatever Mr Aiyar or Mr Manmohan Singh may say today, no one would believe that the dinner discussions had nothing to do with India – Pakistan issues or Gujarat elections. Tweets originating from Pakistan stating that Mr Ahmed Patel, senior Congress leader from Gujarat, should be Chief Minister of state did not help Congress’ cause either. The infamous ‘neech admi’ remark by Mr Aiyar on 07 December, a day after the dinner, seemed to be a fall out of the dinner meeting. If Congress expected that Mr Modi or his party would let Congress get away with such dubious acts, they were sadly mistaken. Congress party blundered overtime – both in form and on timing of the meeting. Dr Manmohan Singh, former Vice President Hameed Ansari and retired COAS General Deepak Kapur should have known better particularly when the invite came from someone like Mr Aiyar who has a history of such misplaced initiatives and utterances.

A lot has been said and will continue to be said about rigging and other problems of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). But after Gujarat elections no sane mind will pay any credence to such charges. The wide spectrum of seats won or lost by BJP or Congress in different regions / constituencies has lain to rest any such insinuations. Leaders from Aam Admi Party, Congress or others like Hardik Patel can shout themselves hoarse but no one will believe them in this regard. Paper trails established by election commission also prove the correctness of EVMs and it is best to consider this as a closed chapter for the time being.

Unfortunately for Congress neither the ghosts of demonetisation nor the Gabbar of GST came to its aid during the elections. In fact BJP did exceptionally well in urban and semi urban areas that are home to traders and small businesses who had to bear the brunt of both. Primarily BJP lost out in some of the rural areas due to lack of agrarian reforms and the strong Patidar movement seeking reservations. Without a doubt BJP would have learnt its lessons and will initiate corrective measures sooner than later.

Last but not the least, Rahul Gandhi and Congress party had to eat a humble pie once again when it came to Mandir and Hindu/ Hinduism. A party that had submitted an affidavit in court in 2007 stating that there was no evidence to prove the existence of Lord Ram, saw its leader paying obeisance to same Lord Ram, among other deities, and embarking on a journey of temple hopping across the state during the election campaign. For a party that has invariably slighted Hindus and Hinduism in its pursuit of minority appeasement for decades, saw its leaders going out of their way to prove the Hindu credentials of Rahul Gandhi on one hand and to pursuing a soft Hindutwa approach on the other in their quest for votes in Gujarat. No wonder someone had very rightly said long ago ‘in politics sunny days and rainy days can change very quickly’.

In final analysis Congress, as a party, lost more in Himachal than it gained in Gujarat while BJP added another state under its rule to take its tally to 19 that includes five where it shares power – an all time record for any party in India since independence. If Gujarat was important for Congress, Karnataka next year will be its last stand. A loss there will make ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ a near reality while a win there will give it some more breathing time to recoup and hope for a revival. The new Congress President needs to sort out his house on priority and find ways and means to keep his party in contention as a national party of substance. Time is running out for Congress as 2019 is only a year away. The only thing in favour of Congress, as for all other political parties, is the unpredictability of the Indian voter. But then that alone will never be sufficient to win elections.

Saroj Chadha, an engineering professional, is a successful entrepreneur. Having retired from the Indian Army after having served for over 23 years, he has also been a consultant for leading Indian and Multinational electrical companies. He lives in New Delhi.

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