At the end of a very bitter campaign season, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has retained its hold over Gujarat and has wrested Himachal Pradesh from the Congress.
Three broad themes dominated the election in Gujarat. One, the rural versus urban split in that state. Two, caste versus religion as a dividing line. Finally, the personal appeal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who led the campaign from the front for his party. During the campaign, and even earlier, much had been made of the rural distress in the state. Farmers were unhappy at the lack of remunerative prices for commodities such as cotton and the general lack of progress in rural Gujarat. In urban areas, too, matters were not considered rosy for BJP. Demonetisation and the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) were held as factors that had turned the urban electorate against it. Then, there was the issue of caste versus religious appeal with the Congress championing the former by tapping into resentment on part of various sections of the electorate including, most notably, Patidar unrest over demand for reservation.
In the end, these issues came to a naught. To be sure the BJP lost ground in rural Gujarat, especially in Saurashtra and its tally may come down from what it had in 2012. But whether viewed singly or in combination, these issues did not have the political traction the Congress had hoped they would. The prime minister’s appeal and his message have retained their potency over the years.
What made matters worse for the Congress is the historic decline in the party’s organization since 1969. As it stands, there is virtually no party cadre in Gujarat. The fashionable expression, “booth management” captures this failure vividly. It is a well-known result in political science that voting is an expensive exercise in terms of time expended in going to polling centres to exercise franchise. It is a large opportunity cost for poor voters who have to take time off from work to go and cast their votes. This “last mile” motivation requires a party organization that can do this important task. No amount of “narrative management” can obviate the need for dedicated party workers.
Finally, the Congress’ calculated use of religion—Rahul Gandhi’s more than two dozen, well-publicized, temple visits in Gujarat—was meant to blunt the “silent” edge that BJP enjoyed on this score. As the results show, this has not worked. Historically, this is a strategy that has not worked well for the Congress party across India.
With the control of Himachal Pradesh, the BJP will have governments in 19 states. The Congress now rules just two major states, Punjab and Karnataka. It has been a while since a national party exercised such dominance in India on its own.