Monday, December 25, 2017

Gujarat elections: what it represents for Indian polity

Recently, state elections concluded in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. Like the elections for past few years now, this one again had been a high pitched election campaign, with racial slurs, abuses and insinuating comments being thrown all around. This obviously follows the pattern from the past 1 decade onwards, whenever elections happen in a crucial state with significant electoral mass. In recent times, even the tactics have become more nuanced - for example, the award wapasi by a host of "eminent" people during 2015 Bihar elections.

What separated the Gujarat election from all these elections was the fact that Gujarat is home state of the BJP's Prime Minister and party president. Such was the importance of these elections, that national media outlets seemingly didn't care about the Himachal Pradesh election results which served more as filler news. Even the stock market dipped 850 points at one time when Congress gained a relative lead.  No wonder that there are some very important conclusions that can be drawn here that should hold true for elections to come in the next few years:

1. BJP/NDA is not invincible
Every policy decision is bound to make one section of the society happy at the cost of another section of the society. While BJP may be working hard on some reforms like taxation (GST), insolvency and bad loans (IBBI and NCLT), the benefits of all these policies are mostly being absorbed by the corporates, and is not being passed to the lower strata of the society. As such, economic disparity is widening, and there is a huge untapped frustration within the majority of the electorate, most of whom obviously don't work within corporate setups. The rural urban divide in Gujarat was massive, and it will be interesting to see how BJP bridges the gap, and how others reap benefit from it.

2. Rahul Gandhi is not Pappu anymore
Rahul Gandhi has grown, at least in the eyes of the media, from being a Pappu to more mature politician. Thankfully for Congress, Mr. Gandhi has learned restraint and didn't make any self goals when delivering his speeches in these elections. He even scored brownie points by rightly targeting Mr. Modi in his speeches, like with "Modiji always talks about Modiji". Some of his observations have resonated well with the urban masses, and Congress successfully emerged as the party of choice for regional leaders representing people's anger with the dispensation. While how much effort Mr. Gandhi himself put into the strategy and how much effort was put by his advisors and media team can always be debated, the fact is, he managed to strike at the BJP's roots in the rural areas. Going forward, he and his team will command more respect if they are able to sustain this momentum in elections to come.

3. Hindutva is no one's monopoly
Congress, and many regional parties have at times indulged in minority appeasement at the cost of the majority. While India is a secular nation, one can not forget that a majority does exist . By visiting temples, and comments like Janeudhari Brahmin, Rahul Gandhi has established his soft Hindutva credentials. While they may not be enough to convince the mature/hardline voter, there can now be enough confusion amongst the general masses to not care about it. Its interesting to see what just a few temple visits can do in politics. The re-alignment of Congress outlook is another thing to watch for in future.

4. There is greater scope for parties representing minority interests now
With Congress moving towards the Soft Hindutva bandwagon, and BJP anyway having been associated with Hindutva and RSS for long, there is a good scope for regional parties to get increased seat share in constituencies where the minorities are a sizeable chunk. While the Congress may not have had minority appeasement points in its campaigns, it had been the party of choice for the minorities. However, with the Congress having not won the elections overall, there is only so much patience minorities will have with it in the next set of elections before they start looking at other options.

5. Doubts on credibility of EVMs and VVPAT can cease now
In the Gujarat elections, the election commission did a random match at booth level to compare the EVM and VVPAT trail in each of the constituencies, and found a 100% match across constituencies. With this, the doubts on the credibility of EVMs will now hopefully be put to rest in future elections. The result tally in Gujarat would have been much more skewed if there was any malfunctioning of the EVMs, given the BJP's stated goal of 150. Any party, which seeks ballot voting system over EVMs/VVPATs would now be seen as plainly cribbing and trying to take back elections to the days of booth hijacking and fake ballots, thus loosing its appeal with the urban voters.

6. Modi is the only Star BJP has
While many agencies were predicting BJP defeat, BJP was able to pull back from the jaws of defeat because of the extensive campaigning Modi did in the last 30 days. However, the BJP needs to seriously build its next generation of leaders if it wants to stay relevant in another decade or so. While it has Yogi, Swaraj, Jaitely,  and a host of other politicians who score well on administration and other agendas, it doesn't have any other national leader who has the mass connect that Modi has across India. Modi is currently 67 years old, and given BJP's stated preference of retiring politicians at 75, he can only be relevant for one more term of 5 years. It is the right time now for BJP to find a batch of younger leaders, and nurture them not just administratively, but also politically, so as to stay relevant in mid 2020s. In comparison, Congress has Mr. Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi, who could still be very relevant 10 years from now.

7. India will still take years to overthrow Caste equations with Vikas
For development to be relevant to all, its results have to reach everyone. While GST may have solved woes for many a companies, the average Indian has hardly seen any meaningful benefits so far.  In the UP elections earlier this year, caste coalitions were believed to be a major factor in BJP's massive victory in the state. With Congress hinging onto 3 regional leaders representing different strata, Hardik for Patidars, Jignesh for dalits, and Alpesh for OBC-Thakors, and BJP drawing mileage out of the "neech" comment by Mani Shankar Aiyyar, caste equations are still very relevant today. Schemes like farm waivers may work for certain sections, but the BJP will do well to be more responsive to the needs of the other strata of the society not just in name, but also in action.

8. Congress is still very much relevant in Indian politics
While the BJP/NDA may currently have Governments in 19 of the 31 Indian states, with the Gujarat election, Congress has shown that it is still relevant. Congress managed to increase its vote share, the number of seats it won, and ended up giving a tough fight to the BJP on its home turf. Even earlier this year, it managed to win Punjab (which AAP was believing it had in its pocket), and has a government in Karnataka which is another major state of India in terms of electoral mass. While it might look like the Congress is slowly dying, it could also be a case of reversal happening right now, something which will get clarified in the next couple of years.

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