The result of Gujarat assembly election and its implications for the future shape of politics in India have been analysed by many journalists and political scientists. Many write ups appeared in the newspapers and social networking sites, dissecting the election results. One of the strong messages coming from the Gujarat election result is that no political leader or political party is invincible in a democracy. BJP was sure of a cakewalk in Gujarat. Amit Shah had set a target of winning 150 seats, but the BJP had to be satisfied with 99 seats. In spite of having all types of advantages, the BJP could not exceed the double digit number. The experience in Gujarat has given hope to the Congress and other opposition parties, which have been highly demoralized by the victory march of the BJP in the elections to the state assemblies after BJP’s historical win in 2014 Lok Sabha election.
A combination of various factors contributed to the decline of the seat share of BJP in Gujarat. The Gujarat model of development has not benefited all sections of the society. The youth, especially of the Patidar community, have become restless due to the jobless growth. The distress of the farmers is reflected in Congress winning 54% of the assembly seats of the rural area. The Congress’ joining hands with the three emerging youth leaders, Jignesh Mewani of dalit community, Hardik Patel of the Patidar community and Alpesh Thakor, representing the backward communities contributed to improve its tally. The spirited campaigning by Rahul Gandhi also played a key role in improving the lot of the Congress. Modi and the BJP played all possible tricks to appeal to the emotions of the Gujaratis, but Gujarat has shown that playing on the emotions of the people could negate only to some extent the discontentment arising out of issues of bread and butter. The Gujarat election result has exposed the hollowness of the so called ‘Gujarat model’ of development.
Narendra Modi continues to be the most popular political leader in India with his extraordinary oratorical skill; but Gujarat election result indicates that Modi magic has its limits. Ultimately people look for results in the form of livelihood and employment opportunities, availability of health and educational facilities and security for life and property. Most of the promises made by Modi during the Lok Sabha election 2014 remain unfulfilled. When a political party is not able to deliver on its promises, it turns to emotional issues to hoodwink people. That is what Modi did during the recently concluded Gujarat election, particularly in the second phase. During the campaign, Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah trained guns on the Congress on issues like Ram temple, alleged Pakistani interference in the Gujarat polls and Mani Shankar Aiyar’s remarks. Addressing an election rally in Palanpur in Gujarat Modi alleged that the Congress was conspiring with Pakistani leaders to prevent the BJP from winning the election in Gujarat at a dinner party organized at Mani Shankar Aiyar’s house on December 6, in which some Pakistani officials and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were present. According to Pakistan's former foreign minister, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, one of the guests, even the word 'Gujarat' was not mentioned by anyone at the private dinner Aiyar hosted.
The humiliating defeat in the Lok Sabha election 2014 and the winning streak of BJP in the state elections demoralized the Congress and other opposition parties. The Congress party slipped into a deep coma and other opposition parties also became inactive. They failed to raise the issues affecting the people in the media and other public forums. Victory in the state elections made BJP arrogant and insensitive in such a way that it resorted to a disastrous policy like demonetization. The absence of a vibrant and strong opposition emboldened the BJP and the RSS, the ideological mentor of the BJP. Vitriolic hate speeches by the Sangh Parivar members, killing of innocent Muslims by gau rakshaks on the pretext of protecting cows, and attack on churches and Christian prayer groups by the extremists groups of the Sangh Parivar have been the result of not having a dynamic and strong opposition. If democracy is to be effective an ever vigilant opposition and the media have to bring to the attention of the people the fault lines in the functioning of the government. In the absence of an effective opposition the Government can easily not only hide its failures but also present the failure as success as PM Modi could do during the UP assembly election.
During the Gujarat election the Congress under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi effectively highlighted the failures of the government on the economic front like lack of jobs, crisis in the agricultural sector, consequences of demonetization and a badly implemented GST. People were already experiencing the consequences of the wrong economic policies of the government. A vibrant and determined opposition could convert the dissatisfaction of the people to a great extent into a disapproval of the ruling party, even though disapproval was not strong enough to overthrow the party from power. Although the Congress could not get the required number of seats to wrest power from the BJP, the election result has given a boost to its self confidence and given a hope for the future. The Congress and the other opposition parties have got a glimpse that Modi and the BJP are not invincible. Before the Gujarat election it was a foregone conclusion that the BJP under the leadership of Narendra Modi will have a cakewalk in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Now the scenario has changed.
Many political analysts have pointed out that the road before the Congress is tough. The Congress under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi has to work hard with a well planned strategy and build a coalition of opposition parties in order to take on the BJP. The first and foremost task before Rahul Gandhi is to rebuild the party organization which is in shambles in many states. Factionalism has become a bane of the Congress party. Building unity in the party requires clarifying the vision of the Congress party and uniting all factions through dialogue on the basis of a common vision and ideology of the party. The Congress party has to cleanse itself by purging those who have infiltrated into the party in order to destroy it from within. The party has to identify the traitors and send them out.
Valid and pointed criticism of the policies of the BJP government on a regular basis is needed to make the party alive and vibrant. At the same time a shift is needed from the personal criticism of the prime minister to criticism of the policies of the government. Personal criticism can stoop very low, as it happened in the case of Mani Shankar Aiyar.
Mere criticism of the government will not bring in any positive result. The Congress has to present before the people an alternative programme, a programme for economic growth along with job creation for the millions of young people, a programme for the revival of the agriculture sector, a programme for providing quality education to all children and youth, a programme for improving healthcare, especially to end malnutrition, hunger and child labour and above all a programme for annihilating hatred and revenge and building harmony among different sections of the society. The party has to appoint expert committees to make in-depth study of the issues and propose solutions in the form of policies and actions. Populist promises like waiving agricultural loans will only be harmful not only to the nation but also to the party in the long run.
The immediate challenge for the party is to prepare itself for the elections in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. The party has to announce well in advance its chief ministerial candidates in these states and bring together different factions to ensure the victory of the party. If people perceive the Congress party a divided house, they will not have confidence in it and may not elect it as an alternative to the ruling party.
Another crucial area the party has to focus is building an alliance with like-minded opposition parties to take on the BJP in 2019. The Congress party has to be generous in seat sharing with other opposition parties and groups. Bringing together different caste groups, as it happened in Gujarat, is a successful and healthy strategy. In order to win the confidence and faith of the people the alliance should be built on a Common Minimum Programme. The alliance should not look like a coming together of opportunists, but it should be a cohesive one based on commonly agreed approaches and strategies. A hate free India ( nafrat mukt Bharat ) should be a key programme, as the BJP and the Sangh Parivar have polluted the minds and the systems with the venom of hatred. The Congress should never speak about a BJP mukt Bharat because a healthy democracy needs a strong and vibrant opposition. In the absence of a strong opposition the ruling party may become corrupt, arrogant and dictatorial.
The BJP could create an impression of invincibility because of the lethargy of the Congress party, the main opposition and the confusion in its ranks regarding the leadership. Now that the leadership issue is settled, the party has to present itself as a strong, dynamic and responsible opposition with an attractive alternative agenda in order to take the nation forward.
(Published on 01th January 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 01)