Boastful predictions from both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress turned out to be wrong in Gujarat. BJP’s president Amit Shah had declared that his party would get 150 of the 182 seats; and Congress’s chief Rahul Gandhi had asserted that his party would form the government. Neither of that happened, of course, but as the dust settles on the elections in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state where after a modest victory, his party forms the government for the sixth consecutive time, it is worth looking at the lessons both political parties should learn from Gujarat.
The Gujarat elections were considered by many to be like a referendum on the nearly four years of the Modi regime; its policies, including reforms such as the introduction of an uniform tax code; the controversial decision to de-monetise high-value currency notes; and its purported fight against corruption. They were also viewed as being a foretaste of what could happen in 2019 when Mr. Modi is expected to fight the general elections in a bid to win a second term for his government. When the BJP won 99 seats (just seven more than the halfway mark; and 17 less than what it got in 2012) its detractors gloated. And the Congress, which won 77 seats (16 more than what it got in 2012), earned plaudits for giving such a spirited fight to the incumbent party in the state.
Yet, the story can seem quite different if you look at the facts a bit more closely. At the macro level, the BJP’s share of votes in the Gujarat elections was 49.1%, which approximates to every second voter in Gujarat casting his vote for the BJP. The Congress, on the other hand, managed a vote share of 41%. If, instead of the first-past-the-post principle, the popular vote determined who wins an election, the BJP’s seat tally may have been higher. There’s more. The 17 seats that the BJP lost compared to what it won in 2012 was because of Congress’s alliances with three communities: the Dalits, and Other Backward Castes (OBCs), led by activists, Jignesh Mewani, and Alpesh Thakor, respectively, and the Patidars, led by Hardik Patel. Without these, the Congress’s seat tally would not have been as impressive.
Therein lies the key to the art of winning elections in India. It’s not a universal art, either. What it takes for the Congress to win an election is quite different from what the BJP needs to win. Let’s take the Congress first. Years have passed since the Congress has been able to fight and win elections with ease in major states on its own (it is true that it recently won in Punjab, but that was an exception). In the four big Indian states, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal, and Tamil Nadu (together they account for more than 200 Lok Sabha seats), the Congress has long ago conceded its political clout to regional players. In UP, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party moved into the forefront forming governments in succession, sidelining the Congress, and now the BJP has managed to wrest control from them. In Bengal, the Trinamool Congress, a breakaway from the Congress, holds sway. In Tamil Nadu, two regional southern parties, AIADMK and DMK, are the most powerful political contenders.
The short point is this: without alliances, the Congress cannot hope to do well in elections. It was able to put up a resistance and limit the BJP’s gains in Gujarat only because it found support of a motley combination of activists and regional parties. In Bihar, when Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)and Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal United (JDU) joined hands and the Congress agreed to be a junior partner with them, it was possible to win against the BJP (it’s a different matter there now after Kumar broke the alliance and jumped ship to ally with the BJP). The fact that the Congress needs alliances to win elections is evident from the two successive United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments that India has had. In both, at least a dozen parties got together with the Congress to win and form a government; the Congress on its own didn’t manage to get the requisite number of seats that it would need to form a government. Realistically, therefore, the art of winning elections for the Congress is all about the ability to forge alliances that work—sometimes they could be ones where it is not even the major partner itself. As the newly minted president of the party, Rahul Gandhi’s main challenge would be to master the art of forging such pacts, both in state elections as well as the big general one in 2019.
Ironically, the opposite is true for the BJP. The art of winning elections as practiced by Messrs. Modi and Shah is quite different from what Mr. Gandhi needs to master. For one, alliances have proved to be anathema for the BJP. Although it is true that technically Mr. Modi’s is a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, and 47 parties are part of that, but the BJP has 277 of the 334 seats that the NDA has out of Lok Sabha’s 543, which basically means the others in the alliance account for very little in terms of clout. Turn the focus to BJP’s alliances in the states and the picture gets bleak. Its marriages of convenience—with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra; the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab; and the Peoples Democratic party in Kashmir, have not quite had good runs. In fact, BJP’s electoral fortunes have been better when it has fought on its own—and as a challenger, not, as in Gujarat this time, as a longtime incumbent.
In Maharashtra, Assam and Haryana, the BJP won because it was the challenger and not an incumbent. In 2014, the BJP’s triumphant surge in the general elections was because Mr. Modi was the powerful challenger taking on the UPA. But, yes, formulaic strategies don’t always work. Indian elections can be tricky. For the BJP the status of the opponents it challenges also matters. If they are strong and united, they can be formidable. In the Delhi state elections, the BJP was the challenger but Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) prevailed in part because a chunk of voters who would have normally voted for the Congress, voted for him. And in Bihar, although BJP was the challenger, the “mahagathbandhan” pact between Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar turned out to be a wall it could not break through. In UP, however, the BJP’s opponents—despite Congress’s alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP)—were not quite united; nor were they strong. The SP had internal problems making it fractious; the Congress was too weak; and there was another party, the BSP, in the fray. For the BJP as the challenger that was an opportunity to steamroll to victory.
In the final analysis, in forthcoming elections—in big states such as Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan—Mr. Gandhi must craft his party’s alliances carefully to form a strong and united opposition to the BJP. Only then are its electoral fortunes likely to be favourable. For Mr. Modi, the challenge will be to fight anti-incumbency in states such as Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, something that his party may find difficult if faced with a united opposition that is strong. And, of course, as voters in Gujarat showed us, rural India, where nearly 70% of Indian voters live, would have to be an important focus for both. The disenchantment with politicians (especially those in charge of governance) in India’s villages is for real, and parties that take note of that and make amends will be the ones that stand a bigger chance of success.