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The message from Gujarat? Both parties need to do better

A win is a win. Although, this is by all accounts, a modest victory. Given the fact that the BJP is at the peak of its dominance as an electoral force today, and that Gujarat is the centre of the BJP universe, winning by this margin is not something the party can be enthusiastic about. That for a moment early on in the counting, the Congress looked like it could actually win, must have given many in the party a heart attack.

For the Congress, the result is a reprieve of sorts. It has lost, but after a long time it has offered some real resistance. It has also shown its willingness and ability to work with partners, and this augurs well for the party in 2019. However, equally, this has meant that it has done little by way of building a long-term future for itself in the state. It has no local leadership worth the name, and it doesn’t help that many of its senior leaders lost this time around, even when the party improved its performance.

The one obvious gain of course, is in the fact that Rahul Gandhi, against the run of play, has come through with some credibility. The sustained personal attacks on him indicate that while the ruling party may try and make him a butt of their jokes, nobody is really laughing. This is a big step forward for him, and it does restore to the party some sense of relevance, but it would do well not to overstate its performance. The truth is that the party has always had a substantial base in Gujarat.

Also, the social dynamics that created Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mevani are particular to Gujarat. The good news for the party is that it has a base in many of the states going to the elections before 2019, and it will therefore get more than one opportunity to test drive the new improved leadership.

The BJP has reason to be worried going forward. It has received the message that its electoral narrative has weakened, but it isn’t quite clear as to which way should it go. Gujarat is not very helpful in that the party tried everything and barring Narendra Modi himself and the party’s election machinery, which sensed the mood on the ground and acted with urgency, nothing has really worked in a significant way.

Electorally, it does not seem to have a solid enough story on the developmental side, especially given its track record which includes the dislocations caused by demonetisation and GST. Between now and 2019, it is unlikely that the development story will change dramatically, particularly given that the party will be in election mode for much of that period.

The Hindutva card was used quite liberally and crudely in Gujarat, and the fact that in spite of that, the results are marginal indicates that this may not be the way to go in a national campaign.

However, given that whenever the BJP feels vulnerable it instinctively falls back on an aggressive version of Hindutva suggests that as the pressure mounts, its posture will become more polarising. Also, it could argue that the Gujarat results vindicate this approach and that had Modi not used this appeal, the outcome could have gone the other way.

What the BJP has going for it is the persona of Narendra Modi. It is clear that he still has a strong connection with voters, and that his personal credibility continues to be high. However, if he continues to be used the way he was in Gujarat in every forthcoming election, then by 2019, he runs the risk of overexposure and voter fatigue.

In 2014, the BJP evolved a winning platform. The hard and the soft elements of its strategy came together in creating an emotional current in its favour. Today the elements are disparate pieces that do not form a coherent narrative.

The struggle to find the right message in Gujarat and the fact that towards the end the campaign sounded more like that of a challenger than a 22-year-old incumbent is a pointer to how much the party needs to feel like the underdog to whip up energy.

It is going to be a long hard grind to 2019. Despite winning both the elections, the aura of invincibility that had developed around the BJP post-UP has dimmed. The Congress is temporarily rejuvenated but Rahul Gandhi needs to do much more before he can claim that the party is on its way back. Gujarat has given a message of discontent and has asked all parties to do better. As a result, everything has become a little more uncertain, and every possibility a little more real.

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