New Delhi/Ahmedabad: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress have split the honours in the state elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.
While Narendra Modi won a record third term as chief minister and the BJP retained power for a fourth consecutive term in Gujarat, precedence endured in Himachal Pradesh, where the Congress convincingly trounced the incumbent BJP.
Of the 182 seats in Gujarat, the BJP won 115 and the Congress 61, while others, including former chief minister Keshubhai Patel’s Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP), which had been expected to erode the BJP’s support base, won only six seats.
In Himachal Pradesh, chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal conceded defeat after the Congress won 36 seats, leaving 26 for the BJP in a tight electoral contest. Part of the BJP’s debacle is attributed to infighting, raising larger questions about the state of the country’s main opposition party.
The results provide a definite breather for the Congress, which has been mired in a series of corruption charges and controversies that have dented its popularity and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s image. It will also boost the morale of the ruling coalition that has recently discovered its mojo and embarked on some long-overdue policy changes. Importantly, the verdict could mean that there is no immediate threat to the stability of the UPA, which means the next general election will, more likely than not, take place on schedule in 2014.
Congress leaders claim the issue of corruption, which has dented the image of the party and its government at the Centre, played no major role in the state election in Himachal Pradesh. Virbhadra Singh, the Congress leader who led the party’s campaign in the state, resigned as a minister in the Union government after charges were filed against him in a case dating to the 1980s.
Analysts are divided on what the victory means for Gujarat chief minister Modi. Ahead of the elections, certain sections of the BJP believed he should and would be the party’s prime ministerial candidate. The BJP won nearly the same number of seats it did in 2007.
“With the Gujarat win, Modi has cemented his position in the party. Modi has emerged as a PM candidate who can get votes for the BJP,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, head of Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank.
Balveer Arora, a political analyst and former head of the political science department at Jawaharlal Nehru University, saw it differently.
“It is a satisfying result for the Congress because it has not only won a convincing victory in Himachal Pradesh, but also stopped Modi’s rise in Gujarat...stopped him where he was earlier... This will definitely encourage the Congress and its government to go ahead with reform measures and it will use the remaining time to pursue its inclusive growth agenda so that it can face the Lok Sabha election more confidently,” Arora said.
Meanwhile, Modi’s record win may amplify internal wranglings within his party, which continues to speak in many voices about his possible candidature for the top elected post in the country in 2014.
Speaking after the victory, which many credit exclusively to his work, Modi sent mixed signals on taking on a larger role. “It is a victory for good governance and development,” he said. “You have made me win in this election and now I will have to make you win in the next five years.”
However, internal fights in the BJP over the leader of the party in the next general election have intensified, with several senior leaders, including former deputy prime minister L.K. Advani, Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, among others, signalling their own keenness. The internal wrangling deepened recently when a section of senior party leaders demanded the resignation of party president Nitin Gadkari, who has been embroiled in a controversy over the funding of several of his companies.
Congratulating Modi for his emphatic victory, Jaitley said the party will decide its future strategy. “Whatever role he (Modi) plays will be decided by the party and the allies (of the BJP in the opposition National Democratic Alliance).”
Similarly, the Congress, too, is likely to face uncomfortable queries internally on its electoral strategy in Gujarat. Despite a low-key and lacklustre campaign, the Congress improved on its performance in the last election by winning 61 seats (it won 59 in 2007). Many party leaders admitted the party may have conceded defeat even before the polling on 13 and 17 December.
Not many national leaders campaigned in Gujarat. While Congress president Sonia Gandhi spent just three days campaigning in the state, Rahul Gandhi, who campaigned extensively in Uttar Pradesh for the February-March elections, spoke at only seven public rallies, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the state only once.
The result: Three of the four top Congress leaders in the state, leader of the opposition Shaktisinh Gohil, Gujarat Congress president Arjun Modhwadia and Siddharth Patel, son of ex-chief minister Chimanbhai Patel, lost to BJP candidates. Modhwadia offered his resignation as state party chief soon after the results were announced.
“The Congress has not been able to project an alternative vision, be it development or Hindutva,” said Mona Mehta, a professor of political science at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar. The Congress’s offer of freebies such as inexpensive housing and laptops does not seem to have worked.
According to Ghanshyam Shah, an Ahmedabad-based political expert and a retired professor of political science at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Congress lost because it was not able to come up with an issue that had mass appeal.
“Modi’s development notion and that projected by the Congress were not very different. The voters of Gujarat are of the view that Modi has delivered and they did not want to trust anyone else offering the same view,” he explained.