The results of the elections to the state assemblies of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh have had a strange aftermath. While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won both states, the Congress is not entirely gloomy. It can claim that its defeat in Himachal Pradesh is part of a pattern where the BJP and Congress have alternately come to power since 1993. And in Gujarat, Rahul Gandhi’s spirited campaign left the BJP scared and narrowed the latter’s winning margin significantly. The BJP, on the other hand, can claim that it added Himachal Pradesh to its kitty and retained Gujarat with an enhanced vote share.

This paradox of the BJP’s higher vote share and lower number of seats can help unravel the kind of election that has just concluded in Gujarat. In fact, the BJP secured 49.1% votes in Gujarat in Monday’s counting—its second highest tally since 1995; the highest (49.9%) was achieved in 2002. Yet it could just win 99 seats—its lowest since 1995; the previous low was 115 in 2012 with a 47.9% vote share.

Why did this happen? First, the Congress also increased its vote share. With 41.4% votes for itself and another 1% for its allies, the Congress has put on its best performance in 22 years. The Congress and its allies have now reduced the gap with the BJP to merely 6.7%—the previous low was 8% in 2012.

But a lead of even 6.7% in a bipolar contest is quite healthy and, often, enough to secure a comfortable victory. So, the second reason for the BJP’s failure to convert its vote share to seats has to do with its win margins. In the 99 seats it won, the BJP secured a very high victory margin of almost 30,000 votes. With much smaller victory margins of around 13,000 votes, the Congress proved better at securing bang for its buck. The difference between the average victory margins of the BJP and Congress, at more than 16,500 votes, has been steadily increasing; it was close to 13,000 votes in 2012 and a little more than 12,500 votes in 2007.

The Congress has improved its performance in all geographic regions but its major gains have come in Saurashtra—also the centre of the Patidar agitation and locus of agrarian distress in Gujarat. But the most important takeaway has been the rural-urban divide. The BJP won 48 urban seats against the Congress’ 10. Just like demonetization did not harm the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, the parlous initial days of the goods and services tax (GST) roll-out do not seem to have had much of an impact in Gujarat. In rural seats, however, the Congress won 67 seats compared to the BJP’s 51. The BJP’s victory margin was also almost four times that of the Congress in urban areas.

The challenges for both parties are clear. The BJP needs to work on resolving rural distress before entering the campaign for two bimaru (sick) states—Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh—next year. And the Congress needs to grapple with how it is going to attract urban voters in a rapidly urbanizing country. The Congress should seriously consider empowering city-level institutions in the states it governs. And why shouldn’t the battery of dynasts in the party begin their careers by contesting mayoral elections rather than just waiting in the wings to be crowned chief ministers and prime minister?

Now, the national implications. With the addition of Himachal Pradesh, the BJP, along with its allies, controls 19 states in India. If it goes on to win Karnataka next year, the Congress will be left with no state with 15-plus Lok Sabha seats. Therefore, despite all the positive signs in Gujarat, the Congress should stop daydreaming about winning the national mandate in 2019. Its primary battle, still, is to remain relevant in national politics. The extent of its problems can be ascertained from the fact that the once dominant pan-India party is being lauded for putting up a good fight in a losing cause in Gujarat. But whereas the Gujarat results may lift the morale of the average Congress worker for a while, if the trend of good fights in a losing cause continues, then the party has little hope of staging a significant revival in the 2019 general election. Another challenge for Gandhi will be to sustain the energy level he exhibited in the Gujarat campaign. He is in uncharted territory here.

The BJP cannot be complacent either, and the Gujarat results show why. Among the states to go to polls next year, it will not just face agrarian distress (Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan), but also prolonged anti-incumbency (Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh) and the revolving-door pattern in politics (Rajasthan, like Himachal Pradesh, has had alternating BJP and Congress governments since 1993). The BJP will also aim at expanding its presence in the North-Eastern states—not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination. The stage is set for the semi-finals of 2018 before the 2019 grand finale, where Narendra Modi will defend the governance record of his first prime ministerial tenure.

What are the takeaways from the election results in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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