The Gujarat mandate that gives the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) another term in office, though with reduced numbers, makes the run-up to the general election in 2019 more interesting. If seen along with Himachal Pradesh, which the BJP won comfortably, the twin victories add one more state to the BJP kitty.
The BJP now rules 18 states either on its own or as a major partner. The Congress rules four states and one Union Territory, Karnataka and Punjab being the only major states where it is in power, while other parties and regional outfits account for the remaining states.
While this is a huge geography to dominate for the BJP, a closer look at the Gujarat results suggests the 2019 election may not be the foregone conclusion that BJP president Amit Shah claimed it to be on Monday.
Political functionaries including those from the BJP feel the Congress’s show in Gujarat does sound alarm bells for the BJP ahead of crucial assembly polls in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh in 2018.
Except Karnataka, the BJP rules the other three states and a senior BJP MP from Maharashtra, who did not want to be named, said the issues which were “instrumental" in giving the Congress party a major thrust in Gujarat were “relevant" in all three states.
“Anti-incumbency and rural distress are as much relevant in these three states as they were in Gujarat. In Rajasthan, there are tensions and ego clashes between the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and chief minister Vasundhara Raje. If the Congress takes inspiration from Gujarat and exploits these issues, it is going to be tough for us," said this MP.
The BJP leader, who is part of the organization and comes from the RSS, said the results of the 2018 assembly polls could set the tone for the 2019 general elections.
A senior Congress leader from Maharashtra, who campaigned in Gujarat, said there were several positive takeaways for the party in the Gujarat verdict. “Farmers, traders, small businessmen, Dalits and Patels have overwhelmingly voted for us. We have lost some 25 seats by a very narrow margin, some even by a couple of hundred votes. We ran an issue-based campaign and asked questions of the BJP which it could not answer," he said, requesting anonymity. He said Congress president Rahul Gandhi was largely able to control the campaign except for the “silly" interventions made by suspended leader Mani Shankar Aiyar.
Another cause of concern for the BJP in the Gujarat verdict is that it is the second state after Goa which it has struggled to retain despite Prime Minister Modi’s strident campaign and Amit Shah’s booth management.
A Maharashtra BJP legislator who was one of the poll managers in Goa earlier this year and who also campaigned in the Surat region of Gujarat said in both the states, the BJP had failed to translate voting percentage into seats.
In Goa, the BJP secured 32.5% vote share against the Congress party’s 28.4% but the latter won 17 seats as against the BJP’s 13. In Gujarat, the BJP vote share is nearly 50%, nearly 7 percentage points more than the Congress vote share and 1.2 percentage points more than its own 2012 figure but the seat share has gone down by 15 seats.
“In Goa, Rahul Gandhi had little role in the Congress performance but he did lead the campaign from the front in Gujarat. It is a moot point as to his exact contribution to the rise in Congress numbers because it could also be because of rural resentment. But we cannot now continue to ridicule him after Gujarat," said this BJP legislator requesting anonymity.
Reactions to the Gujarat verdict from other parties also indicate the extent of challenge the BJP will likely face in 2019.
The Shiv Sena, a BJP ally in Maharashtra, mocked the BJP victory and congratulated Rahul Gandhi for giving a good fight.
“The BJP has won due to money power and EVM. The Gujarat mandate sounds an alarm for the BJP ahead of 2019. We congratulate both the BJP and Congress for their performance but the result indicates that the winds of change are sweeping the country," said Sena MP Sanjay Raut. Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee tweeted that “Gujarat has belled the cat for 2019".