Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (GettyImages)
Snapshot
  • Gujarat may well be the political price Narendra Modi will be paying for his bold moves on black money.

    But it is unlikely that this stance alone is hurting the party this time. It has taken voters for granted.

From all non-partisan accounts, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) looks set for a shock defeat in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat.

The latest Lokniti-CSDS-ABP News opinion poll puts the vote shares of the Congress and the BJP at 43 per cent each, but the seat counts show the BJP a nose ahead with 91-99 against Congress’ 78-86, but this projection could well be wrong. A party needs 92 seats in the 182-member assembly to form a government, and the BJP can hardly be anywhere near this figure. The only way it can win is if its vote-share-to-seats conversion ratio in urban areas goes heavily in its favour, but we can’t be sure of that given urban angst over demonetisation and the goods and services tax (GST).

One should ignore party chief Amit Shah’s claims that he is targeting 150 seats as empty bravado, for the real sentiment came from the Prime Minister himself, when he indirectly hinted that he could be paying a price for his “reforms” and for targeting the corrupt. He said at the Hindustan Times Summit last week: “I am aware of the big political price I will have to pay for the steps I have taken, the path I have chosen, and the destination I want to take the country to. But I am ready for it.”

It is possible to criticise the CSDS poll as still too evenly balanced for us to write off the BJP’s chances in the state, but the numbers to look at are not the final vote share figures, but the trajectory since August. The BJP started with a 30-point lead in August, and this lead slimmed down in subsequent months and slumped finally to zero in November. Election trends in India tend to consolidate in the broad direction in which they are headed, and for the BJP this has meant downwards.

The Congress is far ahead in the state’s 98 rural constituencies, and it is only in the 84 urban seats that the BJP has some chance of holding on to its seats. But it can’t count on this, for there is a subterranean feel that the voter wants to give the BJP a rap on the knuckles this time, both for taking him for granted and for the pain inflicted on small businesses. It may be comeuppance time.

It would be easy to blame demonetisation and GST for this expected debacle, but that would be too facile an analysis.

While the Congress has calibrated its strategy carefully, by not bringing up 2002 or any such topic that gets the Gujarati voter’s sectarian antennas up, Rahul Gandhi’s minders have got him to stay on message: that rural Gujarat is in distress, and that the BJP has damaged the economy with demonetisation and a badly-implemented GST.

On the other hand, the BJP simply has no message for the electorate. It has been busy rubbishing Rahul Gandhi, precisely the kind of negative portrayal that cost the Congress 2014 when it made Modi the target.

As an incumbent party that has been in power for 22 years, the BJP did not have the luxury of criticising the Congress for anything, but that is what the party has been doing. As an incumbent, you need a positive message, but the BJP did not have one this time. It used its tired old cliches, of Gujarati asmita, and how the Congress is anti-Gujarat. This claim worked when the Congress was attacking the BJP for communalism in the past three elections, but this time it is the BJP which has been trying to paint the Congress in bad communal light, by focusing on Rahul Gandhi’s religion, etc.

The BJP has much to introspect even if it somehow scrapes through this time, but no one should be betting on it. It has simply lost the plot in 2017.

Gujarat may well be the political price Narendra Modi will be paying for his bold moves on black money. But it is unlikely that this stance alone is hurting the party this time. It has taken voters for granted.

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