Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi during a floral tribute ceremony on the portrait of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel on his birth anniversary at Parliament House on 31 October 2017 in New Delhi. (Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Narendra Modi’s road to Delhi began with a convincing win in the Gujarat assembly election of 2012.

    The road to 2019, both for him and Rahul Gandhi, will also begin from Gandhinagar.

With the second and last phase of voting in the Gujarat assembly elections set to end today (14 December), we will need to wait another four days for the results. We may get an inkling of what is in store after the end of voting today itself, when news channels will discuss the exit polls, but if these look indeterminate, we will have to wait till the morning of the 18th for a final verdict.

There are four results possible: a clear BJP victory, a narrow BJP win, a clear Congress victory, or a narrow Congress win. It is unlikely that we will have a hung house since there are only two parties in the fray.

Put simply, these four results effectively boil down to two: a BJP win or a Congress win. The only doubt is about the clarity of the win for either side.

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Whichever way the Gujarat voter tilts, it will have a huge impact on national politics, economic policy and market trends.

From the point of view of stability, a BJP win is what the market wants, and it will be good for policy and medium-term economic stability. Even if the BJP wins narrowly, which will give opponents some time to crow about Narendra Modi’s “declining popularity”, the market will shrug off this setback and continue as though nothing happened after a few days. And the BJP, having avoided the embarrassment of losing Modi’s home state, could continue pretty much as before with its broad economic policies, which are more or less in the right direction.

However, all bets are off if the Congress wins, and wins convincingly. The markets will weaken, and we are back to economic uncertainties.

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A loss in Gujarat will overturn the BJP’s applecart, as the party will have to refocus its energies on politics rather than economics.

The following are the main implications of a Congress win, whether narrow or decisive.

First, the Modi government will face a tougher and more assertive Congress in parliament, especially in the Rajya Sabha, and the chances of major legislation for privatisation of banks or labour reforms will go out of the window.

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Second, since the BJP will now have to focus all its energies on 2019, it will have to plough central resources into creating growth and jobs, even if artificially, and throw money around to win or retain key voter constituencies. This means we cannot be sure about how the fiscal situation will pan out. Inflation could return as minimum support prices are raised to woo the rural voter.

Third, a Congress win also means that the BJP’s existing allies – who now play second fiddle in the coalition – will start acting up. From the Shiv Sena to the Telugu Desam Party to other smaller allies, these parties will not only assert themselves, but also demand a greater share of power at the Centre, and more seats in future. Managing the coalition, which Modi did not have to do so far, will be key to any chance of maintaining a sane economic agenda. The Shiv Sena can be counted upon to repeatedly embarrass the BJP.

Fourth, the Congress will find it easier to gain allies for 2019, whether it is in UP or elsewhere. A Gujarat win will energise an already perky Congress in Karnataka, where the BJP has not yet found its feet. It is the Congress that is setting the agenda, with its emphasis on Kannada, a separate flag for the state, and moves to give Lingayats minority religious status, etc. A failure in Gujarat will also throw up opportunities for the Congress in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, not to speak of Chhattisgarh.

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Fifth, we can also expect the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah team to throw up new contentious issues for 2019, since it is unlikely that the economy is going to perk up enough for Modi to claim achche din are finally here. Like Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2004, the economic revival is coming too late for voters to notice, and the same could happen to Modi. This is why one should expect his major moves to be political in nature so that he can set the agenda.

Sixth, contrary to what the media will say, a defeat in Gujarat is not actually a vote against Modi. If anything, Modi’s hectic and aggressive campaigning in Gujarat may have prevented a rout, assuming a defeat is what is expected. If the BJP wins, though, it will be entirely due to Modi, not the local party. Logically, the Gujarat voter, who still reveres Modi, will return to the party in 2019.

Seventh, the big gain for the Congress is Rahul Gandhi’s new maturity as a politician, and an ability to stick to a simple script. In Gujarat, the Congress has learnt that it cannot hope to be a big player in India by posing as a pro-minority party. Rahul Gandhi’s temple hopping sent the message that he is willing to court the Hindu vote. If the Congress wins or does much better than expected, this formula may be adopted in most states. The BJP has reason to worry, for it has studiously ignored its core voter. In trying to become the new party of the Centre, it is losing some of its primary attractions.

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Eighth, in a 2019 scenario, a BJP which slides to 180-200 seats has less of a chance of coming to power even in a coalition, for the Congress is always better suited for that role. The BJP’s only hope is to come close to a majority or else it can’t retain its control of the Centre. This means politics will dominate its agenda all the way to 2019. Not good news for reforms or the economy.

Narendra Modi’s road to Delhi began with a convincing win in the Gujarat assembly election of 2012. The road to 2019, both for him and Rahul Gandhi, will also begin from Gandhinagar.

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