Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) notched a remarkable victory in the assembly elections in his home state of Gujarat, winning an unparalleled 85 percent of the seats in the assembly by securing a commendable 52.5 percent share of the total votes polled. The party won 156 of 182 seats in the Gujarat state assembly – the highest any party has ever won in the state.
“Thank you Gujarat. I am overcome with a lot of emotions seeing the phenomenal election results. People blessed politics of development and at the same time expressed a desire that they want this momentum to continue at a greater pace. I bow to Gujarat’s Jan Shakti [people’s power],” Modi wrote on Twitter.
While supporters of the Hindu nationalist party were euphoric over the victory in the western state of Gujarat, a pall of gloom struck BJP supporters in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh, which the BJP had ran since 2017. The Congress, India’s largest opposition party, emerged triumphant there by winning 40 of the 68 seats in the state assembly.
These results came just a day after the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a rising opposition party, which has remained equidistant from the Congress and the BJP, stormed to power in elections to civic administrative bodies in the national capital, ending the BJP’s 15-year-rule in Delhi’s civic governance.
By-elections also took place for two assembly seats and a parliamentary seat in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state — it has been governed by the BJP since 2017. Even though the BJP returned to power earlier this year in Uttar Pradesh with a thumping majority, the Mainpuri Lok Sabha by-poll saw the opposition Samajwadi Party (SP) retaining the seat in question by securing 64 percent of the polled votes – marking a 10 point increase in vote share compared to the 2019 parliamentary election. Of the two assembly seats, the BJP wrested one from the SP, but an ally of the SP took the other seat from the BJP.
Responding to the results, BJP parliamentarian-turned-Congress leader Kirti Azad posted a euphoric tweet in which he wrote: “Beginning of the end of BJP. lost 2/3 in Delhi MCD and Himachal, won in Gujarat due to split of votes btw #Congress and #AAP.”
While Azad may be oversimplifying the results – the BJP would have won Gujarat even without a split in opposition votes as they alone bagged more than half – the results do, indeed, offer some rays of hope for India’s opposition parties.
“The Himachal Pradesh result is a definite morale booster for the Congress,” senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh wrote in a tweet, which also highlighted that the BJP’s national president, J. P. Nadda, comes from Himachal.
Columnist Ajay Gudavarthy, an associate professor of political science at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), said that the results of the three recent elections have strengthened his conviction that it is not a “toxic anti-Muslim majoritarianism” that is driving the BJP’s electoral success in the country.
“They employed nearly the same campaign methods in all places, and succeeded overwhelmingly in Gujarat, but failed in Himachal Pradesh and in the Delhi municipal elections,” Gudavarthy told The Diplomat, adding that the case of Gujarat should be seen as an exception in the national context.
“In Gujarat, the grounds for polarization on communal lines had consolidated years ago. Even socially, there exists a wall between communities and the ghettoization of Muslims stands near complete. But that is not the case everywhere. Himachal, which is overwhelmingly Hindu, voted on issues of development and public service, as did the voters of Delhi,” Gudavarthy pointed out.
“The lessons the BJP’s Gujarat success offers is about their organizational ability to take constituency-wise electoral calculations to the last margin and the ideological ability to offer the Hindus ‘a deep sense of belonging,” he said.
The analyst said that people are responding to issues like religious sentiments and security and development and economy in different ways in different areas, a trend that leaves scope for the opposition. “To BJP’s advantage is that they can lay claims on 3,000-year-old glory and push for bullet trains. By connecting ancient pride with modern high-tech aspirations, they have managed to capture a larger share of the panorama,” Gudavarthy said.
For political observers, the BJP’s victory in Gujarat was a foregone conclusion – the battle was for the runner-up position. All eyes were on whether or how much the AAP, which ran a high-voltage campaign in Gujarat, managed to eat into the Congress’ vote share. It got over 12 percent and brought down the Congress’ to below 30 percent for the first time in Gujarat state elections.
However, this is unlikely to be enough to sell itself as the best challenger of the BJP, not at least in central Indian states like Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where assembly elections are due next year. The Congress had won Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in 2018 but later lost the former due to the defection of party leaders. With AAP failing to come close to the Congress’ vote share in Gujarat, they are unlikely to trouble the Congress in the central Indian states.
However, when it comes to northern and western India, AAP’s Delhi success is likely to increase the complexities of the electoral equations. Many seats may witness a triangular contest between the BJP, the Congress, and the AAP in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
This is because the AAP, which has chief ministers in Delhi and Punjab, can eat into the vote bank of both the BJP and the Congress. In the recent elections, they hurt the BJP in Delhi by toppling their 15-year-regime but appear to have facilitated the BJP’s landslide victory in Gujarat by eating into the Congress’ traditional votes.
Speaking to this writer on condition of anonymity, a spokesperson of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), another opposition party that has been ruling the eastern state of West Bengal since 2011, said that results of the Delhi and Himachal elections “reveal the hollowness of the concept of the BJP’s invincibility.”
“The Uttar Pradesh bypoll results show that all is not lost for the opposition there,” said the spokesperson. Uttar Pradesh, having 80 of India’s 543 Lok Sabha seats, plays the most crucial role among states in deciding the fate of the Union government.