Supporters of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party cheer for Prime Minister Narendra Modi after a landslide in his home state Gujarat during a victory rally in Ahmedabad on Dec. 8. (Photo: Sam Panthaky/ AFP)
The landslide victory of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the provincial elections in Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has set new records.
The BJP broke the opposition Congress’ record of winning 149 seats in 1985 with its tally of 156 in the 182-member state assembly, cornering 52.50 percent of the total votes polled.
It also retained power for a record seventh consecutive term bucking anti-incumbency to equal the Communist Party of India-Marxist’s feat in West Bengal.
The BJP has been in power in Gujarat for the past 27 years and is set for another five years now.
The credit for this overwhelming victory goes to the prime minister who was the sole star of the elections and its main campaigner.
It is beyond any doubt now that Modi, BJP and Gujarat are synonymous.
"The prime minister’s charisma ensured that voters in this western Indian state voted for him as if he was contesting from each of the 182 seats"
Modi sacked Vijay Rupani from the chief minister’s post in September last year and replaced him with a little-known, first-time legislator, Bhupendra Patel, and effectively administered Gujarat from New Delhi.
What appeared to be an undemocratic move was seen as a decisive action to tackle growing anti-incumbency sentiment.
Modi’s fellow Gujarati, second-in-command, and Federal Home Minister Amit Shah virtually made the state his headquarters, micromanaging the local election machinery.
The prime minister’s charisma ensured that voters in this western Indian state voted for him as if he was contesting from each of the 182 seats. In some constituencies, they did not even know the name of the official candidate.
It was Modi who was responding and countering the high-decibel campaign by Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) National Convener and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.
The AAP, a new entrant in Gujarat politics, managed to gain a foothold in the state by winning five seats and a 13 percent vote share but proved no match for Modi’s popularity backed by the cash-rich BJP’s well-oiled poll machinery.
The Congress which had nearly dethroned the ruling BJP in the 2017 election by winning 77 seats, registered its worst-ever performance with just 17 this time. It expectedly blamed the AAP and the other parties in the fray for eating into its vote share.
However, the moot question is how come the BJP performed so well in Gujarat but lost the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, where it was dislodged from power by the Congress. It also lost the Delhi Municipal Corporation, which it ruled for 15 years, to the AAP.
"Modi seemed under no obligation to address issues like price rises and unemployment"
How come Modi pulled off a miracle performance now, something he could not do in his previous avatar as the Gujarat chief minister in 2002, 2007, and 2012?
One of the obvious reasons could be the prime minister started his campaign early by launching several development projects, even poaching a few from neighboring Maharashtra, while the other parties took their own sweet time to get into election mode.
More importantly, in a very subtle manner, the BJP kept the underlying theme of its election campaign focused on Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) along with the fear factor against Muslims, which was repeatedly played.
In the run-up to the elections, in the sensitive Dwarka belt, a popular Hindu pilgrim center, the Gujarat government demolished a few mosques built by fishermen, alleging a Pakistan hand behind their coming up.
Further, to showcase its Hindutva muscle, Yogi Adityanath, the BJP’s saffron-clad chief minister in northern Uttar Pradesh, was greeted with a bulldozer that has come to symbolize the drive to demolish houses and businesses of Muslims under the guise of removing encroachments in his state.
Moreover, Modi seemed under no obligation to address issues like price rises and unemployment as supporters of the proposed Hindu Rashtra (Hindu Nation) openly conveyed through social media that his job is not to control prices or to create jobs but further the bigger cause of Hindu Rashtra.
Steeped in Hindutva, the middle class, mostly made up of upper-caste Gujaratis, is not really worried about price rises and unemployment. And so are the lower middle classes.
The AAP’s initial popularity among poor and marginalized sections was effectively countered by the BJP by raking up Gujarati pride. “We don’t want revdis (a delicacy that has come to symbolize poll freebies like free electricity, free education, etc.) It is against our self-respect,” the BJP supporters shouted to counter the AAP’s offerings.
"No individual candidate has won on his own merit. It is clearly a vote in favor of Modi"
They also successfully projected the AAP as an “outsider and anti-Gujarati” force by raking up its association with Medha Patkar, the anti-dam activist who tried to stall the Narmada Dam, which is considered the lifeline for water-starved parts of Gujarat, by citing the large scale displacement of tribal people due to the project.
All this worked well in the end in favor of the BJP because people have blind faith in Modi. For them, he is like a God who can do no wrong.
Gujarat remains sharply polarization on religious lines. Political pundits have long recognized it as the original laboratory of Hindutva that helped BJP grow and capture the nation.
Someday, there is bound to be dissatisfaction, it might even erupt.
Former BJP MLA Yatin Oza says the mandate is positive and should not be questioned.
But ask any common person in Gujarat whom he voted for, and the answer is Modi. No individual candidate has won on his own merit. It is clearly a vote in favor of Modi. It’s his victory.
All burning issues, whether it was the Morbi footbridge collapse that claimed 135 lives in October, the 42 deaths caused by the consumption of illicit liquor in July, or mismanagement during the Covid-19 pandemic that led to many deaths, everything was overlooked.
It seemed people had their safety and security from an imagined enemy uppermost in their minds while voting for Modi.
People in Gujarat love and trust Narendra Modi as much as a section of Indians loves to distrust and hate him.
It’s a vote for him, irrespective of the performance of the state government.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.