A tale of two elections: Lessons from Gujarat and Himachal

A fuller understanding of what happened in these twin elections will require closer scrutiny and some distance, but it’s hard to tie the results to the same string of logic

Getty Images
Getty Images

RK Misra

What do the results of the elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh tell us? Did you say: Brand Modi is unbeatable? What about Himachal, then? Is anti-incumbency a thing? Try explaining Gujarat, where the BJP has been in power for 27 years straight, and seems to have demonstrated through its thumping, biggest-ever majority that if you effectively manage the electoral narrative, and line up the right support cast (think Election Commission, for example), you needn’t worry about misgovernance. You might even hear some pundits say the BJP is unbeatable today in triangular contests but not necessarily bipolar ones. Retrofitted wisdom is a real thing.

Gujarat’s undying love for Modi must have got a fillip from his poll pitch to put ‘Gujarat first’ (He probably picked that up from his friend Donald Trump) and his boast that every Gujarati has made the state what it is. The build-up to promote his home state—even at the expense of others, such as neighbouring Maharashtra—had begun in earnest well ahead of the elections. Tthe push to relocate projects and businesses and central government offices from Maharashtra to Gujarat has made news in recent times.

A fuller understanding of what happened in these twin elections, and whether it reveals a pattern will require closer scrutiny and some distance, but it’s hard to tie the results of Gujarat and Himachal to the same string of logic, it seems.

The Modi magic may have swept his home state but it fell flat in the other. Anti-incumbency dislodged the government in one state and delivered the incumbent a record victory and over 80 per cent of the seats in another. Hardline Hindutva trumped local issues in one state but had seemingly no effect in another. Rising unemployment and inflation seemed to matter in one state but not in the other. Promises made by the Congress in its manifesto resonated with people in one state but not in the other.

Comparisons are misleading and differences in size, demography and culture too great between Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. One is an industrialised state while the other is largely agrarian. One is a small, hill state with a 68-member assembly while Gujarat is a larger state with 182 members in the House. The footprint of big business is gigantic in Gujarat but practically missing in Himachal.

Yet, while the BJP emulated the Left Front in West Bengal by winning seven state elections in a row in Gujarat, where there is no apparent sign of voter fatigue, Himachal played true to its tradition of showing the incumbent the door every five years.

A tale of two elections: Lessons from Gujarat and Himachal
A tale of two elections: Lessons from Gujarat and Himachal

Himachaliyat, a term arguably made popular by Priyanka Gandhi, trumped Hindutva in the hill state. She not only camped in the state, where she has a house, but also addressed big rallies and held road shows.

A large number of BJP rebels in the fray seem to have also made a difference. Out of 21 BJP rebels, two have actually won and in 12 more constituencies with BJP rebels, the party lost. Even personal calls from the Prime Minister requesting the rebels to withdraw did not apparently work, underscoring the state’s aversion to interference by outsiders, which, it is claimed, defines Himachaliyat.

BJP leaders and workers alike seemed upset at the centralised decisions and imposition of candidates. Chief minister Jairam Thakur, however, delivered nine of the 10 seats in his home district—unlike Union minister Anurag Singh Thakur, whose home district Hamirpur delivered all five seats to the Congress.

Would it have made any difference if the BJP had changed its chief minister as it did in Gujarat? Even in Gujarat it made no difference to governance but Jairam Thakur in Himachal Pradesh was unable to defuse the agitations by unemployed youth and apple growers. Bhupendra Patel in Gujarat also faced as many as 32 agitations in the past one year with family members of even policemen joining protests. But it made no difference to the outcome.

In Gujarat, Union home minister Amit Shah’s ominous and unfortunate reminder that the BJP had taught some people a lesson in 2002 underscored the sway of Hindutva in the state. But in Himachal Pradesh, the promise of a uniform civil code had no resonance among voters. Himachal, incidentally, is an overwhelmingly Hindu state.

The Agnipath scheme, which was attacked by the Congress during the campaign in both states, did not move people in Gujarat and with good reason. Gujaratis are not a martial race, seldom join the armed forces, and much prefer mercantile careers. In Himachal, on the other hand, an estimated 280,000 people are said to be either serving in the armed forces or are ex-servicemen. Not surprisingly, therefore, the scheme which promises a four-year career in the army before sending boys home without pension, became a major poll issue in the hill state.

In Gujarat, the Congress may have strategically decided on a low-key campaign, but in the process, it ceded ground to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). While AAP’s chief ministerial candidate lost and 128 of its candidates lost even their deposits, its objective of emerging as a national party succeeded. It also damaged the Congress in both Saurashtra and South Gujarat. Four of its five MLAs come from Saurashtra and another from a tribal area. In 2017, the Congress had won 30 of 54 seats in Saurashtra-Kutch. This time it managed just three.

Several observers seem to believe that strategically the Congress made the mistake of engaging more with AAP than with the BJP. However, Congress leaders can take some consolation from the victory of candidates like Jignesh Mevani and Anant Patel, despite all the efforts of the BJP to defeat them. At least some of the 17 Congress candidates who won are said to have been offered huge sums of money to switch sides before the election. But they stuck to the party and won despite little help coming their way from an under-funded party.

The contrast on the ground was striking with both the BJP and AAP seemingly flush with funds and the Congress lagging far behind. Was it perhaps a considered decision to conserve resources for states like Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh? The jury is still out on that one, and there is no guarantee that AAP, now a national party, will not be a thorn in its flesh in these other states.

A tale of two elections: Lessons from Gujarat and Himachal
A tale of two elections: Lessons from Gujarat and Himachal

How stable will the Congress government be in Himachal Pradesh? With 40 seats in a House of 68—the halfway mark is 34—the party will be vulnerable to the BJP’s tried-and-tested ways of poaching MLAs. How long before the BJP gets up to its usual tricks to engineer defections?

Political analyst Mohan Jharta, however, says that defections are not part of the political culture of the state. Himachal has been a stable bi-polar state and defections are unlikely, he says. Jharta also points out that attempts were made to lure Congress candidates to switch sides even before the election. When they resisted such overtures and have now won, it is unlikely that they will choose to defect.

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