At last, the country can get back to be normal. While the poll for the Himachal Pradesh Assembly was barely noticed by anyone outside the hilly State, the campaign for the Gujarat Assembly has hogged national headlines for weeks. Being the Prime Minister’s home State, some of the attention was warranted. After all, both Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the president of the ruling party, hail from Gujarat and therefore it is natural for them to have a personal stake in the poll outcome. Yet, the shrillness of the campaign, and very often its thrust and direction, was surprising. No doubt, the role of the three caste leaders, namely Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mevani, rooting for Patel, Thakur and Dalit caste interests respectively, made lent the poll a sharper edge.
The BJP, which has ruled the State for nearly 23 years, felt threatened by their efforts to mobilize these castes, especially Patels who have solidly backed the party all along. Though the vote-difference between the winning BJP and the Congress Party in the last three polls had been above ten percent, the ruling party fighting anti-incumbency and farmer grievance due to poor yields on their produce, had to make that extra effort to counter the opposition propaganda. The Congress Party espied its chances when it succeeded in roping in the leaders of the three caste groups, admitting Thakore in its ranks while entering into a seat-sharing arrangement with Hardik Patel. Mevani did not join the party, but decided to contest as an Independent with the support of the Congress. A number of Congress and BJP rebels in the fray as Independents were only to be expected.
But, the contest essentially remains between the two national parties. Rahul Gandhi campaigned vigorously, visiting temples and addressing a large number of meetings. The fact that he was at long last taking over as party chief, relieving his mother of the onerous task of running the family firm, may have encouraged him to put in his best. Any failure to improve considerably on the party’s tally in the outgoing House would work as a disincentive for Congressmen who rue his lack of vote-winning capabilities. A lot is at stake for Rahul Gandhi in the outcome in Gujarat. That would explain his claim to portray himself as a good Hindu, a sacred-thread-wearing Brahmin in fact. But the BJP leadership, too, left nothing to chance in order to ensure that Gujarat remains with the party despite Modi and Shah graduating to the national politics. The outgoing chief minister, Vijay Rupani, lacks the charisma of Modi, though he too enjoys a clean image.
After ceding the initiative to Hardik Patel and the Congress initially, the BJP managed to cover the lost ground due to intensive and extensive campaigning by Modi. As the most popular national leader, he lifted the BJP mood, targeted Rahul Gandhi and generally defended his record both as chief minister and prime minister. Yes, the implementation of the GST caused some difficulties, but the problem was being sorted out. Even demonetisation was defended as a great tool for flushing out cash from the system. In the last days of the campaign, an avoidable attempt was made to communalise the poll, in sharp contrast to the Congress’s open caste card, with the specter of Ahmed Patel being the preferred chief ministerial candidate, in case the Congress were to win the poll.
The charge that Mani Shankar Aiyar had hosted a group of visiting Pakistani dignitaries at a dinner at his house where former prime minister Manmohan Singh and a number of retired Indian diplomats were present also seemed to be made with the same objective. Meanwhile, the result on Monday, December 18, can influence the national polity in a big way only if the BJP receives an unexpected shock. Failure of Rahul Gandhi, in spite of the generous help from Hardik Patel and Co., to bolster the party tally appreciably will spoil his investiture as the party chief and undermine his capacity to offer a credible challenge to Modi at the national level. The Gujarat outcome is bound to have wider repercussions on the national polity.