Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shows his ink-marked finger after casting his vote outside a polling station during the last phase of the Gujarat State Assembly election in Ahmedabad on December 14, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Amit Dave
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shows his ink-marked finger after casting his vote outside a polling station during the last phase of the Gujarat State Assembly election in Ahmedabad on December 14, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Amit Dave

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral juggernaut continued to roll, with the BJP winning Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat on Monday as well as the Congress-ruled state of Himachal Pradesh. While commentators were busy calling it a contest between Congress president Rahul Gandhi and Modi, the final results say otherwise. The electoral battle was, in fact, between the old and the new Modi.

The BJP had ruled Gujarat for 22 years, mostly under chief minister Modi, who moved to New Delhi in May 2014 after storming the national bastion. A slick campaign and an electoral strategy shaped by the party’s current president, Amit Shah, ensured an unprecedented victory for Modi. After he took the prime minister’s seat in New Delhi, the BJP’s electoral successes continued to grow, with a massive win in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, being the jewel in the crown.

But the numbers in Gujarat tell a story of their own. In the early hours of the state election, the gap between the BJP and the Congress continued to shrink, with the latter even overtaking the former ever so briefly, as the seat-wise leads came in. For an hour Congress spokesmen couldn’t stop beaming on TV. But an hour later, the smiles disappeared as the BJP surged ahead.

Everyone had predicted a tough fight for the BJP. After Modi left Gujarat, his closest confidante in the party, Anandiben Patel, had a short stint as chief minister. She was replaced by Vijay Rupani, who in this election was also trailing from his Rajkot (West) seat for an hour before the next round of counting brought him back into the lead. By mid-afternoon on Monday, the BJP had consolidated its lead over 99 seats, losing 16 from the 2012 elections, while the Congress appeared to have gained 20, takings its leads/wins to 80 seats.

The election was a prestige issue for the BJP, and for Modi, who was coming back to his home state for the first time after becoming the prime minister.

Modi vs Modi

In 2014 the electrifying call to arms was “Ab ki baar, Modi sarkaar” (Let this time be a Modi government). That was the message of hope offered to Indian voters who were tired of a series of scams that had tainted the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. Everyone heard about the famed “Gujarat Model” described a by some commentators as a systematic attempt to attract big investments.

Pictures of Modi, sometimes sitting under a tree reading a host of books, added to the image of a man who had ideas, knew how to implement tough decisions and was generally a man of action. In sharp contrast, the incumbent prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, a genial and soft-spoken economist, was mocked for his silence and his inability to rein in endemic corruption.

But unlike 2014, this Gujarat election was a contest between the Modi of the past, full of hopes and promise, and the Modi of the present, three years into his stint as prime minister. In the last three years he has made two major economic decisions – demonetization, which banned 86.7% of India’s currency, and implementation of the goods and services tax (GST), which led to considerable anger in the trading community. The traders are traditionally known as BJP supporters in northern and western India, and are also an influential vote bank in Gujarat.

The nervousness in the BJP’s campaign was evident as the prime minister dashed to Gujarat, holding more than 35 meetings and rallies across the state. Curiously enough, there was little or no reference to the “Gujarat Model” this time around. While party president Shah predicted 150 seats, most observers touring the state posted that the BJP was not as comfortable as it pretended to be.

Changing rhetoric

The language and rhetoric of the elections changed. The prime minister’s speeches were laced with anecdotes to portray himself as a victim of the Congress’ machinations.

Midway through the campaign, as reports continued to paint a dismal picture for the BJP in Gujarat, Modi declared that senior Congress member Mani Shankar Aiyar and Manmohan Singh held a dinner with the Pakistani high commissioner to “plot” against him and “influence the elections” in the state. The claim was quickly condemned and participants at the dinner, including a former Indian Army chief and several diplomats, quickly came out to reject the claim. In a sharp column, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, vice-chancellor of Ashoka University and one of India’s most respected public intellectuals, said the BJP’s “politics of hope has been replaced by politics of hate.”

For decades, the northern belt states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have been viewed as the most influential states during elections. Anyone who wins these two states during the general elections is likely to take power in New Delhi. Modi’s BJP won handsomely in 2014 and the assembly election in Uttar Pradesh last year had almost sealed 2019 elections for the party. But Gujarat was the psychological battle that would leave a lasting impression and make a significant impact on how new voters would see Modi in 2019.

The win on Monday reaffirms that even the new Modi is as strong as the old one. But it also shows that the new Modi is now vulnerable as hopes diminish and reality takes over.