Narendra Modi’s third consecutive victory in Gujarat will resonate nationally, as his prime ministerial ambitions promise to unsettle the BJP’s national leadership in the days to come, even as the return of Himachal Pradesh to the Congress kitty came as a shot in the arm for the party.
Ironically, while the BJP certainly scored a bigger win — as this is the party’s fifth straight win in Gujarat, a State that has five times as many Lok Sabha seats as Himachal Pradesh — it was the Congress which looked upbeat here in Delhi: the party, which had no expectation of winning Gujarat, was content with having snatched back Himachal, one of the two BJP-ruled States that went to the polls recently, and its success in “containing” Mr. Modi.
Even though the BJP won decisively in Gujarat, it dropped two seats from its score of 117 in 2007, while the Congress added two to its earlier tally, from 59 to 61. Privately, though, Congress leaders did express their concern at the fact that its two top leaders, Shaktisinh Gohil and Arjun Modhwadia, lost their seats.
Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh gave the results his own spin: “Our victory in Himachal was convincing; our defeat in Gujarat was not demeaning.”
The party’s leaders also interpreted the results in Himachal, where they won 36 seats in the 68-strong Assembly, as an endorsement of the Congress economic agenda, as there had been reports that high prices, the decrease in the number of subsidised LPG cylinders, etc. would dent its prospects. In fact, it saw itself as better off than before these elections. “The bottom line is,” a Cabinet Minister said, “we can go ahead with our reforms agenda.”
Congress leaders also said that Mr. Modi’s triumph in Gujarat would pose a problem for the BJP. “Mr. Modi will be a troublemaker for the BJP, not us,” said MoS for Parliamentary Affairs Rajiv Shukla.
Indeed, though the celebratory mood among the BJP’s second-rung leaders at Mr. Modi’s achievement was visible, reflecting the triumphant scenes outside the party’s offices in Gujarat, there was unease in the top echelons here. Even as junior party MPs Tarun Vijay and Smriti Irani pitched for Mr. Modi as PM-designate, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley, when asked about the possibility of Mr. Modi being named the PM candidate, said matter-of-factly: “This may be an interesting topic from the media’s point of view but we will take a decision at the appropriate time.” Another functionary said bluntly: “Mr. Modi will concentrate on Gujarat for the moment.”
Indeed, it wasn’t just Mr. Jaitley, who was circumspect: other party seniors L.K. Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Murli Manohar Joshi maintained a conspicuous silence on the significance of Mr. Modi’s victory. Ms. Swaraj, a keen tweeter, did not use her Twitter account to comment on the results.
This was in sharp contrast to 2002, when Mr. Advani — then Union Home Minister — called a press conference to congratulate Mr. Modi, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee — then Prime Minister — issued a statement of felicitation.
No one in the BJP had any doubt about the outcome of the Gujarat polls, but the prime ministerial aspirants wanted to see whether Mr. Modi would cross 117, the party’s score in 2007. The unpredictable Ram Jethmalani, a party MP, had rolled the dice in the run-up to the Gujarat elections by attacking BJP president Nitin Gadkari and openly rooting for Mr. Modi as the BJP’s best bet for PM. On Thursday, as the results rolled in, Mr. Jethmalani, who has been slapped with a suspension notice, made it a point to reiterate his views.
Curiously, the BJP was more forthcoming on its loss in Himachal: “There were too many rebels this time in Himachal Pradesh,” Mr. Jaitley admitted: “Had we been able to put our house in order, had the party been united as it was in Gujarat, we would have won.’’
Meanwhile, a cross section of Congress leaders — Ministers and MPs — said that if there was a lesson the party needed to learn from the results of these two elections, it was that it needed to abandon its practice of deciding its leader after an election: in Himachal, the party was able to take advantage of the anti-incumbency factor against Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal and the factionalism in the State BJP unit, they said, because its election campaign had been fronted by a popular face, Virbhadra Singh. By contrast, in Gujarat, one of the reasons for the Congress’ failure was that it had not projected any leader. “We need more than a State leadership, we need a credible local leader, one face,” a Cabinet Minister said.
So, even as all eyes are on whether the Gujarat results will affect the BJP’s power dynamics, with Mr. Gadkari’s term coming to an end in February, for the Congress, which is holding a chintan shivir (brainstorming session) in Jaipur in mid-January ahead of the 2014 general elections, the fallout of these two election verdicts will be on top of its mind.
A resurgent Mr. Modi can make or mar Mr. Gadkari’s chances of securing a second term as president, as he is already under pressure from sections within the BJP to quit after charges of irregularities in a firm owned by him.
Incidentally, senior RSS leader M.G. Vaidya has already publicly suggested that Mr. Modi could be behind the oust-Gadkari campaign.