There was never an iota of doubt about Narendra Modi being able to pull off a third straight Assembly election victory in Gujarat. In a State where Narendrabhai, or NaMo, as his frenzied fan following called him, was reputed to be master of all he surveyed, the verdict had necessarily to have a scripted feel to it. But the real issue at stake in these polls was not the electoral map of Gujarat but the political future of Mr. Modi. Egged on by pre-poll surveys and exit polls which gave him as many as 130 of 182 seats — more than the BJP’s best ever tally of 127, achieved in 2002 in the aftermath of the horrific anti-Muslim pogrom — the Chief Minister’s cheerleaders believed NaMo was on the cusp of national greatness. As it turned out, the party ended two short of 117 — the number of seats it won in 2007 and the magic figure that analysts believe Mr. Modi needed to cross to establish his invincibility and stake his claim to lead the BJP and consequently the National Democratic Alliance into the 2014 general election. To be sure, this statistical detail cannot detract from the larger story which is that Mr. Modi has joined the ranks of Mohanlal Sukhadia, Jyoti Basu, Sheila Dikshit and Naveen Patnaik in leading his party to victory in a State three times in a row. But by themselves raising the bar in the run up to the election, his supporters have weakened their hero’s claim to a leading role on the national stage.
By now it ought to be clear that Gujarat and Mr. Modi do not lend themselves to analyses that would hold true in other States. In 2007, the odds seemed stacked against the Chief Minister: Sonia Gandhi drew larger crowds, a sullen Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was unable to digest Mr. Modi’s transition from obedient pracharak to cult figure, and Gujarat’s officialdom was unresponsive. In the end, these proved to be no more than minor irritants for the man with a colossus-like presence on a landscape virtually bereft of opposition. As in 2007, this time too Mr. Modi stoked the fires of Gujarati asmita, treating the State’s “six crore” people — whom he had polarised in 2002 — as if they were an undifferentiated whole. However, not every Gujarati is willing to buy in to this kind of rhetoric; indeed, there are parts of rural Gujarat which do not at all relate to the development narrative that has become the stuff of folklore among Mr. Modi’s admirers. With no credible leader in its ranks, the Congress once again fared miserably. Unsurprisingly, the BJP rank-and-file is pushing Mr. Modi to take the long march to Delhi. It is a different matter that the party’s second rung — not to speak of its key allies — seems not too enthused by this project.