The BJP’s record breaking victory in Gujarat, five years after it barely scraped a majority in the Assembly is largely due to the lessons the party learnt from that hard scrabble fight in 2017, while its close defeat in Himachal Pradesh showed that the micromanagement the party brought into play in Gujarat, was absent in the hill State.
The 2017 election saw the alienation of the Patel community seen as the bedrock of BJP’s support base, and traders and farmers angry over the new Goods and Services Tax Regime (GST) and governance issues in the countryside, especially Saurashtra. It was Prime Minister Modi’s last minute campaign push in 2017 that finally tipped the scales in the BJP’s favour. BJP leaders would in public console themselves that the vote share of the party, despite not crossing the 100 mark was 49.1% which is huge in an Assembly poll, but the senior leadership got to work quite early on setting things right in the run up to 2022.
In July 2020, the State was changed in the organisation, with C.R. Paatil taking charge replacing Jitu Vaghani, and this also led to changes in the district level leadership. While organisational tightening started along with a significant inlet into the BJP from Congress MLAs defecting, and results of subsequent bypolls showed the benefits of this move, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the State reeled from an inept handling of the same by the Vijay Rupani government.
A change of chief minister was effected last year, with Bhupendra Patel, replacing Mr. Rupani and his council of ministers all first timers. This shedding of old timers, along with anti incumbency is from the typical BJP playbook in Gujarat, which also saw 43% of sitting MLAs dropped from the candidate list this time around.
The entry of AAP and the defection of 13-15 Congress MLAs to the BJP (pushing the BJP tally to 111 in the last Assembly) created confusion in the Opposition space as well, benefitting the BJP. Not sitting on these advantages, the senior leaders like Union minister Amit Shah, who camped in Gujarat looking at even the smallest details of the campaigning including what routes should road shows by candidates take and daily review meetings, also asked the party to ensure that the BJP voter at least came out to vote. While the overall percentage of voters was down 3-4% from the last time, the BJP’s polling percentage increased to almost 53% , so the party’s voters did finally turn out.
The BJP’s loss in Himachal Pradesh can be put down to the tradition of alternation that is in place in the hill State, no party has been known to be repeated there, but the large number of rebels in a disciplined cadre based party has been a surprise to most observers of the BJP especially under the Modi-Shah leadership of the party.
At the time of writing (counting was still on), BJP’s rebels seemed to have hurt the party’s prospects in as many as 12 seats in the 68-member Assembly. In at least nine seats there is a see saw battle on, and BJP rebels have polled well, giving the Congress candidate an advantage, albeit a slender one.
The presence of such large number of rebels and the party’s inability to get them to withdraw their candidature has hurt the BJP’s prospects and reflects the fact that the micromanagement by the BJP, so famous in other state, came a cropper in Himachal Pradesh.
While party leaders tried hard, even after polls had concluded, to assuage the feeling of rebel candidates, to ensure that they returned to the party fold if the BJP was within striking distance of forming the government, it is doubtful whether that worked.
The Congress ran a tight hyper local campaign where Prime Minister Modi could not face off againt it on national issues, and coupled with the rebellion in the ranks, the BJP seems to be on a losing pitch.