Does the BJP’s Gujarat strategy tell us how it will campaign in 2019?

Win or lose in the state, it seems likely that the party will now deploy unbridled Hindutva and attempt to portray its opponents as anti-national.

If any Indian state should seen electoral campaigns centered around development – whether it has been successfully delivered or “gone crazy” – it ought to have been Gujarat. After all, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been in power there for more than two decades, much of that with Narendra Modi at the helm. Over that time, the Gujarat model of development, whatever its actual merits, became such a talking point that it was used as a platform for the 2014 general elections. So why did Modi and the BJP end their Gujarat election campaign with dog whistles about temple-building, nationalism and an astounding allegation of treason against a former prime minister? Does the direction of the Gujarat campaign indicate what India is likely to witness in the run-up to general elections due in 2019?

The BJP’s 2014 election campaign was built around the perceived failures of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government that had been mired in corruption controversies in its second term. Modi’s candidacy was sold as the antidote to the UPA years: a strong prime minister instead of a weak one, an honest leader rather than a corrupt first family, someone who would be able to bring Acche Din, the good times. Hindu majoritarianism was definitely a part of his appeal, but it was primarily stoked by local elements: Modi himself promised “sabka saath, sabka vikaas”, development for all.

Yet, as Keshava Guha points out in this article in Scroll.in, this optimistic outlook seems to have disappeared, giving way to touchy nationalism and an indignant message of being victimised by the Opposition.

Blame Game and Acche Din

This is, in part, because the two elements that were so successful in 2014, pointing fingers at the incumbent government and promising Acche Din, may no longer be applicable for Modi. Blaming the previous administration does not work so well when you have been in power for a long time. Consider how odd it sounded when Modi complained that the Congress, when it was at the Centre, did not allow Gujarat to to develop, even though he has been touting the “Gujarat model” all this while. Moreover, in 2014, Modi actually gave himself a deadline telling crowds at rallies that the Congress had had 60 years to ruin the country, and he was asking for just 60 months to fix it.

Those 60 months are up in 2019. What does Modi have to show for it? Plenty of incremental changes and some rather far-reaching ones, like the insolvency code, that are not emotive issues but real reforms. Then there is demonetisation, which the BJP only sells as a moral achievement now, not an economic one, and the Goods and Services Tax, for which Modi even tried to share the blame with the Congress after it turned into an electoral liability in Gujarat. None of Modi’s other big projects, whether it is Make in India, Skill India or the promise of jobs, has succeeded enough for it to become a selling point.

Though Modi was very popular as chief minister, ever since he left to become prime minister, there have been many signs of disaffection, from the Patidar agitation to the GST protests. If one were to study BJP’s campaign approaches for signs of what is likley in 2019, Gujarat might offer a better template to what the BJP will face nationally that year than, say, Uttar Pradesh where it was campaigning to drive out the Samajwadi Party and take charge.

Hindutva and nationalism

So what did Modi do in Gujarat when he could not blame the previous administration or discuss the achievements of his government? Among other things, Modi sought to build a narrative about being an honest son of the soil who is being targeted by corrupt outsiders, with the added element of implying that the Opposition is collaborating with Pakistan. The BJP also pushed the idea that, despite its own obviously communal rhetoric, it is the Congress that is being divisive because it has tied up with a Patidar leader and was emphasising caste identities.

This could presumably be the template for what the party offers to the nation in 2019. For one, as the BJP nears its four-year mark, it seems much more confident in its Hindutva avatar . Before 2014, it was still unclear whether India’s voters would vote for someone whose name is so closely associated with communalism with the Gujarat riots of 2002. The results across the country in 2014 as well as in Uttar Pradesh this year have convinced the party that it need not shy away from being open about its majoritarian project.

The decision to place Adityanath, the riot-accused head of a religious order, as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh is the clearest signal of this new unabashed approach. As Sankarshan Thakur wrote on the anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition, the apologetic Hindutva of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s time has given way to a chest-thumping brand of saffronism, where violent acts against Muslims are celebrated rather than brushed under the rug.

The BJP has also made sustained efforts to turn nationalism into a central fault line, made most evident in its heavy-handed response to a protest at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2015 that turned into a national issue. This project is closely associated with the religious one, by suggesting that only Hindus can be real Indians. This strategy is weaponised by claiming that the Opposition is anti-national, most apparent this month when Modi accused former prime minister Manmohan Singh of collaborating with Pakistanis on the Congress’ Gujarat campaign.

If the BJP is ousted on Monday, when results for the Gujarat elections come in, the party’s plans for 2019 will have to be dramatically altered. But almost uniformly every exit poll expects the saffron party to retain its vote and seat share, with a few saying the BJP is likely to pick up some more seats. If the party does lose, it seems even more likely that it will lean harder on this formula – unabashed Hindutva and portraying the Opposition as anti-national – as its approach for the general elections, coupled with an appeal for Modi to be given a freer hand to bring in development. For the moment, at least, it seems like Acche Din is lying in abeyance.

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