The Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory in Gujarat will reinforce the aura of invincibility around Prime Minister Narendra Modi even though his outfit’s tally has declined from 2012. It is he who will set the agenda for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Regardless of the disquiet across the country, Modi has shown in Gujarat that he can vanquish his rivals, either by spawning hope or unconscionably communalising the electorate. His hunger for victory is as remarkable as the means he employs to achieve it.

The Congress will take heart from the robust campaign mounted in Gujarat by its new president, Rahul Gandhi. It has fought valiantly. Yet the verdict establishes that the Congress is still to emerge as a match for the BJP, both in its messaging and its organisational apparatus. It was unable to win Gujarat despite the widespread disquiet about the economic situation, the movement of the youth as represented by Patidar leader Hardik Patel, Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani and OBC leader Alpesh Thakor, and the 22 years of incumbency the BJP was up against.

Gujarat establishes, as have Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in the past, that the BJP is more likely than the Congress to win a bipolar contest. In elections held since 2014, the BJP was unable to win Delhi, Bihar, Kerala and West Bengal, all of which had state-based parties calling the shots. In Goa too, where multiple parties were in the fray, the Congress also came out ahead.

Gujarat also challenges us to try to understand the impact of protests on elections. In the run-up to these polls, the state had been in ferment. There were several large protest rallies, particularly by members of the Patidar or Patel community, demanding reservations in educational institutions and in government jobs. In Surat, traders demonstrated against the roll-out of the complicated Goods and Services Tax regime in July. The media, understandably, included these events in their coverage, enhancing their salience. Election watchers perhaps forget to accord significance to the silence of other citizens, a silence synonymous with their acceptance of the status quo.

Hindutva agenda

The Gujarat verdict also offers a sense of how politics in India will unfold in the months before the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The BJP dropped seats in Saurashtra, which was the crucible of the Patel movement. In the months to come, the politics of reservation will be accorded greater significance, not least because Modi seems well prepared for it.

But the losses the BJP suffered in Saurashtra were not echoed in Central and North Gujarat, which went to the polls in the second phase. Between the first and second phase of polling, Modi stepped up the Hindutva rhetoric to claim, quite bizarrely, that the Congress had conspired with Pakistan to make Ahmed Patel, a Muslim, the chief minister on Gujarat. The BJP’s enchanced performance in the second phase of polling in the state will convince Modi of the political benefits of Hindutva.

Modi has already laid out the Hindutva agenda for 2018-’19. The government has already announced its intention to criminalise triple talaq – any Muslim husband who divorces his wife by pronouncing talaq three times in one sitting could face up to three years in jail. The government aims to implement this by amending the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, during the winter session of Parliament.

This Act has tremendous political symbolism: it was through this legislation that the Rajiv Gandhi government overturned the Supreme Court ruling in the Shah Bano case that Muslim men need to provide a maintenance allowance to their former wives after divorce. The Congress government’s decision provided ballast to critics who accuse the party of “appeasing minorities”.

Hindutva groups will hail the amendment to the act as a victory, a belated reversal of the policy of mollycoddling minorities. For many Muslims, it will seem like a humiliation. It is likely that Muslim leaders will oppose the government’s move to criminalise triple talaq.

This will put the Opposition, particularly, the Congress, in a difficult situation. If they vote against the bill criminalising triple talaq, they will be accused of being pro-Muslim and playing vote-bank politics. Given the realisation in the Congress that it needs to blunt the Hindutva weapon of the BJP, will it abstain or vote in favour of the amendments? If it does so, Muslim votes are likely shift to regional outfits. Regardless, the decision to criminalise triple talaq will raise the political temperature, obviously, to the BJP’s advantage.

Muslim men in Kolkata protest against proposed changes in Muslim Personal Law. Credit: Reuters

On top of it, the BJP has the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi issue to exploit. The Supreme Court will begin a day-to-day hearing in the Ayodhya title dispute from February 8. This will generate intense debates on secularism versus Hindutva, faith versus rationality, whether it is possible to prove the precise birthplace of Lord Ram, or whether a temple was indeed demolished to build the Babri Masjid, as Hindutva groups claim. It will stoke passions all around.

The Supreme Court is expected to deliver its judgement by September or October next year. If the judgement favours the building of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, the BJP will have fulfilled a promise made 30 years ago. Not only will it jubilate, it will start the construction before the countdown to the 2019 elections begins. Should the verdict hand over the site to Muslims, the BJP will ask people to give it a brute majority in the 2019 elections so that it can move a law to prevent the mosque from being rebuilt.

During the Gujarat campaign, Congress president Rahul Gandhi sought to blunt the BJP’s Hindutva by visiting as many as 27 temples. But does he have it in him to engage Hindus on the meaning of their religion, their identity and why they suffer from anxiety – and that too in the idiom and tradition of Hinduism?

Narendra Modi, Jignesh Mevani, Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Rahul Gandhi.

Caste and reservation

It is possible that the regional allies of the Congress will plumb for caste to checkmate the homogenising tendencies of Hindutva. But Modi is prepared to play the caste card as well.

One reason the BJP’s tally of seats in Gujarat declined was the alienation of the dominant caste of Patels, who want to be categorised as the Other Backward Classes to avail of reservations. In addition to the Patels, the Marathas, the Jats and the Kapus also want to be included in the Other Backward Classes reservation pool. Their inclusion will upset castes already in it, apprehensive that these dominant groups will take away most of the reserved jobs. In addition, there are already contests between groups that are beneficiaries of reservation.

For instance, the Gujjars in Rajasthan are in the Other Backward Classes category, but wanted to be classified as a Scheduled Tribe. This triggered hostilities between them and the Meenas, who are already categorised as a Scheduled Tribe. Likewise, the Gonds in Telangana want the Lambadas to be removed from the list of Scheduled Tribes, believing they corner a large chunk of jobs reserved in this category.

Modi is well prepared to play caste politics. For instance, he has already appointed a committee to sub-categorise the Other Backward Classes. The process is expected to be completed by February. Sub-categorisation implies splitting the Other Backward Classes into three categories, each of which will then be apportioned a proportion of the 27% of government jobs and seats in educational institutes reserved for the socially and educationally-backward classes.

(Photo credit: PTI).

Modi will also play the politics of reservation through a bill that the Lok Sabha passed earlier this year to establish a new National Commission for Backward Classes. The Rajya Sabha amended the bill. The Modi government will reconcile the two versions. Succinctly, the bill will make Parliament the final authority to decide on the inclusion and exclusion of social groups in the Other Backward Classes category for reservation. After the bills are reconciled, the Modi government will likely seek to include the dominant castes – such as Patels, Jats and Marathas – into the Other Backward Classes category. The Opposition cannot but vote in favour of their inclusion or else they will incur their wrath.

It is Modi who will outline the reservation agenda and set the tone for the 2019 electoral battle. How will the Congress respond? Its leadership structure is undeniably upper caste, but it does not get that community’s votes. Will Rahul Gandhi then think of restructuring the social base of his party?

The continuing economic slowdown in India is a worry for Modi and the BJP, evident from its poorer showing this year in comparison to the 2012 elections in Gujarat. Fresh economic policies take as many as 12 months to 18 months to produce results. It is uncertain whether the economy will change gears to gather momentum. This presents an opportunity for the Opposition. But as has been seen in the past, whenever Modi is under stress, as he was perhaps after the first phase of polling in Gujarat, he turns to Hindutva.

So expect Modi to play the Hindutva card with a greater abandon. He will simultaneously continue with social engineering – the term used for the process of bringing the lower castes into the BJP fold. Modi’s plan for 2019 will remain the Hindutva-isation of lower castes based on demonising Muslims, as he did in the Gujarat Assembly elections.