With the Gujarat results out, the focus will now shift to what comes next for the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress in terms of their strategy for the 2019 general elections.

Though the BJP has managed to retain Gujarat for the sixth time, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal popularity trumping the tide for change, the close poll outcome is bound to force the saffron party to course correct, no matter what its rhetoric in public.

This is because while the Congress may have not won, its tally of 77 seats – by which it has limited the BJP to under-100 seats – indicates that it is showing signs of revival. This can hardly give the BJP cause for comfort.

The Congress’s performance in Gujarat is being seen as creditable for several reasons. One, it is a good showing for a party that has, so far, been unable to pull itself out of the morass it had sunk into in past years. Two, Gujarat was expected to be a cakewalk for the BJP after its landslide victory in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year. Instead, it was the toughest battle the party has fought in the state in 22 years. The Congress’s performance is particularly commendable as it increased its tally by 16 seats from 61 in 2012, and even more so if one takes into account the BJP’s performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in which it won 165 Assembly segments in the state. And to think that the Congress looked in utter shambles when Shankersinh Vaghela left the party and stepped down from the post of Leader of Opposition in the Gujarat Legislative Assembly as recently as July. Finally, this was achieved in the prime minister’s home state despite the fact that Modi himself campaigned extensively.

The Gujarat results thus seem to have delineated the lead up to Lok Sabha 2019 election into a series of Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi battles. One of the BJP’s allies described the revival of the Congress in Gujarat as the “death of the TINA [There is no alternative] factor”. This is also seen in the fact that this time the Congress leader was taken seriously and people seemed willing to listen to what he had to say.

Killer instinct

But the BJP already seems to be in damage-control mode. Speaking to party workers after the results were declared, Modi made a pitch for 2019, putting vikas or development back in the spotlight. Rahul Gandhi, as well the trio of Patidar leader Hardik Patel, Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani and OBC leader Alpesh Thakor, had ripped into the Gujarat model of development during the election campaign. Their strategy had resonated with farmers exercised about the slump in the minimum support prices of peanuts and cotton, and was borne out by the good showing of the Congress in the countryside. Modi’s campaign in Gujarat had focused largely on emotional issues, around Gujarati asmita or pride, and he obviously wanted to shift the focus back to farmers and development.

Modi’s address on Monday is typical of the killer instinct the prime minister has displayed in the past. In 2012, when he was Gujarat chief minister, within hours of his victory in the Assembly elections, instead of celebrating, Modi made his way to the home of rebel BJP leader Keshubhai Patel, who had floated another party and fought against him. This was aimed at ensuring Patel’s support for Modi’s bid to become the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in 2014 as well as to secure the support of the Patidar community, to which Patel belongs, in that election. It is this hunger for power that the Congress will have to contend with in the coming months leading upto various Assembly elections, all the way to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Rahul Gandhi with OBC leader Alpesh Thakor. (Photo credit: PTI).

Urban-rural divide

Urban Gujarat remains solidly with the BJP with even traders upset about the Goods and Services Tax going back to the saffron party in the textile hub of Surat. While the Congress’s challenge remains to win back urban India, the BJP will have to pay special attention to rural areas in Gujarat, which have shown signs of disenchantment with the party. The Congress has scored in these areas, particularly in Saurashtra and Kutch. The Patidar agitation led by Hardik Patel also created the atmosphere for change and helped the Congress increase its tally.

The Congress’s 77-seat outcome is also expected to help Rahul Gandhi establish his authority inside the Congress, now that he has taken over as party president from Sonia Gandhi. A part of his woes have stemmed from the old guard’s resistance to his taking over, and doubts about his ability to lead. His acceptance by senior leaders and his ability to make the Congress the “grand old and young” party of India is contingent on the Congress winning elections under his stewardship.

An upswing in the Congress’s fortunes in Gujarat may encourage its workers in states that are due for polls. Assembly elections in Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura are only a couple of months away. And these will almost immediately be followed by Karnataka and Mizoram. The three important states that the BJP rules now – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan – also face anti-incumbency and to win here, the party knows that it will not have the advantages that served it well in Gujarat – Modi’s home state or the emotional appeal of Gujarati asmita.

Alliances the way forward?

The other message of the Gujarat verdict for the Congress is the inevitability of alliances as the way to go forward. Gandhi was helped by the alliances he forged with Hardik Patel, Thakor and Mevani. While Patel was too young to contest, the other two won their seats.

The Congress lost in seven seats where the margin was defeat was less than the votes polled by the Bahujan Samaj Party and Nationalist Congress Party. It will have to forge a united front of Opposition parties to take on the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in 2019. But to be effective, it will have to play the role of a unifier, not of big brother.

Finally, even as the BJP has won Gujarat, the inescapable question that comes up is this: does rural Gujarat signify the first stirrings of restlessness against the Modi regime? For the rural poor in Uttar Pradesh had turned to Modi as their saviour after demonetisation in the hope that he would do something dramatic to alleviate their sufferings, as was borne out by the electoral verdict just months after the government invalidated old Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes overnight.