The incumbent politicians in India are among the most vulnerable in the world.
“Two out of three governments in India are being thrown out. In America, the number is exactly the reverse — two out of three are elected,” Ruchir Sharma, a leading analyst, once noted.
Narendra Modi seems to be an exception. The leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won three straight general elections and ruled Gujarat, his home state, for more than 12 years before moving to Delhi in 2014. Since then he has led his party to two crucial victories to rule India.
This has not stopped Prime Minister Modi from leading the campaign for the Gujarat State Assembly. Thursday’s record win — the BJP won 156 of the 182 seats and more than half the vote — paved the way for a seventh term in the state. It also proved that Mr Modi is “synonymous with Gujarat,” as many commentators say.
Mr Modi characteristically made the Gujarat election a referendum on himself. He spoke at more than 30 campaign meetings and undertook miles of roadshows to woo voters and garner extensive news coverage. On the stump he called Gujarati asmita or Pride and implored voters to “trust” him and the BJP government. “You don’t expect the prime minister to invest so much time and energy in a state election,” says Amit Dholakia, professor of political science at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Gujarat.
Mr. Modi may have been forced to work harder than usual. His ideology of strident Hindu nationalism combined with promises of economic development remains a major draw with voters. Religious unrest swept Gujarat shortly after he first took power in 2002, but that apparently didn’t dampen his popularity. Certainly Gujarat outperforms most of India in investment and per capita income; and has the fourth largest economy in the country.
But like everywhere else in India, jobs are drying up and prices are rising. Gujarat has lagged behind less wealthy states in health indicators such as infant and maternal mortality. Mr Modi’s successors in local government have not enjoyed the same relationship with voters. In the 2017 state election, the party narrowly defeated a then-revived opposition party convention and a rebellion by supporters belonging to an influential landowning community.
“But once Mr. Modi is on the ticket, the script changes,” says Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of ThePrint, an online news and current affairs website.
Mr Modi, commentators say, knows that a backlash for the BJP in Gujarat would damage not only his party but also his own image. One reason he has invested so much time and energy in the state election campaign this time may have to do with the arrival of the opposition Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), led by Arvind Kejriwal. The AAP has ruled the city-state of Delhi since 2015 and won the key state of Punjab earlier this year. On Wednesday, she took control of the capital city of Delhi’s wealthy municipality, which the BJP had ruled for 15 years.
Mr Kejriwal is a resolute leader who enjoys handing down the gauntlet to Mr Modi: he moved to Varanasi to run against the BJP leader in the 2014 general election. (He lost.) In Gujarat, his party debuted with a paltry five seats but garnered nearly 13% of the vote, much of it at the expense of the main opposition Congress party. “She created a space in the opposition. It needs to build a grassroots network and credible leaders,” says Prof Dholakia.
A survey by YouGov, a global market research firm, and the Delhi-based think tank Center for Policy Research (CPR) in more than 200 cities and towns earlier this year found that the AAP was gaining traction as a national alternative to the BJP. Taking over the opposition space that Congress had enjoyed. “They have a foot in the door. That doesn’t mean they will win the next election, but they will become political contenders in the state,” says Rahul Verma, a fellow at the Center for Policy Research.
But Mr Modi’s BJP remains tough to beat. His undeniable appeal as a voter is complemented by his party’s Hindutva ideology, a powerful organizational apparatus, abundant resources, proven governance, a strong social coalition, and a largely supportive media.
Mr Modi is also being helped in no small measure by a weak opposition – the Congress Party’s pathetic performance in Gujarat shows voters no longer find it attractive, commentators say. The party’s narrow victory over the BJP in the small mountain state of Himachal Pradesh – where voters have a reputation for kicking out incumbents – offers a rare glimmer of hope for a weakened party. However, the vote in Himachal Pradesh also highlighted “the limitations of Mr. Modi’s impressive ability to single-handedly impose the BJP in the state elections,” according to political scientist Asim Ali.
What the BJP’s resounding victory in Gujarat shows is that the rainbow coalition – upper, lower and middle castes, also known as the other backward classes (OBCs) – that the party stitched together continues to bring in dividends. The OBCs alone make up about half of Gujarat’s population of more than 60 million and now form a large part of the party’s voters.
Mr Modi’s charisma and connection with voters remains the BJP’s greatest strength. “But the party’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Taking Mr Modi out of the equation, the BJP looks vulnerable,” says Prof Dholakia. “Dependence on Mr Modi is also an admission of the weakness of the local leadership. The other leaders are not popular.”
The BJP is now said to have ruled Gujarat for 29 years without a break – only the Indian Communist Party (Marxists) ruled one state (West Bengal) longer, a record 34 years. And Mr Modi, 72, continues to be a political runaway, defying anti-government administration both inside his state and outside.