The counting of votes in the upcoming assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal, which takes place on December 8, will be crucial for India’s polity and politics. Gujarat has already had a huge impact on national politics twice.
Please allow me to take you back 50 years to make my point. The assembly elections of 1972 were decisively won by the Congress. Of 168 seats, it bagged 140. After just 16 months, the Congress replaced its chief minister (CM), Ghanshyam Oja. Chiman Bhai Patel took his place, but, with time, resentment at the sharp rise in prices of foodgrains, edible oil, and other necessities grew. Students got agitated. Opposition parties, too, had an axe to grind. As the situation worsened, Indira Gandhi was forced to suspend the state government of her own party.
In March 1974, the students of Bihar also started agitating, spurred on by the success of the student movement in Gujarat. Inspired by this, Jayaprakash Narayan called for “Sampoorn Kranti” (total revolution). This resistance quickly spread to other parts of the country. Meanwhile, Allahabad high court declared Indira’s election unlawful. She declared an Emergency to deal with these adverse circumstances. She called elections in 1977 and loosened the grip of the Emergency, but her party suffered a crushing defeat. As a result, a non-Congress government came to power for the first time. The change that started in Gujarat reached its logical conclusion with this. Eight non-Congress prime ministers have since held office. Of these, Narendra Modi is the only one under whose leadership a party has won the general elections with a clear majority for two consecutive terms.
The second time Gujarat had an impact on India’s politics, Modi was the driving force behind it.
Nobody can ever forget the devastating earthquake that hit Kutch on January 26, 2001. Keshubhai Patel of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was the CM of Gujarat then. Patel’s handling of the aftermath of the calamity was an utter failure. The BJP high command handed Modi the reins and made him the CM to quell the rising public ire. Even his detractors were astounded by how he changed Bhuj in just a year. This marked the beginning of the “Brand Modi” charisma, which has continued till this day.
Let us now discuss the third transformational prospect that has now emerged in Gujarat.
This election is unique in many ways. Until 2017, the battle was between the Congress and the BJP, but for the first time, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has emerged as a third force. The AAP recently surprised political observers by capturing 28 seats in two municipalities in Gujarat’s local body elections.
According to supporters of the AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal, the vote base of the Congress will be “transferred” to the AAP in Gujarat as in Delhi and Punjab. If this occurs, the AAP will have governments in three states and will play a significant role in framing the agenda for the 2024 general elections. However, many political observers believe that although the AAP has generated a huge electoral buzz, reaching this stage too early can be risky. The last time the Congress gained a “high” tempo in the beginning, it could not be maintained until the finish. The Samajwadi Party made the same mistake in the Uttar Pradesh polls, as did the BJP in West Bengal.
As a response, the Congress has embraced an entirely different strategy. Rahul Gandhi is on a cross-country march from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, but Gujarat has been deliberately excluded from his route. Other party officials, and other two Gandhi family members, are still absent from the campaign. The Gujarat unit of the Congress has been urged to organise a few short marches. The country’s oldest party thinks that while the BJP will lose votes in urban regions to the AAP, it will be able to retain its voters in tribal and rural areas. To overcome its current plight, the Congress must get closer to triumph, if not victory. The Congress is also expecting a favourable outcome in Himachal.
On the other hand, the BJP adheres to the slogan “Modi naam kevalam” (one and only Modi). This strategy worked very well in 2017. At that time in Gujarat, voters were frequently heard telling the media , “Hum naraz hain par gaddar nahin” (we are furious with the BJP but we’re not traitors). And when the EVM seal was opened, the BJP received 49.44% of the votes, while the Congress received only 43%.
Without a doubt, all parties are playing a crucial part in this Maha Kumbh of democracy, and now we must wait until December 8. It will be a day of not simply success or defeat, but also the course of the country’s future politics. Let us enjoy the large chessboard set up for electoral politics till then.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan
The views expressed are personal