So that’s an image of Alpesh Thakore joining BJP. Smiles all around.
This image is not from a state like West Bengal, where the BJP is a new entrant and seeks some form of “merger and acquisition” to buttress itself. This is not Karnataka, where BJP was strong in some parts but totally absent in others. This is not even Goa, where the BJP needs some help to keep its shaky government afloat.
This is Gujarat, supposedly the saffron bastion. That the BJP has to take in people like Alpesh Thakore shows that the party needs a reboot in its strongest home base. Will Alpesh Thakore be making reprehensible remarks against migrants from Bihar and UP any longer? Very unlikely. But the real alarm bells here are for the BJP in Gujarat.
The last five years have shown that the toughest assembly election the BJP faced was in Gujarat. Yes, the party made it past the majority mark and scored a remarkable double hat-trick of wins. This was phenomenal, but what does it say about the future? Had it been anything less than PM Modi’s personal prestige on the line, who knows how the Gujarati voter would have gone in 2017? A defeat for BJP in Gujarat 2017 would have broken the morale of every BJP voter and sympathizer in the country.
As a BJP supporter, I have celebrated lots of victories and grieved over lots of defeats. But when the results of the Gujarat election were finally out, there was only one thing I felt : relief. The stress of the election showed on the faces of the top leadership as well.
Here is a sobering thought for BJP as well as its supporters. BJP taking in people like Alpesh Thakore may seem like the usual political opportunism of netas and a typical case of one party squeezing its opponent dry, but it’s really not. Remember that just before the Gujarat Assembly election of 2017, the Congress saw mass defections from its ranks. But the Congress nearly knocked the breath out of the BJP when the actual election happened.
This suggests that the BJP is now facing deep anti-incumbency in Gujarat. Defections are only a band-aid solution to stave off the anti-incumbency. Worse, they may actually make the public more angry.
There are at least three deep problems with BJP in Gujarat. To some extent, they are unavoidable. Yet the sooner the BJP and its supporters begin to admit them, the better. And the search can begin for real solutions.
First, the BJP is facing a problem of leadership in Gujarat. It’s not like Vijay Rupani is particularly to blame. It’s more of a case of who he is destined to be compared to all the time.
Where is the Gujarat BJP going to find another Narendra Modi? The RSS machinery is good at producing leaders but you simply don’t get talent like that on demand.
Second, the electorate that used to vote for the BJP in Gujarat is simply no longer around. Winning six elections in a row means that most young people in Gujarat quite simply have grown up with nothing other than BJP rule.
Young people are going to rebel against the way their elders used to think. This has been happening for thousands of years. People naturally crave “change” in their lives : you can only go on so long by promising to keep things exactly the way they are. Before people start yawning and stop paying attention.
In the 2017 Gujarat election, the BJP ran ads reminding people about the Congress’ KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi & Muslim) formula and how caste politics had harmed the state. The KHAM formula comes from Madhavsinh Solanki, who ceased to be Gujarat CM in 1990! To most voters, that’s ancient history. By 2022, that history will get five years older. Where is the room left for BJP to campaign?
Third, Gujarat is finally beginning to run up against the limits of the “Gujarat model.” Much of the “Gujarat model” is that of last mile delivery of basic amenities, creating contacts between the government and the public and then using an extensive network of karyakartas to knock on each door and convert these contacts into votes.
This part of the “Gujarat model” was replicated on a massive scale nationwide between 2014 and 2019. No other way to get an 8% positive swing in Uttar Pradesh. (The other part of the Gujarat model was a pro-business approach to economic policy, which was not pursued nationwide with much zeal.)
While the Gujarat model is delivering India to Modi, the model has hit saturation point in Gujarat. Modi recalls that when he became CM in 2001, people requested him to make sure they would have electricity at least in the evening when they sat down to eat.
That was a long time ago. Homes in Gujarat have had 24 x 7 power for well over a decade now. People are used to the good roads, the infrastructure, the power and the irrigation. These things have ceased to be political issues.
The BJP therefore is caught in a triple bind when it comes to Gujarat. It cannot praise itself for roads and electricity because people now take it for granted. They cannot attack the Congress because nobody in Gujarat even remembers Congress rule. And they don’t even have someone at the regional level to deliver their message because there is no replacement available for Narendra Modi.
And party jumpers can’t help. They can make the optics worse, though, when the public is already unhappy. And when there is simmering public discontent, election results can go very very bad. Of the 3 BJP ruled states that went to polls in Dec 2018, the BJP had the most stable settled leadership in Chhattisgarh. The Congress was in maximum disarray, most leaderless and rudderless over there. And it was in Chhattisgarh where results were the most disastrous for BJP. In Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the BJP was disappointed, but hardly devastated.
The BJP needs to return to the drawing board in Gujarat as if starting off all over again. Shake off the ruling party mentality. Reimagine everything. Offer the young voter something that their parents, uncles and aunts have not voted for. This is much easier said than done. But it is the only way to last another 20 years in government in Gujarat.