New Delhi: The BJP just scraped through to victory in Gujarat, helped largely by the extensive campaign of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his home state, but the party's lowest tally in the last 22 years can be seen as a warning bell ahead of crucial state battles in 2018 and the next Lok Sabha election in 2019.
The results in Gujarat reflect some dissatisfaction with the policies of the party government at the state and the Centre, especially demonetisation and the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST).
The victories in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh will help the BJP retain the electoral momentum ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, though the outcome in the western state has also given the Congress a fresh hope of taking on BJP in the coming battles.
The BJP's tally in Gujarat was nowhere near its stated claim of getting 150 seats in the 182-member assembly and the party could barely stop a resurgent Congress, which had stitched a broad social coalition by getting the backing of young leaders Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mewani and Alpesh Thakore.
Though the BJP's tally went down the party took comfort in the 1.25 per cent increase in its vote share compared to 2012 polls. But in terms of the party's vote in 2014, when it swept the state claiming all the 26 Lok Sabha seats and got 60.11 per cent, the vote share has come down considerably. The 2014 poll performance had equalled the BJP taking the lead in over 165 assembly segments.
The Congress efforts in Gujarat have yielded the party its highest seat tally in the last 27 years and its highest vote share. The party polled 41.4 per cent votes, which is 2.47 per cent more than that in 2012. The Congress also significantly improved its vote share from 2014 Lok Sabha polls when it had got 33.45 per cent votes.
It was the first election in the last 15 years when Modi was not the Chief Minister of the state but he remained the BJP's face throughout the campaign.
BJP leaders admitted that the election was "tough" and the party faced anti-incumbency, but it was an election that the party could ill afford to lose. With Gujarat being the home state of both Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah, a loss in Gujarat could have reflected badly on the two top leaders of the party and certainly set the stage for revival of Congress ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
The elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh were the first state elections since the implementation of GST, and the new indirect tax regime had created a deep sense of unease among the large trading community in Gujarat. The BJP-led government had to extend a series of concessions in a bid to mollify the community, a traditional support base of the party.
The small traders had also been hit by demonetisation, carried out by the Modi government last year.
The quota stir by Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) leader Hardik Patel had created troubles for the BJP government in Gujarat and his joining hands with the Congress hugely dented the BJP's traditional support base among the Patidar community. Dalit lawyer and activist Jignesh Mewani also joined hands with the Congress while OBC leader Alpesh Thakore joined the party to create a broad social coalition that had a special appeal among the youth, a section that has traditionally backed Modi.
The BJP sought to portray the alliance as "casteist", and suggested that the promise of quotas in jobs and education for Patidars was unworkable.
Another apparent reason for the BJP's tally sliding down is the lower voting percentage compared to 2012 as also fewer women coming to vote. Women are seen to vote for BJP in greater numbers than men.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi put up a spirited fight making bold attacks on Modi and BJP, but the party apparently lacked organisational strength at the booth level to fully convert its support into votes.
The party also lacked a chief ministerial candidate and some of its top leaders in the state, including Arjun Modhvadiya, lost the polls.
Indiscreet remarks by Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar, who was later suspended from the party, gave Modi a handle to target the opposition party and harp on the "son of the soil" image. The Congress also sought to counter BJP's Hindutva leanings with temple visits of Gandhi.
The BJP did well in urban and semi-urban areas of the state compared to the rural areas. It also apparently lost some of its support among the farmer community. The BJP sought to woo the OBCs and tribals to make up for expected loss of Patidar votes.
The BJP had the task of defending an incumbent government in Gujarat, something it will be called upon to do in the crucial assembly polls next year in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh next year. The elections in the three states will be close to the Lok Sabha polls in 2019, and a defeat in Gujarat would have set a bad precedent.
The BJP wrested Himachal Pradesh from Congress by getting a comfortable majority in the 68-member assembly as part of cyclical political outcome in the hill state. But the seats won by the party were a little less than the expectations of its own leaders.
The shock for the party was the loss of its chief ministerial candidate Prem Kumar Dhumal. The BJP got almost 10 per cent vote more than the 2012 polls while Congress also marginally improved its vote share.