By: John Elliott

Narendra Modi has led the Bharatiya Janata Party to two victories in regional assembly elections. He has extended the party’s rule in his home state of Gujarat for the sixth consecutive term after 22 years in power, which is a rare achievement. The BJP has also won in the small northern state of Himachal Pradesh, ousting a Congress government.

The Gujarat result however is almost a personal defeat for Modi in his home state, and it does not give him the springboard he hoped for to sweep on victorious through state elections next year and the general election in March-April 2019.

Unusually for a prime minister, Modi held 34 rallies in Gujarat to boost the flagging record of the BJP state government, but the party has won only 99 seats, well below the 115 that it won in 2012. The 99 is around 10 seats below the figure BJP leaders had been expecting and far below the 150 total that Amit Shah, the ebullient party chairman, had boastingly forecast.

In the same way, this result is a success for Rahul Gandhi, the new Congress president. He has not led his party to victory, but his campaigning, which included 30 rallies, shows his potential as a leader and has boosted the Congress seat tally from 60 in 2012 to 80.

In Himachal Pradesh, the BJP’s victory with 44 seats against 21 for Congress, was expected because the outgoing Congress chief minister is facing serious corruption allegations.

It is significant that Modi, although he remains his party star campaigner, was unable to overcome considerable opposition to the BJP in Gujarat. This opposition has arisen because of a lack of development by the state level in recent years, and because of the way that Modi’s nation-wide demonetization blitz and a new sales tax (GST) has hit small traders and business whose cash-based transactions are often outside the tax net.

The BJP did well in urban areas such as Ahmedabad, the state capital, and even in Surat where diamond traders and textile businesspeople were expected to vote against the BJP.

The main Congress support has come from agricultural areas where small farming communities are dissatisfied with the state government’s record on infrastructure, especially water supplies. That is where the personal reputation of Modi was least effective and where anti-government feeling was energized by three minority groups, one led by a 24-year old member of the large Patidar community, Hardik Patel.

Modi has been criticized for his style of campaigning, personally attacking the Congress, Rahul Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and raising the specter of trouble from neighboring Pakistan. If anything, Modi raised Gandhi’s profile with his barbs.

Early in the campaign, he veered away from his usual proud focus on visas (development) after he realized how dissatisfied the electorate was with the BJP state government’s performance.

Modi reverses 2014 campaign role

That was a curious reversal of what happened in the 2014 general election campaign when Gandhi and other Congress leaders, with no vision, lost votes by focusing on scare tactics about Modi and the BJP, whereas Modi had a positive message about economic growth and development in the future and won. This time, with an amazing error of judgement, Modi attacked Rahul and the Gandhi family but had no vision about the future of Gujarat and lost seats to Congress.

Modi has also been criticized for the way that the Election Commission, which till now has been one of India’s most respected impartial and incorruptible institutions, has appeared to bend to his will. It delayed announcing dates for the Gujarat election after it declared them for Himachal, thus leaving time for Modi to announce a package of economic measures for the state, along with changes to the GST which helped traders. He then broke election rules by staging a virtual road show (photo above) after he cast his vote on December 14.

Governments always try to pack the Commission’s ruling body with supporters, but do not usually exploit them to such a degree. Modi’s critics say this illustrates that he has little respect for India’s institutions, which he is prepared to undermine in pursuit of his personal leadership objectives.

Medieval past”

Rahul Gandhi launched an outspoken attack on Modi during his presidential acceptance speech on Dec.16. In an oblique reference to attacks on Muslims and killing of people suspected of eating beef or transporting sacred cows, he said Modi was “taking us backwards to a medieval past where people are butchered because of who they are, beaten for what they believe and killed for what they eat.” Such “ugly violence shames us in the world.”

The big question now is how Modi will react to his failure to achieve the sweeping victory in Gujarat that he and Shah wanted. The BJP is likely to face tougher opposition when it tries to defeat Congress in Karnataka and be re-elected in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Modi is also targeting three smaller states in the north east of the country where the BJP has little standing – he was campaigning there over the weekend.

Modi is stressing development, but he needs to focus much more on jobs and economic growth, and on trying to ensure that the myriad of social and development schemes that he has launched become effective. The temptation will be to fall back on the BJP’s Hindu nationalist rallying cry of anti-Muslim Hindutva and issues such as banning the eating of beef and extreme displays of nationalism.

He will probably go for both, which means watching to see whether what Gandhi dubbed the “medieval past” becomes more prominent as 2019 approaches.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s Delhi correspondent.  He blogs at Riding the Elephant.