Economic reforms now must go full throttle to make the incumbent look remarkably better than the opposition in 2019
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s win in the Assembly election of Gujarat by a margin of seats much less than the 150 its president Amit Shah had aimed at must force it into an exercise of introspection as the business-oriented State was the most suited to deliver a verdict on its economic policy. The excuse that its vote share has increased does not wash as the opponent, the Indian National Congress, did manage to increase its share of constituencies as well as votes though that did not save the day for the opposition. Undoubtedly, the administration of the State had gone downhill since Narendra Modi left Gujarat for New Delhi more than three years ago and, two chief ministers in the interregnum notwithstanding, it was the Prime Minister again who had to snatch victory for his party from the jaws of defeat with his relentless campaign during the last 10 odd days before the votes were cast. Defying the media narrative, however, one must not make too much of the acrimony witnessed between the rivals. The BJP rescued itself from collapse not because of the invocation of Pakistan or Mani Shankar Aiyar’s uncultured remark about Modi; it won because the people of Gujarat still hope ‘their man’ at the Centre can do better than a newly made president of the INC, Rahul Gandhi, who had no alternative model to offer after pointing out relentlessly the shortcomings of the ruling party. The opposition did not even have a local leadership in place, which the INC outsourced to a ragtag alliance of mutually disagreeable Hardik Patel of the Kadva Patel community — that does not get along with the Lehva Patels — an OBC leader Alpesh Thakor who had vowed not to let the Patidars have a share in job reservations and Jignesh Mevani who could not carry the entire Dalit community along. The better show of the Congress owes to severe disgruntlement within the cadre of the BJP, thanks to the whispers of corruption in the rank and file of the organization, which, fortunately for the party, did not make news. As for the traders who dominate the people’s choice in Gujarat, Modi has his bunch of bureaucrats he relies upon for implementation of his schemes to blame. Both demonetisation and the goods and services tax were needed by the country; they were the babus who made a mess of both. If the premier wants to leave a mark in history as a reformist, the Indian Administrative Service is the British-era legacy and Congress-nurtured system that he must set out to correct before the end of this term.
One must feel sorry for Himachal Pradesh, where the change in government is creating no buzz due to the anticipation Gujarat evoked. Of course, it is less newsworthy also because government changes alternately between the INC and BJP here, like it does in several other small States. And then outgoing chief minister Virbhadra Singh has been fighting the impression of being a corrupt leader to whom the electorate thought, at best, an individual seat may be given but not the entire hilly State. Himachal Pradesh also deserves to experience a government receiving directions from Modi at the Centre. If Vijay Rupani could not inspire the confidence of the proletariat in Gujarat, the fate of Prem Kumar Dhumal who lost from Himachal is sealed. The BJP will have to look for a substitute as the new chief minister. For the party, the western-central-northern stretch between Maharashtra and Rajasthan, Gujarat and Jharkhand, under its command leaves no room for the excuse that the States not ruled by it are coming in the way of execution of its policies.
The nationwide implications for these two results are clearer. Economic reforms now must go full throttle to make the incumbent look remarkably better than the opposition in 2019. While neither Gandhi nor Mamata Banerjee looks anyway as formidable as Modi, murmurs of discontent in the cadre, swayamsevaks and the people at large for pursuing the policies of the United Progressive Alliance governments — albeit with the holes plugged and without allegations of big-ticket corruption — can throw up an unimpressive tally for the BJP, which will make governance difficult in the period till 2024, whichever side wins the next general election.