POLITICS
18/12/2017 6:31 PM IST | Updated 18/12/2017 6:48 PM IST

BJP May Have Won Gujarat And Himachal Pradesh, But Congress Has Every Reason To Celebrate

The trial by fire of Rahul Gandhi.

Rahul Gandhi, Vice-President of India's main opposition Congress Party, addresses his supporters during an election campaign meeting ahead of the second phase of Gujarat state assembly elections, in Dakor.
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Rahul Gandhi, Vice-President of India's main opposition Congress Party, addresses his supporters during an election campaign meeting ahead of the second phase of Gujarat state assembly elections, in Dakor.

With both Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh in its kitty, the BJP has cleared its toughest political hurdle, created by demonetisation, GST, and unkept promises, since it came to power at the Centre three years ago. The party, that has been on a winning streak and has already set the ball rolling for the three north eastern states that go to polls early next year, now controls nearly 70 per cent of India and continues to look invincible.

On the other hand, even in their defeat in Gujarat, the Congress and the Hardik Patel-Alpesh Thakor-Jignesh Mevani trio have also won the battle because they have almost overrun the defence of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah machinery that was all about State power, money, communal polarisation, and even malevolence. It was not an election fought by the BJP, but by Modi who made it appear like a personal war in which he didn't mind breaking conventions of political decency.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the first day of the winter session of Parliament in New Delhi.

More than 40 public meetings by the Prime Minister of the country, who even alleged that the Congress conspired with Pakistan to defeat his party, the presence of almost the entire central cabinet in the state, and the postponement of the winter session of the Parliament were extraordinary measures for a state election; still the Congress managed to wrest 19 precious seats and in many constituencies the fight was very close. Had they started earlier, and been more strategic, probably they could have taken the race down to the wire.

There will be significantly more opposition legislators, more resistance in the assembly, and unprecedentedly fearless voices such as that of Thakor and Mevani on the other side of the line.

Compared to its 115 seats in 2012 in a house of 182, what the BJP now has is just more than a simple majority and in a few seats that would keep it in power, the difference of vote-share is wafer-thin. Still, it's a win indeed and a continuation of undisrupted power for more than two decades. But the ride is not going to be as easy as before. There will be significantly more opposition legislators, more resistance in the assembly, and unprecedentedly fearless voices such as that of Thakor and Mevani on the other side of the line.

Arguably, Gujarat was BJP's biggest political vulnerability since Narendra Modi became the Prime minister for a number of reasons. The natural anti-incumbency built over five continuous terms, a series of remarkable resistance movements such as the Patidar and Dalit agitations, the Patel-Thakor-Mevani combo, the harmful impact of demonetisation and GST on the business and trading communities, and a resurgent Rahul Gandhi, formed a seemingly formidable wall against the BJP-juggernaut; still the party has been able to push forward.

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Independent candidate Jignesh Mevani greets people during election campaign on December 10, 2017 in Vadgam.

There's no parallel for this record in Indian history except in West Bengal where the Communists ruled for seven consecutive terms before its eventual disappearance.

For the Congress, Gujarat offers hope not only because it has been able to win more seats than many pollsters predicted, but also because it saw Gandhi coming of age both as a capable leader and as a politician who can convene likeminded pressure groups. While leading the anti-BJP campaign from the front with enormous vigour and purpose, that too not in fits and starts that he has been notorious for, he also offered considerable space for Patel, Thakor and Mevani to push forward with their fearless politics.

Even when Mevani was unwilling to join hands with him, Rahul showed strategic political sagacity and chose to give up a seat where the Congress had a sitting MLA.

And the result? The BJP will now have to face a ferocious Mevani in the assembly, the man who minces no words in slamming the BJP as fascist party. It won't be surprising if Mevani emerges as a national leader who can consolidate the Dalit votes against the BJP. In no other recent election, Modi and Shah faced daring community leaders such as Patel, Thakor and Mevani.

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Congress candidate from Radhanpur constituency Alpesh Thakor greets people during election campaign at Radhanpur , on December 11, 2017 in Patan, India.

Had the BJP lost Gujarat, it would have been a major setback because the state is the jewel in its crown. The party's development credo comes from the so called "Gujarat Model" and Modi had created an idea of sub-national pride that any attack against him or the party was dubbed as an attack on Gujarat and vice versa. Modi has been able to take this Gujarati, Hindu majoritarian consciousness even to the diaspora.

Probably, Gujarat may offer a model of caste consolidation to the rest of India against Hindu consolidation, something similar to the Dravidian politics of Tamil Nadu.

In fact, this is where the significance of the inroads made by the rivals lie. The foundation of the Gujarati pride, that appeared to be in oneness with the BJP or Modi, is not as secure as it had been before. The Hindu consolidation looks threatened by the caste interests of the Patidars and the Dalits, and the most vociferous leaders of the BJP such as Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath are now accusing the rivals of caste polarisation. Probably, Gujarat may offer a model of caste consolidation to the rest of India against Hindu consolidation, something similar to the Dravidian politics of Tamil Nadu. More over, that the BJP's majority came from urban votes, offers something to work on.

Interestingly, the other state, Himachal Pradesh where the BJP won with a significant majority by defeating the incumbent Congress was completely eclipsed by Gujarat. That's the significance of this small state in Indian politics. As West Bengal chief minister Mamta Banerjee said, Gujarat "belled the cat for 2019".

The Congress and opposition parties in different parts of India are indeed tempted by the possibilities of a united opposition. Will it work in 2019? There are eight more assembly elections that are due before that.

(The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of HuffPost India. Any omissions or errors are the author's and HuffPost India does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.)