GANDHINAGAR, Gujarat -- The evening before votes were to be counted for the 2017 Assembly election in Gujarat, five young men stopped by the Bharatiya Janata Party office in Gandhinagar, a pit stop on their way from Anand district to Ahmedabad for some sightseeing on Sunday.
When I asked them why they chose to check out a party office on a weekend, the five friends said they supported the BJP, but they loved Modi. A cry of indignation went up when I suggested that Modi had perhaps lost his magic touch – just a tad.
A 22-year-old engineering student said, "Everyone loves Modi like they did before. He has made us proud." His 25-year-old friend told me that his business had suffered due to the Good and Service Tax (GST) but he was willing to make the sacrifice. "Yes, the trader community is unhappy but they will see that it is good for the country in the long-run," he said. "BJP will win thanks to Modi."
On Monday, the BJP won Gujarat for the sixth time "thanks to Modi," whose persisting appeal and resilience have once again carried his party to victory.
The prime minister held 34 rallies in 15 days across the length and breadth of the state, campaigning on the triple track of development, fighting corruption and Hindutva. His masterstroke, however, was making the election personal. In rally after rally, the prime minister evoked Gujarati pride. In the narrative that Modi forged, he was the "son of the soil" and the people of Gujarat would not tolerate the forces that opposed him.
It left many Gujaratis feeling that not voting for the BJP would be their personal betrayal of Modi, the guy they had sent to Delhi.
By The Skin Of Its Teeth
By winning Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat today, the BJP has planted its saffron flag in 19 out of 29 states in the country. While there is no denying that the Hindu nationalist party is now more powerful than at any other time in its history, a closer look at the numbers shows just how close the BJP came to losing its bastion.
A loss in the PM's home state had the potential of altering the BJP's fortunes before the 2019 national election, but as it so happens, the party managed to win the 2017 Gujarat Assembly election by the skin of its teeth.
For the first time since it came to power in 1995, the BJP has won less than 100 seats in the state. The Hindu nationalist party won 99 out of 182 seats in the state legislature, falling way short of the 150-target set by party president Amit Shah.
The BJP won by seven seats more than the 92 seats required to get a majority, with as many as 16 seats having been won by a margin of 3000 votes or less. In the three constituencies of Godhra, Dholka and Botad, the Congress has lost by margins as low as 258, 327 and 906 respectively.
In Saurashtra-Kutch, the epicenter of the Patidar agitation, the BJP won 23 of 54 seats from the region, with the Congress taking 30. In 2012, the BJP had won 35 out of 54 seats in the region.
The Congress is also closing in on BJP's vote share in Gujarat.
The Congress increased its vote share by 2.5 percent from 38.9 percent in 2012 to 41.4 percent in 2017. The BJP, meanwhile, has increased its vote share by 1.2 percent from 47.9 percent in 2012 to 49.1 percent in 2017.
The difference between the vote shares of the two parties in 2017 is 7.7 percent as compared to nine percent in 2012.
It is also worth noting that five sitting ministers of the Gujarat government lost their seats to the Congress in the state election, including two cabinet ministers Atmaram Parmar and Chimanbhai Sapariya.
Modi is not infallible
Modi, when he decided to run for the 2014 Lok Sabha election, changed the game, making electoral contests more personality driven. For the first time, Modi appears to be on the receiving end of the trend that he set.
In the past two years, other "sons of the soil", namely Hardik Patel of the Patidar community, Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor, the face of the Other Backward Classes (OBC), have emerged as personailities who can move people. Not only have they mobilized sections of their communities against BJP, the three youth leaders took Modi head-on, stripping away his larger-than-life image.
While Mevani and Thakor have both won from their respective constituencies, 24-year-old Patel was too young to contest the election. An oft-repeated sentiment here is that Patel actually running for the election would have made it even harder for the BJP to win.
Modi is still the undisputed leader of Gujarat, whose speeches can make or break elections. Only he can win the 2019 election for the BJP. But the emergence of the new set of leaders has busted the narrative of his infallibility, which is especially significant in a state where Modi is looked on with a kind of reverence.
Meanwhile, Congress President Rahul Gandhi has emerged from this bruising campaign as a matured avatar of his former self, who was widely ridiculed as "Pappu," a term which seems to be have been relegated to the past.
In fact, in addition to Modi himself, the BJP had to deploy its arsenal of popular leaders and powerful leaders, including Hindutva firebrand Yogi Adityanath, to counter the new and improved Gandhi and the three newbies. But not everyone has been impressed by the BJP's performance.
Last week, HuffPost India reported on one BJP loyalist who chose the Congress for the first time in the 26 years that he has voted.
Jitender Singh, a 44-year-old government school teacher from the Rajput community, told me that there was nothing which either Modi or the BJP had said and done which had moved him in the slightest. Singh voted for the Congress because the party in its manifesto promised to end the contract system in government jobs and make contract workers permanent.
With its veteran leaders taking a beating in this election and Modi's appeal showing at least early signs of wear and tear, the BJP might want to ask itself who and what comes next.
Hindutva Game On
Eventually, the BJP played the Hindutva card not once but multiple times during the course of the campaign. There was nothing subtle about the polarizing remarks which reinforced the idea that voting against the BJP somehow makes one less patriotic and is a betrayal of all things Hindu.
In Uttar Pradesh, Modi had limited his communal remarks to a rally in Fatehpur where he said, "If there is electricity in the graveyard and during Ramzan, it must be available in a crematorium and during Delhi. There should be no discrimination."
In Gujarat, however, Modi was relentless and his remarks were seen to lower the the dignity of the prime minister's office. After he had compared Rahul Gandhi's elevation to the "Aurangzeb Raj," Modi claimed that Pakistan was interfering with the state polls.
Even Singh, the BJP loyalist who has always admired Modi, found it nonsensical. "Pata nahin kya keh rahen hain," he said. (I don't know what he is on about).
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