Narendra Modi during celebrations at the party headquarters in Ahmedabad on Sunday. (Reuters)
New Delhi, Dec. 23: Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party to its fourth consecutive victory in the state today, winning an impressive 117 seats in the 182-member Assembly.
The BJP fell short of a two-thirds majority — winning 10 seats less than its best-ever performance in the 2002 elections held in the aftermath of the post-Godhra carnage — but todays win was spectacular enough in light of the rampant dissidence within the ruling party and poll predictions of a close fight between the Congress and the BJP.
The results came as a huge blow to the Congress which was hoping to make a comeback in Indias most prosperous state after having been reduced to a distant also-ran since 1990.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi led the partys campaign in the state and heir apparent Rahul Gandhi, undeterred by the Uttar Pradesh experience, sought to sway the Gujarat voter with his roadshows. But neither mother nor son could make up for the lack of a state-level leader or an alternative agenda to take on the Modi juggernaut.
Modis sweeping victory also triggered tremors within the BJP national leadership and the larger RSS-led Sangh parivar.
BJP president Rajnath Singh, who had sought to sideline Modi by dropping him from the partys parliamentary board, could not hide his less-than-enthusiastic response to the news from Gujarat today.
Rajnaths comment that no individual was greater than the party has already angered the Modi camp and fresh turmoil in the party at the top level could be on the cards, sources said.
If Modis victory is bad news for Rajnath and the RSS old guard, which has been unhappy with the Gujarat chief ministers cult of personality, it has come as a morale-booster to the BJPs newly anointed shadow prime minister L.K. Advani.
Advani, who has had his own share of troubles with the RSS over his Jinnah is secular remark, and general secretary Arun Jaitley were the only two national leaders who steadfastly backed Modi when he came under severe attack from prominent state-level leaders as well as from the Gujarat units of the RSS and VHP.
In light of Modis singular victory today, the Advani-Jaitley-Modi triumvirate is likely to call the shots in the BJP in the run-up to the general election, party insiders feel.
In terms of seats, the Congress registered a better performance today than in the last four elections. But the 62-seat tally (with ally NCP) was of little consolation to the Congress high command, which had been led to believe by state satraps that the party would win this time or at least give the BJP a neck-and-neck fight.
The party was banking on a combination of the caste factor that usually holds sway in the absence of overt communal polarisation, the clout of BJP dissidents and anti-incumbency to help it score a win.
In the event, none of these factors worked — the much-hyped revolt of the Leuva Patels in the Saurashtra region turned out to be a myth with the BJP improving its tally there compared with 2002; the opposition of the VHP and RSS cadre to Modi was offset by fervent popular support especially in north and south Gujarat; and Modis development theme struck a deep enough chord to create a pro-incumbency swing that is rare in Indian electoral politics.
On the whole, the Congress failed to gauge the contours or strength of what is loosely described as Moditva — a combination of subliminal Hindutva, appeal to Gujarati asmita (pride) and the promise of development. And it had no leader who came anywhere near the larger-than-life Modi who turned the polls into a personal referendum.
The immediate impact of the Gujarat result could be on the future of the Indo-US nuclear deal. The central government, whose emissaries have held talks with the IAEA on an India-specific safeguards agreement, is expected to get back to the Left with the outcome of those negotiations before initialling the agreement — the first stage of executing the deal.
CPM general secretary Prakash Karat has already made it clear that the Left would not flash the green light to the deal.
But sections within the Congress who are keen on going ahead with the nuclear deal were hopeful that a victory in Gujarat would embolden the partys leadership to take on the Left and go in for early Lok Sabha elections — in the spring or summer of 2008.
That scenario appears unlikely today, with the Congress too battered from the battle of Gujarat to launch into high-risk general elections a year ahead of schedule.
The nuclear deal apart, the effect of todays result is certain to be felt on national politics. True, assembly election results do not always impact Lok Sabha polls. But a big victory like the one witnessed today provides a morale-booster just as the demoralising effects of a defeat can change the fortunes of a party.
Advani has already declared the Gujarat result as a turning point in national politics, and the BJP is likely to take on the UPA with much more aggression and vigour in the coming months. That Jayalalithaa sprang to congratulate Modi with alacrity also indicates that the NDA as an entity could get strengthened.