The BJP victory in Gujarat, especially the slim margin, indicates Modi’s ‘Midas Touch’ is the best bet for winning in 2018 and 2019, say experts, investors, and Gujarati-Americans
As election results began streaming in Dec. 18, Gujarati-Americans held their breath hoping their charismatic leader Narendra Modi would pull another rabbit out of the hat in light of dismal poll predictions. And he did. The Bharatiya Janata Party won 98 of the 182 seats instead of its expected 150, a 7 seat majority in the state assembly, and a one percent vote gain over 2012; The Congress Party walked away with 77 seats, increasing its vote gain by more than 10 percent. Despite snatching Himachal Pradesh from the Congress, the BJP ranks and leadership is rightly mulling future strategies for retaining power in the three major states, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh, in 2018. And experts here agree Modi remains BJP’s best hope for 2019, to counter what appears to be a creeping resurgence of the Congress, which played its best or worst “soft saffron” strategy to counter BJP sloganeering like “Aurangzeb Raj” and “Mughalization’.
“A win is a win,” regardless of the margin, said Walter Andersen, former senior State Department official, whose academic career has been devoted to the study of the BJP and Hindutva, and who has an upcoming book entitled, “The Messengers of Dharma: Hindu, Hindutva, and the RSS.” Modi, Andersen said, pulled the BJP out of a early morass and lack of inspiration, to push it over the victory line, no small feat in light of Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi’s seeming new avatar, and the Young Turks among Patels. “Congress played a ‘soft saffron’ strategy. Rahul went to 21 temples and no mosques,” for example. And there was no mention of the 2002 communal riots, Andersen and others noted.
Milan Vaishnav, senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writing on the heels of the election outcomes, (“Modi’s going to have a much tougher 2018 than anyone’s expecting”) echoed the analysis of other American academics interviewed. “Opportunistic quid pro quos” and a combination of rural Gujarat’s relative disenchantment, the urban support for Modi, and the impact of caste politics and larger economic policies, impacted the results, Vaishnav and others, including Professor Devesh Kapur, director of University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Advanced Study of India, indicated.
“For the BJP, Modi is their ‘numero uno’,” said Professor Kapur, author of several books on India, including, Diaspora, Democracy and Development: The Impact of International Migration from India on India. “If it was not for the fact that the PM is a great campaigner, if he had not put in the effort, the election would have gone another way,” Kapur added. Nevertheless, he cautioned any predictions of 2019 saying it rested on many variables. “But we can say for sure – what looked to be an easy march, is now not likely,” just as the fiery young Patidar leaders like Hardik Patel, were not foreseen two years ago in that state, he pointed out.
In his paper, Vaishnav noted the Congress “kept its ego in check to form convenient alliances in Gujarat,” Vaishnav said. Where it had tried to “crush” upstarts like Hardik Patel, Congress not only accommodated him, but also Other Backward Castes leader Alpesh Thakor and Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani. “The Congress organization may still be in intensive care, but at least it has a pulse,” Vaishnav said.
Communications Professor Ramesh Rao of Columbus State University, was more strident. The author of the 2015 book, “The Election that Shaped Gujarat & the Rise of Narendra Modi to National Stardom,” told Desi Talk the BJP won, “Despite a combined opposition, and manipulation of the electorate on the basis of caste, and despite the Congress Party’s ‘skunk works’, plus add to that, the incumbency factor.”
Congress’ resort to caste, Andersen said, “forced the BJP to play soft-caste tactics.” Analysts also underestimate the impact of the Muslim Rashtriya Manch, “which was very active in bringing up the BJP vote,” Andersen added. “The advantage BJP has in 2019 is Modi is their leader – no one compares with him,” Andersen concluded.
Rao also accused Western media, particularly in the U.S. and U.K., for a “coordinated campaign” against the BJP, contending “they clearly have a vested interest in bringing back the Congress which they see as a ‘secular, liberal, progressive’ party, as against the BJP which they choose to describe as “Hindu nationalist.”
“The Bharatiya Janata Party, is not Hindu ‘nationalist’,” Rao countered, emphasizing the words.
Andersen qualified Rao’s critique of Western media and academics, saying, “Most Indian academics (his emphasis) in the U.S. dislike Modi,” not everyone.
“There is a group here, concentrated in academia, who simply don’t like Mr. Modi, no matter what he does. And vice versa. A nuanced approach is important,” Professor Kapur said.
Gujarati-Americans unabashedly credit Modi with BJP’s election win, maintaining that the Prime Minister’s economic and development policies and leadership, saved the day. They, along with academics, are convinced the BJP would have lost were it not for the frenetic last few weeks of Modi’s statewide campaign.
Srujal Parikh, the incoming president of the Federation of Indian Associations of the New York tri-state area, one of the largest and oldest organization of Indian-Americans in this country, describes himself as a “diehard fan” of the BJP. The Gujarati-American community was “worried” by the polls days before the elections, he says. “This election is the biggest lesson they (BJP) have learnt – that they must have a proper leader rather than what they have now,” Srujal Parikh said. “This is a stepping stone for the party to learn and do grassroots campaigning for 2019,” he warns. According to him, “Every Gujarati living in the U.S., is happy about the result because they have seen Modi transform the state, and are very proud of his vision and how hard he works,” Parikh said.
“Gujarati Pride,” is what Modi has imbibed in and what keeps more than 90 percent of Gujarati Americans behind Modi, says Andersen. Srujal Parikh conceded the common man in Gujarat is feeling some economic pain. “I want to tell them that they have sent the right message of what they want,” he said pointing to the tough race and slim majority of BJP.
Another staunch BJP supporter Shekhar Tiwari, a businessman from Greater Washington, D.C., sees the future through a more nuanced lens. The win indicates that the opposition is getting consolidated, he says. “So there will be a problem in 2019.” According to Tiwari, “It is worrisome that the opposition are willing to come together without any principles.” India, he contends, needs a stable and powerful leadership for 20 years straight to perform at growth rates of 5 to 7 percent annually, if it is to get anywhere near the Chinese economic phenom.
Padma Shri recipient Dr. Sudhir Parikh, publisher of Desi Talk, (no relation of Srujal Parikh) was unequivocal in giving credit for the Gujarat victory to Modi’s efforts.”The victory shows that Prime Minister Modi is still a tall leader in Indian politics. This win was his. Without his campaigning this would not have happened,” Parikh said. At the end of the day, “People appreciated the development in Gujarat and the negative campaigning did not work,” he added, noting that “Most NRIs from Gujarat are celebrating and excited because 90 percent of them here are BJP supporters. For them, it means the economic development of Gujarat will continue.”
“The Gujarati community (in the U.S.) is by and large happy and celebrating,” Rao said. “And since a majority of Indians here are in technology and business, they will be happy (with the victory in Gujarat).”
“Ninety five percent, if not more, of Gujarati-Americans are Modi supporters,” opined Andersen. “He has been able to touch “Gujarati Pride,” he added.
The community is holding celebrations on the Gujarat victory. And at one such celebration in Hicksville, New York, Jagdish Sewhani, president of the group, American India Public Affairs Committee, said, “… we need to work in a mission mode for the 2019 general election. Our objective should be not only to re-elect BJP, but also target 450 Lok Sabha seats and 50 percent of the popular votes. Such a strong mandate and popular government is essential to accelerate the pace of development march on the path of New India that we all dream of.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. investment community is encouraged by the BJP victory in Gujarat, according to some India experts, and others who are part of the corporate world interested in India.
“The Gujarat victory broadcasts to investors that the Modi Agenda is working and that the Prime Minister is headed for re-election in 2019,” contends Ron Somers, former head of the U.S.-India Business Council and founder of the Washington, D.C.-based consultancy group, India First.
. “Investors always like stability, and BJP’s win portends stability in 2019, as does the by-and-large favorable and reasonable record on infrastructure, GST, etc.” Kapur said, adding, “You can imagine the turmoil if BJP had lost in Gujarat.” The medium and long-term projections for the investor community are good, Kapur maintains. Despite the ups and downs, demonetization, the GST, and the positive bankruptcy code, could show positive results in the future which, “will be undoubtedly good for the country” he adds. Also, BJP’s fortunes are dependent on results of 2018 elections in heartland states like Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh.
As a business insider, Somers sees an optimistic future domestically and in the bilateral relationship with the U.S. “For an investor with a line of sight looking to the future, re-election of Prime Minister Modi provides precisely the kind of predictability that an investor requires to inspire confidence and convince MNC (multinational corporation) Boards of Directors to double-down on investing in a growing, prospering India,” Somers asserted. Gujarat’s and Himachal Pradesh’s poll victories inspire investor confidence, he says. “That’s good news for India, and great for U.S.-India commercial relations,” he added.
“The reinforcing signal sent by Gujarat voters in the recent State election serves as an endorsement of Prime Minister Modi’s policies and provides investors with confidence and predictability that India’s pro-business reform wave will continue,” Somers said via email.
The business headlines in the United States spell “stability” says Andersen and that’s always a positive for U.S. investors. “India should continue to attract investment,” he predicted.