Ahead of the Assembly elections to four key heartland States, the BJP leadership was divided on whether it should announce Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate for 2014, lest a less than outstanding performance cast a shadow on his ability to fashion a victory in 2014. In the end, Mr. Modi — and his supporters within the party — pushed for his being named as the face of its bid for power next year as swiftly as possible, and succeeded.
As the results came in on Sunday, and the BJP retained Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, snatched Rajasthan from the Congress and forged ahead in Delhi. Mr. Modi’s admirers were out there on the social media and TV studios to claim all the credit for him.
However, a close analysis of what happened on the ground would suggest that more than the Modi effect, it was a combination of the intensive campaign by the BJP’s regional satraps in three of the four States (all but Delhi) and a strong anti-Congress mood that did the trick for the BJP. Mr. Modi’s impact — judging by the BJP’s electoral performance where he went campaigning as well as the audience response at his rallies — appeared to be less than what was claimed by his supporters, except in Rajasthan.
In Delhi, typical of the urban arena in which the Gujarat Chief Minister has been gaining traction in recent months, the BJP found itself fighting hard to stay ahead of the one-year-old Aam Aadmi Party. This despite the fact that Mr. Modi not only addressed six rallies in four days but, over the last few months, also made frequent high-profile appearances in the national capital.
This was quite visible at his first election rally in Rohini on Delhi’s north-western edge on November 29: a large section of the audience appeared indifferent, while many streamed out even before he had concluded his speech.
Mr. Modi’s spokespersons, of course, have been quick to point to opinion polls in which AAP voters have said that in the general elections they will vote for Mr. Modi; his critics, however, stress that given the build-up he has been given, and the strong anti-Congress mood, he should have ensured a sweep for the BJP in Delhi.
Indeed, the AAP’s brilliantly conceived and executed campaign succeeded in crystallising the disillusionment of the aam aadmi not just in the national capital but in the other States that went to the polls. In Delhi, the AAP was a major beneficiary of this disenchantment; in the other three, the BJP, as the only real alternative to the Congress, took home the spoils. Besides, Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh and Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh have acquired, over the decade that they have been in power, a large and loyal following.
In Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Mr. Modi addressed 15 and 12 public meetings respectively. But they were not as well-attended as might have been expected after the huge turnout at the workers’ rally he addressed in Bhopal on September 25. In fact, when Mr. Modi addressed a rally on November 18 in Bhopal, where a majority of the sitting MLAs were from the BJP, only around 4,000 persons showed up to hear him.
The same day, in Sagar, the headquarters of Bundelkhand division, a crowd of just 400 turned up to hear him.
Travelling in Madhya Pradesh, one found locals speaking glowingly of Mr. Chouhan, while any mention of Mr. Modi evoked far less enthusiasm. In the case of Muslims, the reaction was actually hostile.
In Rajasthan alone, the 20 rallies Mr. Modi addressed over five days not only drew consistently big and enthusiastic crowds, with a large number of young people in attendance, they translated into an increase in seats for the BJP. Even though the Gujarat Chief Minister’s focus on national issues rather than on the party’s chief ministerial candidate, Vasundhara Raje, led to disquiet in the BJP’s State unit, the results suggest that his campaign may have added as many as 10 Assembly seats to the party’s final tally in the areas that he visited.
In Madhya Pradesh, Brand Shivraj Singh Chauhan was strong enough for a BJP sweep. On the other hand in Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh had to sweat it out, with Mr. Modi providing little support. In Delhi, the AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal towered over all other leaders, with the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate making little or no impact. In Rajasthan, alone, Mr. Modi was able to give his party a helping hand.
For the BJP’s prime ministerial face, the general elections next year, where the focus will be on national rather than State leaders, will be the real test.