Politicians are inclined to talk up their prospects and performance. To that extent, Finance Minister P.Chidambaram’s supercilious assertion last Thursday that the Congress had actually won the election need not be taken too seriously. By that count Modi’s claim that if the votes of both Gujarat and Himachal were added the Congress would still have lost, was at best a rhetorical flourish.

However, behind these one-upmanship games, a natural part of the electoral tamasha, there is a more serious point. The Gujarat election was fought by the BJP as a referendum on 12 years of the Modi Government. Since common sense suggests that no electoral battle involving crores of people can be fought without a party organisation and dedicated activists, the victory was equally the BJP’s as much as Modi’s. Yet, it does not demean institutional politics to admit that Modi’s larger than life image gave the BJP its cutting edge.

By contrast, the personality of Prem Kumar Dhumal played a lesser role in the BJP campaign in Himachal Pradesh. This is not because Dhumal’s leadership was a liability but because he is naturally understated. Dhumal failed to beat Himachal’s see-saw record and fell a victim of anti-incumbency. To this was added BJP’s awesome record of scoring self-goals.

The larger message that emerges from these two elections has enormous implications for politics: there is no generalised anti-incumbency against the Congress Government at the Centre which gets automatically translated in some measure to state elections. In other words, if the BJP in Gujarat didn’t have the benefit of Modi’s towering personality, the Congress may well have bettered its performance significantly. It may not have won, but it would not have been mocked for its failure to get its act together after two decades in opposition.

In the course of the Gujarat campaign many people encountered apparatchiks who would loftily proclaim that “no individual is bigger than the institution.” As a general rule, this assertion is unexceptionable but it isn’t divine wisdom for electoral politics. Modi is often berated for his ‘dictatorial’ style and his insistence that the party sing one tune. It was this refusal to allow competing power centres to emerge within the party and the government that triggered the departure of Keshubhai Patel from the BJP. The veteran leader knew that he was no longer in a position to run a parallel patronage network. So he departed.

The results suggest that Keshubhai’s GPP underperformed. It won two seats and its tally of popular votes was well below the opinion/ exit poll estimates. Anecdotal evidence suggested that the GPP campaign was shored up by a section of the RSS parivar, particularly the VHP. Even a small section of BJP, including those enjoying the trust of the beleaguered national president, was active in mobilising anti-BJP votes. A post-poll survey by CSDS found that 61 per cent of those who “participate in RSS or VHP programmes” voted for the BJP (a drop of 10 per cent from 2007). The numbers voting for Congress was 26 per cent (it was 25 per cent in 2007). Some 13 per cent voted for the GPP.

The statistics reveal something quite significant. It would seem that Modi’s emphatic victory was the result of his ability to secure incremental votes from outside the ideological fold. His saffron sceptics were never in a position to win seats but they played spoilers on behalf of the Congress. It may even be argued that they denied the BJP some half-dozen extra seats.

Modi was able to circumvent internal sabotage because he combined his position as Chief Minister with the authority of a leader. He had to fight a long and bitter struggle for a decade to arrive at this position. Unfortunately, Dhumal’s position as Chief Minister wasn’t supplemented with organisational authority. Despite his misgivings, the party gave tickets to unsuitable candidates merely because they were nominees of a faction or the preferred choice of central BJP apparatchiks. This fragmentation of authority in turn crippled the campaign in some regions and led to rebel candidates (at least five of whom were successful). The net result was a decisive Congress victory.
Himachal wasn’t the only occasion that the BJP contributed to its own defeat. In Uttarakhand, the positive effect of General B.C. Khanduri’s reinstatement, after three years of misrule, was undone by a rebellion that was organised and financed by people who continue to hold senior organisational posts in the BJP. In 2008, Vasundhara Raje’s campaign was undone by a targeted subversion in which RSS pracharaks played active roles. A state which should have been in the BJP fold was gifted to the Congress. Even today, when it is clear only Vasundhara can bring victory to the party in 2013, the pettiness of a few rootless wonders has delayed her appointment as the leader of the state party.

At a time when it is clear that the Congress is alive and very much in the fight, the BJP needs to address its internal problems urgently. Since 2006, there has been a total erosion of the party’s central authority and the emergence of power centres comprising petty functionaries whose primary interest is not to give India an alternative government but to control the BJP.

It is not merely Modi the BJP needs to inspire voters. It also needs the Modi model to rejuvenate a decaying party.