The BJP, which is known to fight every election, from local polls to the Lok Sabha, with an insatiable appetite, has taken a curious approach in these assembly elections.
Despite the setback in Karnataka, where the marginalisation of stalwart B.S Yediyurappa was at least one reason for the party’s decisive defeat; the BJP has still taken the ‘collective leadership’ approach in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, two of the most critical battlefields ahead of 2024. In fact, the BJP tacitly seemed to acknowledge this mistake in the recent elevation of Yediyurappa’s son, B.Y. Vijayendra, a first time MLA, to the top post of party president in the state.
And, yet, it has not stepped back from the very visible undermining of Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Vasundhara Raje in MP and Rajasthan.
It is almost as if the BJP has decided to quietly phase out all remnant leaders from the Vajpayee years as the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah led BJP builds a new hierarchy.
But would it want to do so at the risk of potential electoral defeat?
Possibly, the BJP believes that neither individual is central to its loss or win.
In Rajasthan, where traditionally, a revolving door system has alternated between the BJP and the Congress since 1996, historical precedent suggests that it is the BJP’s turn to form the government. While several MLAs considered loyal to Raje have been given tickets, the BJP has tried hard to experiment with new faces—Gajendra Shekhawat, Satish Poonia and C.P. Joshi among them. Raje is certainly not the main face of the BJP campaign and who will be chief minister, if the BJP were to win, is a question that is wide open.
In Madhya Pradesh, ‘Mamaji’ as Chouhan is colloquially known, is probably running his most low key campaign in years. His personal popularity is only a few points behind that of Kamal Nath, the de facto CM candidate of the Congress and very much the leader of its campaign. But polls reveal a fatigue factor with the incumbent legislators.
If the BJP manages to win either or both states without Raje or Chouhan at the helm, their redundancy will be highlighted by the central leadership. If the BJP loses either or both states, the party might still argue that the defeats were foretold.
There are other intriguing experiments by the BJP in these assembly elections, including the decision to field a large number of its parliamentarians. Eighteen MPs, including four Union ministers, are contestants across three state assemblies. This decision has caught state level leaders off guard. Perhaps the decision is guided by the overwhelming popularity of its party in the Lok Sabha polls of 2019 in Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh where the states swung back to the party despite defeats in the assembly elections of 2018.
Ironically, the BJP and the Congress appear to have swapped their approaches to state election campaigns. It used to be the Congress playbook to avoid a personality-centric campaign in the states till well after the results came in. In the past, the Congress ‘high command’ has historically weakened state satraps. But the results in Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh revealed the electoral value of keeping assembly elections local, led by strong local faces. The Congress has embraced that philosophy in these elections, while the BJP appears to have borrowed from the old Congress rulebook in counting on the party cadres, ideology and the Modi factor to win.
Either way these elections are not just the semi-finals ahead of the big elections of 2024; they could well mark the end of at least two high-profile political careers.