Powered by
Sponsored by

Will disruption strategy help BJP in upcoming assembly polls?

Since the high of 2017 UP polls, BJP's victory margins in most polls have dipped

20-21-Nadda-and-Amit-Shah-and-Narendra-Modi (File) BJP president J.P. Nadda and Home Minister Amit Shah with Prime Minister Narendra Modi | Rahul R Pattom

On January 26, 2001, an earthquake wreaked havoc in Gujarat, flattening its Kutch region. Then chief minister Keshubhai Patel, 71, was already under pressure after a series of losses in bypolls and local body elections. He was again chided for his slow response to the disaster. It seemed like the state, which the BJP had wrested from the Congress for the first time in 1995, would be lost in the next polls.

But the BJP leadership under then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and home minister L.K. Advani sprung a surprise. Narendra Modi, a 51-year-old party general secretary (organisation) with no prior experience in administration, was picked to replace Patel as chief minister. Vajpayee and Advani had gambled on Modi to disrupt state politics. But it was a choice that would change the country's political landscape.

Now, PM Modi has perfected the art of disruption and uses it with great effect to outwit opponents and, sometimes, change the rules of the game. In July, Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah set in motion plans to oust ministers who were facing questions over their performance, causing disquiet in the party or were at risk from anti-incumbency.

This led to the axing of 13 Union cabinet ministers and the chief ministers of Gujarat, Karnataka and Uttarakhand, while keeping the chief ministers of Tripura and Himachal Pradesh on tenterhooks. In fact, Uttarakhand saw three chief ministers in four months, before the BJP finally settled on Pushkar Dhami, 45, a two-time MLA who was officer-on-special-duty to former chief minister Bhagat Singh Koshiyari.

Gujarat has had three chief ministers in five years, including the incumbent Bhupendra Patel—a first-time MLA. Karnataka now has a chief minister from a socialist background in Basavaraj Bommai.

When soft-spoken Bhupendra Patel was picked up as the new chief minister of Gujarat, in September, several veterans in the state unit were surprised. Patel is a first-time MLA, but has rich experience as chairman of the standing committee of the municipal corporation. He was also the chairman of Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority. He contested elections from former CM Anandiben Patel's constituency Ghatlodia, which is also part of Amit Shah's Lok Sabha seat.

“He (Patel) has a very amiable personality. He knowns how to take party and government along. He is different from other CMs before him like Keshubhai Patel, Modi, Anandiben Patel or Vijay Rupani,” said state BJP leader and chief spokesperson Yamal Vyas. 

“Rupani was essentially an organisation man, and had no administrative experience. Bhupendra Patel has that experience, which will help him. He is also a Patel. He takes everyone along. Politically, he has no groups.”

Will the gamble work?

“Disruption seems to be working for the party, but it’s not the only thing. Experiments are being done; it is part of the strategy probably. Five years for Rupani was a pretty long time. The party will give him another responsibility,” Vyas said.

State BJP chief C.R. Patil has set a target of winning all the 182 seats when party wins all the 26 Lok Sabha seats.

What went against Bhupendra Patel's predecessor was the unrest in the dominant Patel caste, and handling of COVID-19 crisis. Patil was seen as more accessible and efficient than the state administration.

BJP now has two opponents to contend with - the Congress and the AAP, which the party says will not be able to do much.

“Congress has problems of its own. Their top leaders won’t even retain their seats. Problem with the Congress is that they don't go out to the people. We have seen AAP in previous elections. They have not been able to establish their credibility. It's a bipolar polity where only Congress and BJP survive. The best-case scenario was Swatantra Party in 1967, after which no other party has got enough votes. Weaker the Congress, the stronger we become,” Vyas said.

The youngest Uttarakhand chief minister, Dhami, got eight months in tenure before the poll bugle was sounded. He has an RSS background and was a youth leader. After CM Trivendra Singh was removed over his lackadaisical performance and mounting anger over government's control of religious places, the Modi-Shah combine, as a peace offering to the Hindutva sentiment, appointed MP Tirath Singh Rawat, only to replace him soon as the six-month deadline of getting elected to the state assembly could not have been fulfilled due to COVID-19 restrictions. Moreover, some of his remarks left the party red-faced as he attracted unwanted attention.

“Dhami is a young CM, and a representative of the youth in the state. People are not worried about who the chief minister is; they only want the BJP government. Installing the CM is a pure organisational matter. People only want governance. We have fulfilled 90 per cent of the promises. In fact, he has stolen all the issues of the opposition. He promised to fill 24,000 vacancies, set up panel for Char Dham management structure, and another panel for land laws,” state BJP vice-president Devendra Bhasin said.

For the record, Uttarakhand has elected alternative governments. “Change is good. Anti-incumbency can be there against individual MLAs. Some of them may get changed,” Bhasin said. Interestingly, the state, which was formed in 2000, has seen 11 CMs in 21 years, among whom only Congress’s N.D. Tiwari completed the five-year term.

Karnataka elections are only in 2023, but the Modi-Shah axed B.S. Yediyurappa, who faced anti-incumbency and had crossed the unwritten rule of holding elected office till 75 years of age - he is already three years past that cut-off. The party had to tread cautiously for they owed their first government in south India to him. He could have walked away from the BJP in case he was changed unceremoniously. So, Bommai, who joined the party in 2008 from Janata Dal and who does not have an RSS background, was brought in. The move was part of a change witnessed within the party as several such leaders were increasingly inducted in the Union cabinet, and made part of the organisational national executive.

The lateral entries riled many old-timers who privately complained that outsiders have been blessed with plum postings over the 'saffron natives'.

“People are in politics for various reasons. But at the end of day, they want to do good for the people. If they feel that cannot help in their own party, they tend to join the other. Having grassroots leaders at all levels helps the parties grow,” Karnataka BJP leader and chief spokesperson Captain Ganesh Karnik said.

“Political parties have welcomed political leaders from other factions, when they are competent, but are cornered in their respective parties. Look at Congress; many leaders there may be unhappy, particularly because of party's appeasement policy. Jyotiraditya Scindia came to us. Amarinder Singh too had expressed his desire to align with the saffron party,” he said.

Party leaders say that BJP has been making conscious efforts to get leaders from under-represented castes or regions. “For example, in certain communities and areas, the BJP had no leader. Like in Mysore heartland which is dominated by Vokkaligas. We want a good leader who has good connect with the people. The tallest leader in Karnataka, S.M. Krishna, was brought in. He is from north Karnataka, and is a Vokkaliga leader. These things do happen.”

But will the experiment of having Bommai as the chief minister succeed? “Yes, we had problems when we first came to power. We had leadership issues. I can categorically say BJP came to power due to Yediyurappa in 2008 and 2019. It was his acumen and shrewdness. Bommai came to BJP in 2008 from JDS. There is no blemish on him. He is an acceptable face within the party. In both BJP governments, he has been a close confidant of Yediyurappa, and is also from the same community,” Karnik said.

Party leaders agree that despite the changes, issues like the COVID management, economic conditions of states and Centre, and price rise, too, will play a role.

The true test will be in 2022, which will see elections in seven states—Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur and Goa early in the year, and Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat later. All seven states have first-time chief ministers; six of them are from the BJP. The fact that none of the seven won as chief ministerial candidates in the last elections, illustrates the extent to which disruption is being used to tackle anti-incumbency.

The strategy, honed in Gujarat, has been tested multiple times. For instance, in the 2005 municipal polls in Surat, the BJP councillors faced anti-incumbency. All sitting councillors were dropped and new candidates were fielded, and BJP romped to a win. The experiment was repeated in Delhi in 2017. A resurgent Aam Aadmi Party posed a threat to BJP-held seats in the municipal elections. The BJP dropped all sitting councillors and bettered its tally.

Apparently, taking a leaf from the BJP playbook, the Congress high command replaced Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh with a Dalit leader Charanjit Singh Channi, a low-key politician diametrically opposite to Patiala royal's image. Punjab politics has been dominated by upper caste Jat Sikhs, who are also the landowners. Channi's elevation is a signal to the over 32 per cent dalit population, who have never wielded their clout like their counterparts in the Hindi heartland.

Channi has been garnering attention, playing the part of an “aam aadmi” as opposed to Amarinder's royal and aloof image. He has been quick in announcing freebies to counter the AAP, which is getting traction in the state.

“The Congress has given a clear signal to the dalits. Amarinder Singh has announced he will tie up with the BJP, so the party was right. Our strategy may sound similar to the BJP, but circumstances were different in Punjab,” said senior Congress leader P.L. Punia.

There was consternation in the grand old party when young and firebrand leaders Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mewani were inducted into the party, but Congress went ahead with it. “We don’t look at that them like Left leaders. They have their own standing and influence which will benefit the party,” Punia said.

Trinamool Congress, an ally of Congress, too, broke the political rule of not poaching from friendly parties. As Congress is yet to go the full distance in its opposition against the BJP, Trinamool Congress has become impatient. It has welcomed disgruntled Congress leaders from Assam to Goa, to present itself as a national party.

The major difference between how Congress and BJP implement the changes is how dissent is hardly ever publicly voiced in the saffron party, for fear of reprisal from the two most powerful men in the party - Modi and Shah. In Congress, the Punjab disruption went awry as maverick Navjot Singh Sidhu went public with his displeasure.

The 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections were the peak for the BJP in state polls. Since then, the BJP's victory margins in most elections have dipped, be it in Haryana, Gujarat or Assam. The party lost some states, too, like Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. And hence, the change of guard whenever faced by anti-incumbency.

This strategy has also put pressure on the other BJP CMs like Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Himanta Biswa, Biplab Kumar Deb, as they are constantly on their toes to save their chair, and are thus adopting policies with stronger ideological tinge. But, the one who has bucked the trend decisively is Yogi Adityanath, as he appeared to gloss over central BJP's recommendation of inducting Modi loyalist A.K. Sharma, a former IAS officer, in the cabinet. Yogi's importance lies in his Hindutva appeal across the country. Shah endorsed Yogi's importance, saying the route to 2024 will go through UP.

“When we went to elections in 2017, the state was infested with criminals and rioters. The Akhilesh Yadav government was indulging in appeasement politics. People were migrating from here. Yogi's resolve was to free the state from criminals and rioters. Our government's plank is safety and crime-free UP. Over 150 criminals have been killed in police encounters and over 15,000 with bounty on their heads have been arrested. People of the state now feel safe. Now, criminals are afraid and they want to surrender. Rioters’ properties were confiscated,” BJP state spokesperson Alok Awasthi said. “Now, we have over Rs 3 lakh crore investments, and 1.6 crore jobs have been created. Power situation has vastly improved. Poor have been given free ration. People are not going to forget these big issues for minor irritants.”

If BJP comes out on top, calls for a bigger role for Yogi may grow louder. But the party is not ready to commit. “The roles for everyone will be decided by the party's parliamentary board after elections,” Awasthi said.

📣 The Week is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@TheWeekmagazine) and stay updated with the latest headlines