COVER STORY

On a wing and a prayer

Need to ‘sustain’ Modi’s image before LS polls makes assembly polls crucial for BJP

40-modi-raje Image of unity: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje at a rally in Alwar | Sanjay Ahlawat

On December 8, 2013, the results of assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi threw up a definitive electoral indicator. The Modi wave was in the making. It would sweep the Lok Sabha polls a few months later, and wipe out the opposition from Uttar Pradesh in the 2017 assembly polls.

This December 11, when results to assembly elections in five states—Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram—will be out, the country will again get an indication as to what to expect in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. And, it will answer several questions. Will the anti-incumbency in the three BJP-ruled states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan become a catalyst for building a similar sentiment across the nation? Will the Congress, if it does well, become the flag-bearer of opposition unity? Or, will it let regional satraps take the lead, if it lacks the numbers? If the BJP retains the three states, will it mean the 2019 polls is a foregone conclusion? Or, will Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with his Teflon-coated image, remain unscathed, irrespective of the results?

The five states comprise 83 Lok Sabha seats; of these, 65 are in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The BJP had won 63 of 65 seats in 2014. The focus is more on these Hindi-speaking states, as the BJP is not in contention in Telangana and Mizoram. Its best hope is to ally with parties opposed to the Congress after the results. In the three BJP-ruled states, Modi’s charisma is seen as an antidote to anti-incumbency. The BJP is also shielding him in event of adverse results—he is scheduled to address only 24 rallies in the five states, against the 34 he addressed in Gujarat last year.

Modi, in his speeches, emphasised on the follies of the Nehru-Gandhi family. He accused the Congress leadership of being dynastic, abusive and divided. He also listed the work done by the Centre and the respective state governments. These were to remind voters of the inefficiency of the Congress regime. Young voters in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where the BJP has ruled for nearly 15 years, have no memory of the Congress rule.

Eyeing victory: Congress president Rahul Gandhi during a roadshow in Raipur | Sanjoy Ghosh Eyeing victory: Congress president Rahul Gandhi during a roadshow in Raipur | Sanjoy Ghosh

This year’s results would immediately be pinned on Modi and Rahul, but there are likely to be several subtexts. The results of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh would define the future of its chief ministers. If Shivraj Singh Chouhan becomes chief minister for the fourth time in Madhya Pradesh—like Modi did in Gujarat—he would be among the national contenders who could fill Modi’s shoes, said a party source. A loss for Vasundhara Raje, meanwhile, could result in the BJP encouraging new leadership in Rajasthan, as she has been resisting the diktats of the Modi-Shah combine.

For the Congress, these polls are more crucial for Rahul Gandhi, who is desperate for a few wins before pitting himself as a challenger to Modi in 2019. Barring local issues, his narrative has been to paint an unflattering picture of Modi, allegedly tainted by the Rafale deal, and a prime minister who works only for rich industrialists while hurting the common man through ill-conceived policies like demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST). His profile got a boost after the Congress’s good show in Gujarat.

The corollary to the Congress’s performance would be how the contours of opposition unity get defined. Mayawati, who is going solo in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, may change her rhetoric vis-a-vis the Congress, depending on the numbers, and leaders like Telugu Desam Party (TDP) chief Chandrababu Naidu and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, too, may become more accommodating.

A victory for the BJP would be seen as a referendum on Modi’s policies, while a setback will be blamed on local issues. “Every election is a standalone election and also connected,” said Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, vice president, BJP. “So, reading the outcome as one way or the other is misreading the popular mood.” But, every election, be it to a panchayat or a municipal body, is important, especially in an election year. “That importance cannot be undermined,” he said.

Broadly, three scenarios are envisaged after the counting on December 11:

Scenario I : The BJP retains Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan

The best case scenario for the BJP would be to retain the three party-ruled states. This, in turn, would mean that despite all odds, the BJP can crush all challenges. Nationally, the government would push ahead with its agenda, ensuring a smooth run to the 2019 polls.

“We will win in all states, whatever the opinion polls may say. They do not reflect the true picture,” said BJP general secretary P. Muralidhar Rao.

The BJP campaign in Madhya Pradesh hinges on the development work done by Chouhan and the hindutva sentiment that has been reigning in the state for decades, combined with Modi’s firepower, ably assisted by BJP chief Amit Shah. Add to it, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s religious appeal in the run-up to the polls. “[The Congress] can keep Ali; Bajrangbali is enough for us,” he said in a rally in Bhopal.

Chouhan’s USP has been his ability to connect with the people. “Through his imaginative and creative ideas, he tried to connect with the people. That is his forte,” said Sahasrabuddhe. “The BJP, through its organisation and candidate selection, has presented itself as an all-inclusive party. And third, the BJP made Madhya Pradesh come out of BIMARU status [Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh were adjudged economically backward in the mid-1980s]. Earlier, agriculture was defined by scarcity and deprivation, now the issue is that of abundance.”

To avoid dissension within the Congress, Kamal Nath (right) was made state chief, and Jyotiraditya Scindia was made poll campaign chief | PTI To avoid dissension within the Congress, Kamal Nath (right) was made state chief, and Jyotiraditya Scindia was made poll campaign chief | PTI

The Congress, however, has got proactive. To avoid dissension within the party, Chhindwara MP Kamal Nath was made state chief, and Jyotiraditya Scindia was made poll campaign chief. Soft hindutva, which was used extensively during the Gujarat elections, became the mainstay of its poll campaign. It promised cow shelters and development of the mythical ‘Ram path’.

Sahasrabuddhe, however, said that the Congress was playing the hindutva card to woo voters. “We are steadfastly sticking to our agenda, on the basis of our work done in the last 15 years,” he said. “They are trying to divert the discourse.”

Chhattisgarh, on the other hand, has always been a close call. For the past three terms, Raman Singh has been winning, thanks to his work and the absence of a credible Congress leadership. But anti-incumbency is strong and, with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party allying with Ajit Jogi’s party, the results will be even more unpredictable.

Rajasthan, however, is considered the weakest link for the saffron party, owing to a strong anti-Raje sentiment. A victory here would be attributed to Modi’s appeal and Shah’s strategy.

If the BJP retains the three states, hindutva would become the party’s official war cry, with chants of building Ram Temple and throwing out illegal Bangladeshis growing louder.

A defeat for the Congress in the Hindi heartland states would be a crippling blow ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. It has everything going for it right now: anti-incumbency in three states, emerging state party leadership and a counter Modi narrative. It has been following a consistent strategy to corner Modi through issues of agrarian distress, unemployment, taunting him for not living up to the 2014 poll promises and allegedly helping businessmen Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi and Vijay Mallya escape. If it loses, Rahul’s stature as Modi’s challenger would get diminished. It would also damage his standing among opposition leaders and reduce his bargaining power in bringing together anti-Modi forces. Even more disastrous would be the Congress losing power in the only state it holds in the northeast, Mizoram, and the failure to dislodge the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) in the southern state. TRS chief K. Chandrashekar Rao advanced the elections with the sole aim of not getting caught up in the narrative of the 2019 elections.

Congress MP and its women’s wing chief Sushmita Dev said a win would definitely boost the morale of the party workers. “But we should not exaggerate the importance of these elections because, beyond these states, there are other states and regions where different factors will come into play,” she said.

Scenario II: The Congress wins all three BJP-ruled states

Such a possibility could also be read with the Congress retaining Mizoram, and doing well in Telangana along with its allies—the TDP and the Telangana Jana Samithi. After Karnataka, the Telangana verdict would offer a clue to the BJP’s fortune in south India. As for Mizoram, the BJP has said it would look at post-poll allies.

If the Congress scorecard reads 5-0, the party would trumpet the beginning of the end of the Modi era. “The BJP did remarkably well in the three big states in 2014. It cannot expect to do better than that,” said Rajeev Gowda, head of the Congress’s research department and co-convener of the party’s manifesto committee. “And, for every seat that the Congress wins in the assembly polls, it should get more seats than the BJP in the general elections.”

The elections will test the Congress’s ability to tap into the anti-incumbency wave. “If the Congress wins, more than anything else, it would be because of the huge anti-incumbency against the state governments,” said Abhay Kumar Dubey of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

But, according to a senior BJP leader, “Anti-incumbency is oversimplification of issues. Just because a party was in power for three terms does not mean there is anti-incumbency. We have popular leaders.” If these leaders fail to save their turfs, the party’s dependence on Modi would only grow. And, it could push Modi to announce populist schemes, as there are reports of the government planning to present a full budget.

Scenario III: Mixed bag

As per various pre-poll surveys, it will be a tight match between the BJP and the Congress, where the latter is likely to win Rajasthan. The results could throw up a different scorecard, where the BJP retains only Madhya Pradesh or one more state, while the Congress improves its tally. A mixed result is a more realistic prediction by poll pundits.

If Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot can win Rajasthan for the Congress, it would put an end to taunts from the BJP, which has often said that the Congress was limited to Punjab and Puducherry. “We will certainly win in Rajasthan, as people are fed up with the Raje government,” said Pilot. “The BJP has lost the battle. Rajasthan will pave the way for Congress resurgence.”

Also, Rajasthan has been electing an alternate government every election for the past two decades. “In the past, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat was elected thrice to power. So, this premise of alternating government is not a rule,” said Madan Lal Saini, state BJP president. “The governments used to change as people-friendly works were not done. But I can say with surety that the kind of work done by Vasundhara Raje has not been done before. She has done a lot for the poor.”

The mixed result would be a face saver for both the parties. It would thus keep the question of the 2019 elections wide open, but certainly tilted in Modi’s favour. If the Congress cannot win in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh despite its sustained campaign, the morale of its cadre would dip. Gujarat, for instance, was poised for a change last year, but the campaign mounted by Modi snatched victory away from the Congress. A defeat in Madhya Pradesh would also show that the Congress had failed to stem infighting in the state unit.

But, as Dubey said: “If the Congress were to win at least two of the three big states, its standing among the opposition parties will be enhanced. The regional players are not willing to give it a lead role in an opposition grouping at the moment.”

The Congress’s Jaiveer Shergill said a major takeaway from these elections would be that Modi’s image has not dominated the campaign. “Rather, more space was given to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee,” he said. “So, one specific signal coming out of these elections is that Modi’s position has weakened because of demonetisation and GST.”

That, the country will know for sure only on December 11.