As I write this piece, one of the most vibrant and large reshuffle of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Cabinet is on card. This is perhaps the last major reshuffle before the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) goes to polls to seek second term for Modi and his men. But the immediate reason for this exercise on the heels of Modi’s China tour to participate in the BRIC Summit there seems to be the forthcoming elections for State Assembly elections, seen as the Semi-Finals for the Lok Sabha finals. The BJP has begun its preparation for the polls in Gujarat, Himachal and Karnataka in right earnest though the dates for these state elections are yet to be declared by the Election Commission. The first two states are to elect a new Assembly by the end of this year, whereas Karnataka is due to vote only in May next year.
The party cannot afford to lose any of the three states as it has to keep the momentum created by the series of triumphs culminating in the stunning victory in Uttar Pradesh. Gujarat is very crucial for the BJP as it is the home state of Modi and BJP Party Chief Amit Shah. In the Lok Sabha election in 2014, the BJP won all the 26 seats. Here, the party has been in power for almost three decades, making anti-incumbency a natural apprehension. But in recent months, the party has won many local elections and the steady flow of Congressmen into the BJP has weakened the opposition. The BJP has given charge of the Gujarat election to union ministers Arun Jaitely and Nirmala Sitaraman. The party has nominated Piyush Goel to steer the party in Karnataka while Himachal has been assigned to Tawar Singh Ghelot. Considering that Jaitely , Nirmala and Goel are never elected to any of the Houses in general elections, it would be an acid test for them as well as the BJP.
Anti-Incumbency Against Congress
On the other hand, Karnataka and Himachal are Congress-ruled states and here, anti-incumbency will work against the Congress. In both the states, the BJP did extremely well in the 2014 elections. Giving charge of these three states to union ministers who are already heavily burdened by their considerable responsibilities is a calculated move. As union ministers, they are expected to be able to unite all sections of the party and enable the better and clearer explanation of the various populist schemes of the Modi government to voters. A major possible reason for their selection is that they will carry more weight with the cadre as representing the PM’s diktat and wishes. Also, don’t forget their experience in running elections campaigns: In the last three years, in all assembly elections, the party has selected central ministers to lead the BJP’s campaign. That seems to be Modi-Shah’s well thought out strategy.
The political significance of the approaching elections also lies in their chronology in the run-up to the Lok Sabha poll. The BJP has been, ever since the last Lok Sabha poll, working on a ten-year strategy and Shah has often said that his goal is to bring the party to power from parliament to Panchayats throughout the country. To achieve this goal, the party cannot afford to lose a single election. In the next one year, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan will also vote. These are all BJP-ruled states and any reversal in these can dampen the spirit for 2019. That would be the last thing that the BJP would like to see.
At this moment it would be interesting and thus pondering over the prospects of the party in the states due for election in the near future? In Gujarat, the BJP has been able to decimate the Congress. Two years ago, it looked as if the Aam Aadmi Party could pose a challenge to BJP in Gujarat. Then, the Patel agitation led by Hardik Patel gave a new momentum to the anti-incumbency feeling. In 2016, in some of the local body polls, the Congress performed well, particularly in rural areas, and it seemed to be recapturing its base. But the BJP soon recovered, taking immediate corrective steps and taking the lead in reaching out to new segments. The party last year replaced Chief Minister Anandiben Patel with a more youthful and energetic face in Vijay Rupani. It took a number of steps to resolve the Patel community’s grievances and the fact that even today, the community, which constitutes some 16 per cent of the vote bank, still dominates in the BJP rank and file.
The party has given many leaders from the Patedar (Patel) community important positions of power. Hardik Patel’s overreach to states like Bihar, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh proved his undoing. And the promise of an anti-BJP plank under Hardik Patel received a set back after the BJP started winning every local body election held in the last one year. The biggest blow to the Congress came in the form of widespread dissent in the party between the official faction led by Ahmed Patel and Bharat Sinh Solanki and the faction led by Shankarsinh Vaghela. In the presidential elections, 14 Congress members cross-voted in favour of the NDA candidate Ram Nath Kovind. In last month’s Rajya Sabha poll, the rift came into the open when a team of a dozen MLAs, who are supporters of Vaghela, left the Congress and joined the BJP. The Congress strength in the state assembly has recently fallen from 58 to 41. But the victory of Ahmed Patel in the Rajya Sabha poll has given a new lease of life to the Congress.
It is wildly speculated that the Congress will challenge the BJP under the leadership of Ahmed Patel. Patel has never been actively involved in electoral politics in the state. He has been elected to the Rajya Sabha for four terms. But this time, the likely projection of Patel as the Congress face could entice minorities who were disenchanted with the Congress because of Vaghela’s leadership, to return to the party fold. It is also likely to galvanize the party in its traditional stronghold in minority, Dalit and Adivasi pockets. The Congress will be trying to unite all anti-BJP forces and people under its umbrella.
Congress Behind Hardik
By now it’s an open secret that the Congress was behind the Hardik Patel agitation demanding reservation for the Patel community. The BJP has largely overcome the anti-incumbency baggage because of the flow of other party leaders to its ranks. And the fact that the prestige and honour of the Prime Minister will be on trial in his home state is likely to rally Gujarat voters to the BJP. The top strategist and a veteran of many electoral victories.
The Congress will find it difficult in both Himachal and Karnataka where it has been facing corruption charges. And in most by-elections held in recent times, the party has performed badly. On the face of it, the BJP is on the ascent in both these states. There is sufficient time for political equations to change in Karnataka, most likely after the Himachal and Gujarat polls. The Congress is entirely dependent on Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh for its existence in Himachal. However, reports say that the corruption charges against him were leaked to the BJP by a faction owing allegiance to the high command in Delhi.
Though on the face of it, the BJP looks comfortably poised in all the three states, the party leadership is leaving no stone unturned to ensure that there is not an iota of doubt about its wins in all states, those would be going for polls before the 2017 Lok Sabha polls. The plans to recast the Union Cabinet should be seen in this light.
The author is a political analyst and former Member of Parliament (RS).