BJP managers and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s spin doctors have been trying to turn the general election into a presidential-style contest between Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi in the hope that the PM, topping the popularity charts, will have definite electoral edge over the Gandhi scion if the latter emerge as a challenger in the upcoming polls. In recent months, when some television channels began to air opinion surveys showing Rahul Gandhi catching up with Modi in ratings, some cynics suspected that these were jacked up appraisals done at the behest of BJP strategists to keep the Modi versus Rahul narrative alive.

But after BJP’s stunning electoral reverses in the three cow belt states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh the stakeholders do not appear confident about the efficacy of a presidential style race. There are many giveaways. On December 21, senior RSS leader Indresh Kumar inter alia said that 2019 polls would be very interesting, and issues as well as “personalities” would change; five days later Yoga guru-turned businessman Baba Ramdev, who is close to the BJP establishment, said it was “very difficult” to predict country’s next PM. Talking to journalists in Madurai he said “We can’t say who will become the next Prime Minister” and that he would not support or oppose anyone in the 2019 polls.

Last week West Bengal BJP chief Dilip Ghosh rooted for TMC chief Mamata Banerjee as next PM. When reporters asked him if he had a message for Banerjee on her birthday, the BJP leader said: “We want her to stay in good health… Pranab (Mukherjee) Babu became President. Now a Bengali should become Prime Minister.” However, after eye brows were raised in party circles Ghosh clarified that his comments were out of “political courtesy”.

It is likely that he may have made the remarks either to keep Banerjee, a probable post poll ally, in good humour or he is not sure about Modi’s re-election as PM. Same day in distant Napur, Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis boosted the morale of union minister Nitin Gadkari saying that more than one Marathi can become the PM by 2050. Recently, BJP veteran and former union minister Sanghpriya Gautam in an open letter to the media suggested that Gadkari be made deputy Prime Minister.

Why a deputy PM for just four months? He said though Modi is the tallest leader Modi wave is dwindling across the country.
Gautam also demanded that former Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh replace Amit Shah as party president and Rajnath Singh replace Yogi Adityanath as UP chief minister. Gadkari himself has been taunting Modi-Shah duopoly for the humiliating defeats in the heartland states and his barbs against Modi went uncharacteristically unchallenged by the troll army giving rise to speculation that his comments had the tacit approval of Nagpur.

And the allies are also growing restive and among them the Shiv Sena has been the most trenchant critic of Modi. “Rahul Gandhi accepted his victory with politeness. He thanked the CMs in BJP-ruled States. But Modi isn’t willing to accept the contribution of Pandit Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi in nation-building. Modi is not even willing to accept the role of veteran L.K. Advani in building the BJP,” said an editorial in Sena mouthpiece Saamna.

Subsequently, addressing a rally Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray endorsed Rahul ‘s “Chowkidar chor hai” jibe at Modi. And in Parliament the Sena supported Congress demand for a JPC probe into the controversial Rafale jet deal. Even if the Sena’s sneers are pre-poll posturing they are too insulting for a muscular leader like Modi.

Since last year allies such as PDP, TDP, RLSP and AGP have left the NDA for different reasons, while others like Apna Dal are sulking. And seeing that the iron is hot, Bihar allies JDU and LJP bargained hard and wangled disproportionate number of Lok Sabha seats forcing BJP to cede six of its own seats. The JDU which had just two members secured 17 out of the 40 seats from the state while LJP got six plus one Rajya Sabha berth for Paswan (early next year). The deal drew derisive comments from analysts who sense that Paswan, considered the most authentic weathercock of Indian politics, has read the writing on the wall that is why he opted for the safe Rajya Sabha route to Parliament.

And to compound matters, for some time now the Congress president has been setting the agenda (from aborted Land Acquisition bill, revised GST and loan waiver for distressed farmers etc) forcing the PM to walk the talk. Two days ago, the PM managed to get Parliament nod to give 10 per cent reservation to the economically backward (upper castes). Many consider it a masterstroke and game changer ahead of the general election. However, it remains to be seen if the gambit will stand judicial scrutiny, change the political narrative and prove electorally beneficial to BJP.

Contrary to initial doubts whether the Congress will be able to sustain the Rafale controversy, the spotlight on the “questionable” deal may not taper off too soon. The latest in the Rafale saga has been the allegation by Rahul Gandhi that he is in possession of an audio tape in which Goa health minister Vishwajit Rane quoted former defence minister and CM Manohar Parrikar as saying that he has the Rafale files in his bedroom and Rahul’s insinuation that Parrikar was “effectively blackmailing” Modi. Claiming the tape to be authentic, he sought to play it on the floor of Lok Sabha but the Speaker denied permission.

It is intriguing that even ten days after the allegation, neither any contempt of the House proceeding initiated nor legal action taken against Gandhi for quoting from the “doctored” tape. And what happened to the investigative journalists in Delhi and Goa? Time was when their tribe flew even to faraway Sweden to probe kickbacks in a defence deal.

Kay Benedict is an independent journalist.

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