Polls will test re­forms push

Hindustan Times (Delhi) - - NATION - Dk singh

LIT­MUS TEST The BJP’S per­for­mance in HP, Gu­jarat will im­pact the govern­ment’s ap­petite for bolder poli­cies

As the Elec­tion Com­mis­sion on Thurs­day set the ball rolling for elec­tions in Hi­machal Pradesh and Gu­jarat, the BJP and Con­gress seemed to be work­ing on dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tives as poll planks: the for­mer on per­son­al­ity pol­i­tics and the lat­ter on gaps in gov­er­nance.

The saf­fron party is un­likely to nom­i­nate a chief min­is­te­rial can­di­date in ei­ther state and ap­pears keen on pro­ject­ing th­ese polls as a Naren­dra Modi-ver­sus-rahul Gandhi con­test, a strat­egy that paid it hand­some div­i­dends in the 2014 gen­eral elec­tions.

Tues­day’s rally ad­dressed by BJP pres­i­dent Amit Shah, UP chief min­is­ter Yogi Adityanath and Union min­is­ter Sm­riti Irani in Gandhi’s Lok Sabha con­stituency, Ame­thi, was con­strued as a tell by po­lit­i­cal ob­servers. The im­port of their de­scrip­tion of Gandhi as “she­hzada” and ref­er­ences to “Ital­ian glasses” was equally telling. Their at­tack came on a day Gandhi was in Vado­dara, harp­ing on what the op­po­si­tion be­lieves could be the Achilles heel of the rul­ing party— lack of jobs, eco­nomic slow­down, and im­pact of de­mon­eti­sa­tion and goods and ser­vices tax (GST) on farm­ers, labour­ers, traders and small busi­ness­men.

Given a strong anti-in­cum­bency fac­tor against the Con­gress in Hi­machal Pradesh— ac­cen­tu­ated by al­le­ga­tions of graft against CM Virb­hadra Singh and pub­lic up­roar over the re­cent rape and mur­der of a mi­nor girl on the out­skirts of Shimla — an­a­lysts be­lieve it’s a bat­tle for the BJP to win or lose in the hill state.

It’s the poll re­sults in Gu­jarat that could have sig­nif­i­cant na­tional ram­i­fi­ca­tions. It might de­ter­mine whether the NDA govern­ment sticks to the fis­cal con­sol­i­da­tion path or opts for pop­ulism, given that eight states are go­ing to polls in 2018 with gen­eral elec­tions in 2019. It will have an im­pact on the govern­ment’s ap­petite for bold re­forms.

While the BJP pro­jected its suc­cess in the last round of as­sem­bly elec­tions, es­pe­cially in UP, as a vin­di­ca­tion of de­mon­eti­sa­tion, the next round would test the pop­u­lar­ity of its eco­nomic poli­cies. While Pati­dars—bjp loy­al­ists who con­sti­tute about 14% of the state’s pop­u­la­tion— have been ag­i­tat­ing for reser­va­tion in govern­ment jobs and ed­u­ca­tion, the sight of traders hit­ting the streets in Ahmed­abad and Su­rat against GST has BJP strate­gists wor­ried. The Con­gress has been ag­gres­sively woo­ing th­ese groups and Gandhi has been draw­ing impressive crowds in his meet­ings on the PM’S and Amit Shah’s home turf.

Even as the BJP strongly de­fends the NDA’S eco­nomic poli­cies, party lead­ers be­lieve that turn­ing Gu­jarat elec­tions into a Modi-ver­sus-gandhi con­test could be a more por­tent strat­egy. Po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists and an­a­lysts see merit in the BJP’S strat­egy. “Think of any vari­able. Fi­nally the BJP will win this elec­tion. Pa­tels are un­happy but who will they vote for? ... It will be turned into a mat­ter of Gu­jarati pride... There is no valid rea­son for the peo­ple to vote out the BJP govern­ment,” says Sanjay Ku­mar, di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for the Study of De­vel­op­ing So­ci­eties, a Delhi-based think tank.

Con­gress lead­ers are ju­bi­lant about the swelling crowds at Gandhi’s ral­lies. Since the civic polls in De­cem­ber 2015 that saw the BJP’S vote­share slid­ing and the Con­gress’ go­ing up in mu­nic­i­pal cor­po­ra­tions, mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and pan­chay­ats, the party has been fan­cy­ing a chance. Ag­i­ta­tions by Pati­dars, Dal­its and traders have given it rea­sons to nurse high hopes. But a look at the party’s elec­toral per­for­mance in the past 22 years of the BJP rule comes as a damp­ener. In the last five polls, the dif­fer­ence in the vote­shares of the BJP and Con­gress has hov­ered over 9 %— 10.40 % in 2002, 9.49 % in 2007, 9 % in 2012. In the last three elec­tions, Con­gress’ tally in the 182-mem­ber as­sem­bly has ranged from 51 to 61.

It might be too big a gap for the Con­gress to fill, with Modi’s per­son­al­ity cult show­ing lit­tle sign of di­min­ish­ing. Virb­hadra Singh (83), a po­lit­i­cal warhorse, is a sixth-term CM who en­tered pol­i­tics in 1962. His son Vikra­ma­ditya Singh (27), is likely to con­test polls. Vikra­madiya put on the fam­ily man­tle in 2012 when he suc­cess­fully con­tested elec­tions for pres­i­dent of state Youth Con­gress. Prem Ku­mar Dhu­mal (73), as Lok Sabha mem­ber for the first time in 1989, has been BJP’S face in Hi­machal for two decades. Anurag Thakur, Dhu­mal's son and a crick­eter ad­min­is­tra­tor-turned-politi­cian was elected as a Lok Sabha mem­ber in 2008. Thakur was re-elected to par­lia­ment in 2009 and again in 2014. Ja­gat Prakash Nadda, who is re­garded as the strong­est can­di­date in BJP for the CM post, started out as a stu­dent leader in 1975 when he joined the then Sam­purna Kranti move­ment started by Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) against Indira Gandhi. He en­tered state pol­i­tics in 1993. He served stints as the min­is­ter hold­ing for­est, en­vi­ron­ment and sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy min­is­ter from 2007-2010. He was then ap­pointed as BJP’S na­tional gen­eral sec­re­tary. He was in­ducted as health min­is­ter in Novem­ber 2014.

J P Nadda (BJP)

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