Polls will test reforms push
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)