STATES OF SAFFRON
BJP reaps the benefits of having regional leaders with a mass base in four states going for a December verdict. A chillier winter beckons Congress.
The bad news from the states comes to Congress at its worst of times. In a year that saw the disintegration of a Teflon-coated prime minister who could have been the moderniser of India but ended up as an embarrassment to the country and a liability to his party, Congress badly needed a miracle. A debacle is in store. The India Today Group-ORG poll in four states going for a December verdict predicts a resurgent BJP taking all. As the velocity of Force Modi energises the saffron base, performers from the provinces add that extra push to BJP’s do-or-bedamned battle for India. For the Indian Right hoping for a summer thriller in 2014 after a decade of desolation and defeatism, this is an inspiring prologue. A chillier winter beckons Congress.
Narendra Modi may have provided the atmospherics, but the states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi (Mizoram is not included in this poll) are reaping the dividends of better investments in leadership. Two chief ministers, quiet performers from the House of Saffron, racing towards a hat trick; a feisty Rani with a common touch on the comeback trail; and a low-key doctor with a winning prescription fighting for his chief ministerial debut in the Capital’s triangular contest—a perfect blend of the power of grassroots politics and the rewards of good governance. The losers’ story is the familiar narrative of lost credibility and incumbency fatigue—and, of course, the inevitable tragedy of being a Congress leader in the time of Manmohan Singh meltdown.
The poll, as the findings show, is a referendum on the incumbent as well as the challenger. Each state, in its own way, votes for change, which doesn’t necessarily always mean a change of guard, as in Madhya Pradesh and the neighbouring Chhattisgarh for instance. Nearly 60 per cent want the re-election of Madhya Pradesh’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who has been chief minister since 2005 when he replaced Babulal Gaur. It was Uma Bharati, in the blockbuster Assembly elections of 2003, who stormed the Congress citadel and hoisted the flag of saffron on Shamla Hills of Bhopal. It was the year when the tempestuous sanyasin in Madhya Pradesh and the raging queen in Rajasthan brought an overdose of oestrogen to the Sangh Parivar. Bharati was too volatile to sustain the mandate, and her successor Gaur was too anodyne to inspire the base. Chouhan did more than consolidate.
The quintessential Parivar member who never missed a moment to remind the state of the Hindi culture, Chouhan had the choice—and the credentials—to become the flagbearer of Hindutva. Very early on, he realised that sacred
cows (he banned their slaughter) and Surya Namaskar (he introduced the yogic drill to schools) alone would not make him a twenty-first century leader with a market value. His achievements in agriculture and power sector are remarkable, but Chouhan has wisely acknowledged the importance of social capital in the politics of development. The numbers vindicate: More than sixty per cent of voters aged between 18 and 40 want him to continue, and he is the choice of 65 per cent of the college-educated. This demographic dividend is an endorsement of not Chouhan the saviour of endangered cows but Chouhan the moderniser, even though, being a made-to-order heartland politician whose hallmark is not flamboyance but grey solidity, his appeal is local.
Today BJP is enjoying the benefits of having such local heroes with a mass base. Raman Singh of Chhattisgarh is the other performer who exudes durability and dependability in equal measure: Fifty-six per cent want to give him a third stint in arguably India’s most dangerous state where the Maoist bloodlust continues to make the best use of India’s confusion on internal security, and that is why, in spite of the Chief Minister’s popularity rating, fifty-eight per cent do not approve of the way the government is dealing with the insurgency. The Raman effect in governance is more reflected in his record in reaching out to the lowest rungs with policies like the one-rupee rice scheme—his version of food security. The first elected chief minister of Chhattisgarh is at full throttle, still.
In Rajasthan, though, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s last- minute sop offensive seems to have little impact on the Comeback Queen: Fifty-five per cent want change. It took only five years for Gehlot to turn Rajasthan into a state where 41 per cent think the government’s biggest failure is the rising crime against women. Obviously, Gehlot’s saris-to-the-poor scheme did not change this perception. The lady in chiffon has made all the difference. In 2003, in the desert storm of an election, Vasundhara Raje conquered Rajasthan with 120 seats. In five years she squandered the mandate. Her comeback battle of 2013 is all about regaining the romance of 2003 and repudiating the humiliation of 2008. Power broke her covenant with the people; she wasted the opportunity to join the club of the infallibles, currently occupied by Modi, Chouhan and Raman Singh. The poll shows that she is all set for a second beginning.
The poll denies Congress’ most enduring chief minister a fourth term. In the triangular battle for Delhi, it is still Sheila Dikshit’s election to win or lose, but the entry of the usurper called Arvind Kejriwal has changed the scene as well as the theme. BJP, to her horror, looked beyond the worn-out Goels and Malhotras and came out with a refreshing chief minister candidate—Dr Harsh Vardhan. The poll gives BJP 36 seats, Congress 22 and Aam Aadmi Party 8; but Sheila is the ideal chief minister for the Delhiite. She is still the city’s succour mom. In another time, she could have been Congress’ Modi. She lives in the time of Manmohan and is paying the price—add to that a certain amount of Sheila fatigue. It is not the best time to be a Congress leader, and it seems the national appeal of Modi, as revealed by successive opinion polls, has given that extra dash of saffron to the Assembly elections.
Modi himself is a vindication of an abiding truth in Indian politics today: Power has shifted from the headquarters to the provinces. The mythology of Narendra Modi is built on the record of Gujarat as India’s best governed state; in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, variations of Gujarat are on display. Even as the party’s high command showcased glorified apparatchiks at war, leaders in the states were working hard to preserve the fiefs. In the Congress, it is the story of orphaned states: The Centre is weak, the states are weaker. The four states account for 72 Lok Sabha seats; come the summer of 2014 and these accelerators from the states will be in the vanguard with Modi in his battle for India. Rahul Gandhi’s counterattack will get lonelier. At a time when a nervous government is planning to banish opinion polls, the much disputed science of psephology is closer to the truth: India is in no mood to forgive the party that let it down so badly, and the colour of change is saffron.
Modi’s mythology is built on the record of Gujarat as the best governed state; in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, variations of Gujarat are on display.