AMIT SHAH’S AP­PETITE GROWS

An ex­pan­sion­ist BJP looks south and east ahead of Lok Sabha 2019

India Today - - POLITICS | BJP - By Uday Mahurkar

AShe sits sip­ping morn­ing tea at his 11, Ak­bar Road res­i­dence in Delhi, the first thing BJP chief Amit Shah does is scan the pa­pers for news of the party from the eastern and the south­ern states. He even has an aide specif­i­cally tasked with the job of glean­ing news of the suc­cess of BJP pro­grammes, or rifts in non-NDA par­ties and pub­lic ag­i­ta­tions against the rul­ing dis­pen­sa­tions. All these are flagged for dis­cus­sions with the party’s point men in the south and east—Kailash Vi­jay­vargiya, Ram Mad­hav and P. Mu­ralid­har Rao, in charge of Ben­gal, the North­east and Tamil Nadu-Te­lan­gana, re­spec­tively.

The fo­cus of the new Chanakya of In­dian pol­i­tics is quite un­der­stand­able. If the BJP has to come to power again at the Cen­tre in 2019, it must ex­tend its foot­print sub­stan­tially in these two re­gions. In 2014, ex­cept for As­sam, Odisha and Kar­nataka, the Modi magic didn’t have much impact. Of the to­tal 160-odd MPs that come from these states, the party won three seats in Andhra Pradesh, two in Ben­gal, one in Tamil Nadu and Te­lan­gana and had noth­ing to show in Ker­ala,

The BJP did win seven seats in As­sam and Odisha and six in Kar­nataka, which was a be­gin­ning. Since then, the party won the As­sam as­sem­bly polls with the help of a skill­fully crafted coali­tion and also in­creased its vote share in Ben­gal and Ker­ala, but it’s still way be­hind on its Mission 2019 tar­gets. Af­ter the land­slide win in Ut­tar Pradesh, there’s a new spring in Amit Shah’s stride as he trav­els across the coun­try, vis­it­ing state af­ter state as part of his 95-day plan to galvanise the BJP or­gan­i­sa­tion for 2019—and the state as­sem­bly elec­tions en route. In­deed, some of the as­sem­bly polls will be like pre­vi­ous bat­tle rounds be­fore the epic con­test for the Lok Sabha.

SHAH IS ON A 95DAY PLAN, VIS­IT­ING STATE AF­TER STATE TO GALVANISE THE BJP OR­GAN­I­SA­TION FOR THE 2019 LOK SABHA POLLS

The fo­cus on the east and the south is also to off­set the con­ceiv­able losses in some of the west­ern and north­ern states, where the BJP has reached sat­u­ra­tion point. Shah and his boss, Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi, have iden­ti­fied 120 ‘weak seats’, a ma­jor­ity of them from these two re­gions which the party aims to win. The party chief re­fuses to name the seats and ad­mits there’s no set strat­egy. It dif­fers from con­stituency to con­stituency but has ap­par­ently been put to­gether af­ter months of re­search on the po­lit­i­cal sce­nario of each state.

THE com­mon thread of these var­i­ously stitched strate­gies is to project the prime min­is­ter as a mes­siah of the poor, a clean leader who, through cen­tral schemes like the Ujjwala cook­ing gas, Mu­dra loans for the skilled and Jan Dhan ac­counts, has com­mit­ted him­self fully to their wel­fare. Shah is sure the party will suc­ceed. “Af­ter 2014, we are a strong force in all eight states in the east as well as the south. Modiji is the na­tion’s most pop­u­lar prime min­is­ter af­ter in­de­pen­dence and is seen as a sym­bol of change. We’ll take full ad­van­tage of this,” he says.

Shah’s most re­cent move has been to strengthen the BJP’s elec­toral net­work. He has floated a na­tion­wide vis­tarak (ex­pan­sion) scheme by rais­ing an army of ded­i­cated party work­ers. They are in three cat­e­gories—4,000 work­ers who will work full-time six months a year, some who will de­vote a full year to the party and an­other 730 who will re­main en­trenched in se­lect con­stituen­cies till the 2019 polls are over.

Plus there is an army of over 368,000 work­ers who will ded­i­cate 15 days each be­fore 2019 to the party’s ex­pan­sion drive. Their fo­cus will be to strengthen the party at the booth level, the top­most pri­or­ity for Modi and Shah. BJP Yuva Mor­cha pres­i­dent Poonam Ma­ha­jan says the “youth bri­gade is brac­ing for the chal­lenge on a war foot­ing”. She her­self has been tour­ing across In­dia to put the plans in place.

AN­OTHER U.P. IN THE MAK­ING

The fact that Shah’s clar­ion call of “Ebar Bangla” (‘This time Ben­gal’) has the rul­ing Tri­namool Congress wor­ried was ev­i­dent when a ner­vous Ben­gal chief min­is­ter Ma­mata Banerjee thun­dered back, “We will tar­get Delhi if you tar­get Ben­gal.” The in­crease in the BJP’s vote share, up from 10.5 per cent in the 2016 as­sem­bly elec­tions to as much as 31 per cent in the re­cent by­elec­tions this year shows how it has got the sta­tus of prin­ci­pal op­po­si­tion in West Ben­gal to­day.

Nat­u­rally, the party has gained at the ex­pense of the Left and the Congress. “The big­gest ad­van­tage of the BJP is that it is untested in Ben­gal pol­i­tics and peo­ple are will­ing to give it a try,” says an­a­lyst Biswanath Chakrabarty, pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Rabindra Bharati Univer­sity. “More­over, the party is in power at the Cen­tre, it has cadre strength, or­gan­i­sa­tional abil­i­ties and money, so it’s a per­fect match for the TMC.”

That the TMC govern­ment runs like an autarchy that won’t tol­er­ate dis­sent is a com­mon plaint in the state. The vi­o­lence un­leashed on BJP and CPI(M) sup­port­ers, com­bined with the govern­ment’s ‘Mus­lim ap­pease­ment’ mea­sures (the lat­ter count for 28 per cent of to­tal votes) has cre­ated a UP-like sit­u­a­tion, primed for the BJP to ex­ploit.

Allegations of “mi­nor­ity com­mu­nity ap­pease­ment” had sur­faced in Oc­to­ber 2016, with the high court chastis­ing the TMC govern­ment for the curbs placed on Puja cel­e­bra­tions (it wanted to give the co­in­cid­ing Muhar­ram fes­tiv­i­ties a boost). State BJP pres­i­dent Dilip Ghosh says “the sit­u­a­tion is worse than in UP”. The Sangh pari­var is also ex­ploit­ing the sudden surge in ‘Hindu sen­ti­ments’. Ram­navami and Hanu­man Jayanti cel­e­bra­tions have seen huge par­tic­i­pa­tion this year. Hindu sup­port­ers were seen march­ing with swords, clubs and other weapons. Such was the mood that the CM even tried to pin down the lead­ers by in­vok­ing the Arms Act. She soon back­tracked though, fear­ing a Hindu back­lash.

“Ma­mata is so scared of the cross-cur­rents her ap­pease­ment has wrought that she’s now try­ing to es­tab­lish her Brah­min cre­den­tials, even chant­ing mantras to prove she’s is a sachcha Hindu,” laughs Ghosh. In­ter­est­ingly, the BJP is also tar­get­ing the 1.75 lakh Hindu vot­ers of Bangladeshi ori­gin who are feel­ing the pinch most of the TMC’s al­leged pro-Mus­lim tilt. The party is ze­ro­ing in on 22 of the 42 seats for 2019. “These are the ar­eas where the party’s vote share in­creased by 17-22 per cent. They can be a real game changer,” Ghosh adds.

That said, the party’s big weak­ness is the lack of a charis­matic leader who can take on Ma­mata Banerjee. “Even to­day, the BJP is heav­ily de­pen­dent on the cen­tral lead­er­ship and state lead­ers have to cart in the big names from Delhi to pull in the crowds,” says Chakrabarty.

THE CORO­MAN­DEL COAST PLAN

Of all the states in the BJP’s ‘Coro­man­del Coast’ plan, party strate­gists find Odisha one of the most promis­ing. The pan­chayat elec­tion re­sults in March have al­ready in­di­cated as much. Many even be­lieve the BJP

SUCH WAS THE MOOD THAT MA­MATA EVEN TRIED TO PIN DOWN THE HINDU LEAD­ERS, IN­VOK­ING THE ARMS ACT. BUT SHE SOON BACK­TRACKED

has re­placed the Congress as the main op­po­si­tion party af­ter the saf­fron party won 297 seats. It was still a dis­tant sec­ond, though, to the rul­ing BJD, which bagged 473 of the to­tal 846 zila par­ishad seats. Even then, that the BJD strength came down by over 35 per cent and the Congress by over 70 per cent sur­prised many.

Af­ter his Jan­uary 2015 visit, Shah had sensed there was anti-in­cum­bency in the state but the state BJP unit was not ready to cash in on it yet. So a three-point plan was put in place. Odisha in-charge Arun Singh and Shah’s point man there, Union MoS for petroleum Dhar­men­dra Prad­han, were en­trusted with tak­ing the Modi govern­ment’s in­fra­struc­ture and wel­fare schemes to the peo­ple; or­gan­is­ing ag­i­ta­tions against the Naveen Pat­naik govern­ment’s fail­ures; and ex­pand­ing the party in the 36,000 state elec­tion booths (the BJP had a pres­ence in just 17,000 at the time).

Mean­while, the Cen­tre started im­ple­ment­ing a slew of in­fra­struc­ture projects. In the past three years, the Modi govern­ment has an­nounced rail projects worth nearly Rs 15,000 crore and high­ways work over 4,800 km. Odisha’s petroleum sec­tor has seen an in­vest­ment of Rs 1.25 lakh crore. As many as 2.5 mil­lion new cook­ing gas con­nec­tions have been al­lot­ted. Says Prad­han: “The state is a lab­o­ra­tory for the Modi govern­ment’s wel­fare pol­i­tics. The re­sults are go­ing to sur­prise ev­ery­one.”

State BJP Yuva Mor­cha leader Tankad­har Tri­pathi ex­plains, “Odisha is now turn­ing to­wards as­pi­ra­tional pol­i­tics, and here the BJP holds a dis­tinct ad­van­tage.” The party is aim­ing at 13-18 Lok Sabha seats here in 2019 and a vic­tory in the as­sem­bly polls, which will be held si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

AN OP­POR­TU­NITY OPENS UP

Till re­cently, the BJP was seen as a cow­belt party in Tamil Nadu in the back­drop of the north ver­sus south de­bate and the anti-Hindi ag­i­ta­tions. It had to worm its way in through the NDA by tap­ping the Dra­vid­ian par­ties. But the party fi­nally has a pres­ence here now, es­pe­cially in the west­ern districts.

With the AIADMK still in tur­moil, the BJP is keep­ing its al­liance op­tions open, fo­cus­ing more on work­ing the caste com­bi­na­tions to its ad­van­tage. The so­cial en­gi­neer­ing it is ex­per­i­ment­ing with is sig­nif­i­cant—some 150 par­ty­men are work­ing on the ground even now. The fo­cus is on sup­port­ers from dom­i­nant castes like The­var, Van­ni­yar, Nadar and Gounder, and a back­ward com­mu­nity called the Arund­hati­yar, who make up over 60 per cent of the Dalit seg­ment in the state.

Most of these castes have been with the AIADMK and could look to PM Modi as a suit­able charis­matic leader to re­place the late Jay­alalithaa. The BJP has de­lib­er­ately fo­cused on these pro-AIADMK castes as it knows the cadre-based DMK might be a dif­fi­cult nut to crack. The BJP mem­ber­ship in the state too has re­port­edly risen, from 961,000 to 3.7 mil­lion. The party’s plan is to woo smaller Dra­vid­ian par­ties as po­ten­tial al­lies as elec­tions draw near, keep­ing an align­ment with the AIADMK as a pos­si­ble last op­tion. It is eye­ing 11-18 of the 39 Lok Sabha seats in the state.

How­ever, here too the BJP is miss­ing a pop­u­lar face to front their cam­paign. Su­per­star Ra­jinikanth, who’s been threat­en­ing a foray into pol­i­tics for years now, would be an ideal choice. Whether he trans­forms as the mas­cot of the BJP or strikes out on his own, Ra­jini will be a game changer in Tamil Nadu. The BJP also lacks an across-the-state net­work which will take time to evolve.

CLOSER ON THE RADAR

In, Te­lan­gana, which has 17 seats, the party is bank­ing on the grow­ing dis­con­tent with the Te­lan­gana Rash­tra Samithi (TRS) govern­ment to work in its favour. Sig­nif­i­cant sec­tions of farm­ers and stu­dents have turned against the govern­ment for not liv­ing up to its prom­ises. Chief Min­is­ter K. Chan­drasekhara Rao even left the in­au­gu­ral ses­sion of the Os­ma­nia Univer­sity cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tions with­out speak­ing, ap­pre­hen­sive of the stu­dent protests.

The mi­nor­ity ap­pease­ment bo­gey might work in the BJP’s favour here too, es­pe­cially af­ter the TRS govern­ment’s an­nounce­ment of 12 per cent quota for Mus­lims. “Post-bi­fur­ca­tion in 2014, the Congress has be­come a non-en­tity in Te­lan­gana,” says Union labour min­is­ter Ban­daru Dat­ta­treya. “There is a po­lit­i­cal vac­uum as peo­ple are fed up with the KCR govern­ment’s poli­cies. The BJP is the only al­ter­na­tive to the TRS.”

Mean­while, in Ker­ala, the party has tried to wave the rad­i­cal Is­lamist card to its ad­van­tage. The party has a ten­u­ous tie-up with a Hindu Ezhava con­sol­i­da­tion, the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), and a few other fringe out­fits, but re­la­tions with these have been fickle at best. The tit-for-tat po­lit­i­cal mur­ders in the north in­volv­ing the RSS and the CPI(M), es­pe­cially in Chief Min­is­ter Pi­narayi Vi­jayan’s home district Kan­nur, have kept the pot boil­ing in New Delhi, but has had lit­tle impact back home. It is true that the BJP has made a pres­ence for

THE PARTY’S PLAN IS TO WOO SMALLER DRA­VID­IAN PAR­TIES AS AL­LIES AS ELEC­TIONS DRAW NEAR, KEEP­ING AN ALIGN­MENT WITH THE AIADMK AS A LAST OP­TION

it­self in the state af­ter Modi be­came prime min­is­ter. The party has widened its mass base, kept in­fight­ing to a min­i­mum and has even posed chal­lenges to the rul­ing LDF govern­ment on oc­ca­sion. But it’s still a long way off from of­fer­ing a po­lit­i­cal al­ter­na­tive to the Left or the Congress-led UDF. THE

main rea­son for this is that it’s yet to find a cred­i­ble ally among the mi­nori­ties—Mus­lims (26.6 per cent) and Chris­tians (18.4 per cent) con­sti­tute roughly 45 per cent of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion in the state.

The party says it’s fo­cus­ing on 11 of the 20 seats in the state for 2019, a tall or­der as it has never had an MP from the state, and vote share, even with the Modi wave of 2014, never crossed 11 per cent. The re­ported in­crease in party mem­ber­ship, from 4 lakh to 15 lakh, though, is a good sign. A cru­cial con­cern for the BJP is that it is yet to re­al­is­ti­cally iden­tify a po­lit­i­cal plat­form for it­self in the state. Even the ‘beef ban’ can tor­ment the party at the grass­roots level here, as the last by­elec­tion in Malap­pu­ram showed.

In the North­east, af­ter As­sam, it now has two more state gov­ern­ments—in Arunachal Pradesh and Ma­nipur. The party has taken the smart al­liances route to bet­ter its po­si­tion in the re­gion. Last year, Shah, party gen­eral sec­re­tary Ram Mad­hav and As­sam leader and min­is­ter Hi­manta Biswa Sarma cob­bled to­gether the North­east Demo­cratic Al­liance of 11 non-Congress par­ties to fight for the 25 seats from the re­gion. Right now, the BJP has eight of these, seven of which are from As­sam. The plan is to take this fig­ure to 20 by cap­i­tal­is­ing on the un­prece­dented de­vel­op­ment be­ing ush­ered in by the Modi govern­ment in the re­gion in the form of huge in­fra­struc­ture projects, par­tic­u­larly in the rail­ways. Clearly, Shah has laid the tracks for 2019. How smooth the ride will be in the un­claimed ter­ri­to­ries is still an open ques­tion.

with Amar­nath K. Menon, Amitabh Sri­vas­tava, Romita Datta and Jeemon Ja­cob

WHAT’S FOR DESSERT? BJP chief Amit Shah hav­ing lunch at a Dalit colony in Ther­at­pally vil­lage, Nal­go­nda, Te­lan­gana

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