AMIT SHAH’S APPETITE GROWS
An expansionist BJP looks south and east ahead of Lok Sabha 2019
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