A morale booster, not game-changer

The BJP has reason to feel elated because the lesser of the two evils won from West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.

As maiden victories — like first love — always remain etched in the mind for long, it would be unfair to grudge Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party the joys of a runaway win in Assam. For a party in dire necessity of an electoral morale booster, its claim after Thursday’s verdict that the BJP now has a presence from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and Kamrup to Kutch is almost correct. Nearly right — as the southernmost tip of India is not in Kerala, where too the party opened its account. Nonetheless, one has to look at the results of Assam and Kerala from the same prism as the spadework for both was done over decades by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

The BJP leadership converted this groundwork into a winnable formula by a combination of reaping the blunders of the Congress in its favour, striking strategic alliances and projecting local faces after inducting them from parties on the wane. The BJP’s voteshare, though still less than the Congress, jumped dramatically from around 12 per cent in 2011 — around which it hovered for more than a decade — to 29.5 per cent.

The BJP has reason to feel elated because the lesser of the two “evils” won from West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. The victory of the two mercurial women leaders from West Bengal and Tamil Nadu surely prevents the resurrection of two of Mr Modi’s bitterest adversaries — the Congress and the Left. But in this slight comfort also lurks the larger picture that Mr Modi’s rath is being checked time and again by satraps — Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, Bihar CM Nitish Kumar and now Mamata Banerjee and J. Jayalalithaa. It makes it particularly ominous for Mr Modi that the two women CMs have been emphatically re-elected without alliances. In 2011, this was not the case for both leaders as they struck pre-poll tieups.

Mr Modi’s elation, however, is because parliamentary management may be a shade easier and he may be able to shepherd key bills that are pending, most importantly the one on the Goods and Services Tax. Ms Banerjee has already declared she will not rescind on her promise to back this crucial taxation reform, and said that despite ideological differences with the BJP she will not act as a disruptor in Parliament. But her pledge will also provide ground for Mr Modi’s discomfort as this support will not come without the expectation of a return gift. West Bengal is saddled with a huge debt burden and Ms Banerjee has petitioned Mr Modi on several occasions.

Mr Modi’s response to a possible demand from the West Bengal CM will also determine how aggressively she pushes her national ambitions. Post-victory, she had said that barring Mr Modi and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, all other leaders were her friends. When asked if she will campaign in Punjab, Ms Banerjee made it clear that an invite from the Aam Aadmi Party would not be turned down. Ms Banerjee also indicated ambitions for her party outside West Bengal — particularly in parts of the Northeast. In the list of potential prime ministerial candidates among the satraps, one name just got added.

There could well be another — Ms Jayalalithaa — but she has chosen circumspection. Her past proximity with Mr Modi is greater than Ms Banerjee’s, but in politics, self-interest is paramount. Uttar Pradesh goes to the polls in the first quarter of 2017 and if the present buzz around Mayawati making a return is true, the proverbial “Teen Kanya” may become biggest threats to Mr Modi’s comeback plans. To overcome this, Mr Modi will have to suitably utilise the small timeframe between now and the next round of polls, and overcome parliamentary hurdles to the reform legislation now being blocked. He has to do his Rajya Sabha arithmetic minutely before personally talking to individual leaders to get their support. This is a task that should not be left to parliamentary affairs minister M. Venkaiah Naidu or his deputy Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.

Given the hugely significant victory in Assam, there will be no dearth of party leaders to immediately embark on another round of sectarian hostilities. In any case, one section within the party — specially the so-called fringe elements — will give the credit for this win solely to the RSS. They will argue that the Sangh can swing elections whenever it plays the “C” card — Uttar Pradesh in 2014 and now Assam. For the sake of his government, it will be prudent for Mr Modi to direct his leaders, particularly incoming CM Sarbananda Sonowal, to steer clear of the illegal immigrants issue for now and give top priority to development programmes, the absence of which had accelerated Tarun Gogoi’s fall.

There will be a vacancy in the ministry and Mr Modi should use this opportunity to drop deadwood and scrap the sides of talent-deficit urn at his disposal. A reshuffle is a necessity and for his sake, Mr Modi must make a major statement with his decisions. A lacklustre shuffle of his pack or not pushing it back will hugely dent his image of a decisive leader. While Mr Modi has to choose if he wishes to bid for another term on the development plank or on a divisive campaign, for the Congress there are fewer choices.

The party now runs governments only in Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Manipur and Meghalaya. These states elect just 42 seats to the Lok Sabha. Of these, polls are due in Karnataka in mid-2018 and in Himachal Pradesh early that year and there seems little likelihood of it returning to office. Since the 2014 debacle, Sonia Gandhi and Congress vice-chief Rahul Gandhi have devised no counter-strategy.

On the reverse, it would make sense for Mr Modi to stop being carried away by his own rhetoric and understand that the victory in Assam, however symbolic, will not impact the larger picture. After all, the state elects only 14 Lok Sabha members and the party already has seven. Moreover, political developments in Assam don’t have any major impact elsewhere and this victory, besides boosting the morale of party workers, will do little else.

( Source : Columnist )
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