PM Modi interacting with the media at the start of Monsoon Session of Parliament, on July 18, 2016.
The mood was upbeat. The party had scored a first in North East by winning Assam, after two years of drought monsoon Gods were showering bountiful blessings, the cabinet expansion and reshuffle was, by and large, hailed as a masterly exercise which combined political messaging, regional aspirations, caste equations and administrative requirements. And the Indian economy and stock markets not just weathered Brexit well, the timing too was Godsend. Our own Rexit all but drowned in the global hullabaloo.
So all was going well for the BJP. Or so it seemed. But the political developments of the past few days have seen the BJP ceding advantage to its rivals. The BJP leadership which prides itself on thinking and planning ahead, outsmarting and outwitting its rivals with a mix of strategy, speed and resources, is no longer looking all that pat. Their winning ways, the deft touch, the masterly strokes, all seem to be deserting the BJP as its leadership finds itself outmanoeuvred and outwitted.
It all started with Arunachal Pradesh. Of course the cat was set amongst the pigeons by the Supreme Court but then the BJP should have anticipated it; especially after Uttarakhand. The reversal is not just about losing a remote state to Congress. The manner in which congress got its act together in Arunachal, marshalled its troops and outsmarted the BJ , it gave Congress just the lifeline it needed at a time when the party was gasping for oxygen, resigned to a slow, agonising and humiliating political demise. The Arunachal comeback headlined by India’s largest selling newspaper as “Congress snatching victory from the Jaws of Defeat” has given congressmen across the country hope and a reason to believe in themselves.
What the congress leadership could not do since the crushing defeat it suffered in May 2014, the BJP managed it by its needless and ill timed adventurism in Arunachal. And the party may repeat its folly if the leadership continues to depend and be guided by the likes of Himanta Biswa Sharma who crossed over from congress just before Assam elections. Sharma believes in the end justifies the means dictum, is over ambitious and too smart by half. BJP needs to expand in North East and for that it needs the likes of Sharma but they need to be reined in and not allowed to lord over the party cadre. Otherwise, as a BJP leader said, na ghar ke rahenge na ghat ke.
Then came the announcement of Sheila Dixit as the congress chief ministerial candidate in Uttar Pradesh. It’s unlikely she and Raj Babbar can galvanise the party to victory in UP, but if the road show in Lucknow was any indication the duo has definitely succeeded in energising the party worker. The party may still end up finishing at the bottom of the charts in UP but the entry of Sheila Dixit has complicated matters for the BJP which is looking bereft of a strategy in this crucial state.
With the three other political parties now projecting a face in these elections in Akhilesh, Mayawati and Sheila Dixit, how long can BJP avoid this question? So far the BJP has maintained that it will not project a face –or do it at the right time–but the fact is that with Sheila joining the fray, BJP’s hand is almost forced. They may still not announce a CM candidate saying they have many leaders to fit the role but one can see through their discomfiture. The Brahmin card has been stolen by Congress, the Dalit face is Mayawati and Akhilesh is the OBC face. BJP is trying its own rainbow coalition of castes with non-Jatav Dalit, non-Yadav OBC and upper castes. But surely the electorate of India’s biggest state, which returned 73 NDA MP’s in 2014, deserve to know who their chief minister will be if they vote for BJP in 2017. The one winning horse the BJP could have backed in UP suffers from a wrong surname handicap; Varun Gandhi.
The UP battle is truly open and the BJP is definitely a serious contender here. But here again the turn of events is making BJP look more like a reactive force than a proactive one.
But it’s in Punjab that the BJP has suffered the biggest shocker in the exit of Sidhu. With Sidhu gone, the party has lost its most charismatic face in Punjab. Sidhu is not just all charisma; he is the right caste as well (Jat Sikh). Sidhu has not just left the party faceless in Punjab; his timing has also left the BJP top brass red faced and squirming. He quit on the first day of the monsoon session, just a few weeks after he was nominated to the upper house. Sidhu’s angst with the Badal-Jaitly was one of the country’s worst kept political secrets, so who brokered the deal of Sidhu’s Rajya Sabha membership in return of his silence.
If Sidhu becomes the face of AAP in Punjab –as is widely speculated –Punjab elections really open up.
Let’s look at the possible outcomes: the Akali-BJP combination will want the opposition vote to be divided between Congress and AAP. This means they can return to power. The Congress would like its vote share to remain intact and in addition get the entire anti-incumbency vote. That will ensure a congress win. AAP will like to have a repeat of Delhi which means AAP getting all the anti Akali -BJP vote and a Congress washout. That’s what happened in 2014 when AAP secured about 24% vote share in Punjab, just marginally behind SAD and won 4 seats (the same tally as Akali Dal).
For BJP, it’s the third scenario which gives them the nightmare. They don’t mind losing Punjab to Congress. But an AAP victory in Punjab brings the party and Kejriwal back on centre stage in national politics. A win in Punjab and the BJP will find the AAP cadre swarming Gujarat which goes to elections in December 2017.
A re-energised congress is something the BJP is still comfortable dealing with in 2019. But not a revitalized Kejriwal and AAP.
A scenario which the BJP may just have forced upon itself by forcing Sidhu’s hand.
(Sanjeev Srivastava is founder editor of EditPlatter.Com, India’s first intelligent News Curator, and former India Editor of BBC)