View: State polls will determine the future of local leaders and set the tone for 2019
The scenario in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh is unprecedented for BJP. It’s the first time the party is seeking an unprecedented fourth term with the incumbent chief ministers at the helm. The party won five terms since 1998 in Gujarat. But Narendra Modi led the campaign as chief minister three times: in 2002, 2007 and 2012. In 1998, when BJP secured a two-third majority under Keshubhai Patel’s leadership, Modi was based in Chandigarh, and was not handling Gujarat. In October 2001, he picked up the baton from Patel to steer the drifting BJP ship back on course
Chief minister Raman Singh remains unchallenged in Chhattisgarh since 2003. If BJP retains the state, it would again be a result of going against political logic. In the run-up to the first polls after the bifurcation of an earlier ‘united’ Madhya Pradesh, Singh, a nontribal, was pulled out of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in which he was a junior minister and deputed to lead BJP’s challenge in the state.
Although this was not the first instance of BJP nominating a state leader or chief ministerial candidate from a ‘non-dominant’ community — Modi’s selection in 2001 being the most significant instance of the axis of political leadership being shifted from socio-politically ‘dominant’ communities — Singh’s appointment raised eyebrows. Chhattisgarh, as a new state, had been chiefly established to address and correct tribal grievances in an earlier Madhya Pradesh with an earlier perceived development bias.
BJP took a calculated risk by appointing a non-tribal as CM. The experiment’s success emboldened it to adopt similar tactics — although not with the same results — in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana where chief ministers are not from non-dominant castes.
Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s rise is somewhat different. He was not in the picture till 2005. It was Uma Bharti who was leading the BJP campaign in 2003. The transition from the mercurial Bharti to Chouhan was not a single-step move. Organisational hand Babulal Gaur had held the job for 15 months, after Bharti quit following a Hubli court issuing a non-bailable warrant against her for her role in a 1994 riot case.
In contrast, in Rajasthan, where power alternates between Congress and BJP, the latter does not have a conventional base. Instead, it banks on charismatic leaders, since regions of the state were mainly part of pre-independent Princely States with little RSS presence. Even BJP’s iconic leader, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, never led the party to an emphatic victory. Eventually, he secured the honour of leading BJP to landslide victories in 2003 and in 2013. But this was after Rajasthan had turned decisively bipolar. The spectacular victory in 2013 was, in any case, largely due to the emerging ‘Modi wave’.
The results of these states going to polls will determine the political future of these three chief ministers. They will also bear on the internal equations within BJP. This is especially true for Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh where relations between the state and national leaderships are strained. Yet, because of BJP’s 2019 Lok Sabha campaign, acute divergences are unlikely to surface now.
For the Congress, too, these polls are crucial. Despite BSP leader Mayawati’s claims, the party is locked in an essentially direct fight with BJP. A solid performance will enhance Congress’ position while negotiating state-level alliances in 2019 with other anti-BJP parties. This explains its leaders’ insistence on setting terms for the alliance with BSP, and not the other way around.
BJP strategically played up the failure of Congress and BSP to forge an alliance. This would suit the party the most if 2019 can be pitched as a presidential-style contest rather than as an aggregation of state polls.
BJP president Amit Shah recently briefed party workers that campaign and publicity material would be generated and disseminated centrally. This indicates the understanding that one national narrative is seen to give the party the best shot for another tenure at the Centre. Additionally, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are the states where major issues expected to dominate the discourse in 2019 have already played out since this central government assumed office. This is also part of the ‘Hindutva heartland’. The verdict will indicate if events since 2014 are benefiting BJP or not.
Similarly, rural distress has become perceptible, with Madhya Pradesh the only state in which protesting farmers were fired upon by the state police. Joblessness is high, and if anti-incumbency has set in, the first symptoms should be visible here.
If BJP retains these states comfortably, the perception of disenchantment with the Centre will be proved to be not based on facts. A narrow victory for either will push all parties to work on electoral arithmetic better.