Referendums are Indian democracy’s conundrums. For the first time, state elections have become a barometer to measure the popularity of a national leader. The five Assembly elections, that will extend to early March and be held across Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur, are a combined popularity contest between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his adversaries.
As over 160 million voters in five states choose 670 members of state legislatures, the national narrative is not built around which party will win or lose. Instead, political pundits have billed the outcome as a verdict on the PM’s personal popularity and governance record for the past 32 months. The real battle is Modi vs the Rest, and not between the political parties contesting the elections. All, including the BJP, are responsible for such a political polarisation.
Sticking to habit, the BJP has refrained from naming chief ministerial candidates. Modi is its singular cult campaigner and vote catcher both. It is banking on his clean image and credible character as a leader who has delivered governance through innovation to mobilise voters. Amit Shah, the youngest-ever party chief, has created an organisational apparatus confident of carrying his boss’s message to each and every booth in all the constituencies the party is contesting.
Its national leaders take local names onstage only for courtesy’s sake. They seek votes in the name of conformity instead of confrontation between the states and the Centre for development. The massive saffron publicity strategy is built around Mo-Sh; local leaders get only marginal space on visual and printed poll material. In comparison, other parties not only declared their CM candidates in advance but also have chosen Modi as their combined target. The Congress has declared its CM candidates in Punjab and Uttarakhand. AAP has done the same in Punjab, as the Samajwadi and the BSP have in UP. So have local parties in other states. Barring minor players, all major regional outfits as well as the Congress have chosen to attack Modi and Modi alone at their rallies.
For example, both Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav target Modi and not the BJP in each and every election speech and event. In Goa, the Aam Aadmi Party’s guns are trained on Modi. The BJP perceives the five electoral battles as an exercise to achieve its Congress Mukt Bharat mission. The party wants to reinvent itself as a pan-national presence rather than being seen as a predominantly cowbelt phenomenon with 71 MPs in UP and 22 in Bihar. Currently it is India’s largest party, controlling 17 of the 32 states and Union Territories either by itself or with allies. The Congress is confined to tiny states in the Northeast with Karnataka as the only saving grace. The content, contours and colours of the State Wars of 2017 will have far-reaching political repercussions. Likely political scenarios:
If BJP wins all the five states: Currently, it rules Goa and Punjab, out of the five. However, it has been working with missionary zeal for the past two years to win Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Over two dozen cabinet ministers and chief ministers have been pressed to campaign extensively for the party. Shah has put in place highly advanced, tech-driven machinery to track each and every move of not just the BJP’s opponents but also of his own party candidates and leaders.
The might of the entire Central-level political and government apparatus has been unleashed to deliver on many long overdue projects. If it retains Goa, and its Punjab alliance with the Akali Dal is victorious and UP, Uttarakhand and Manipur fall in its kitty, it will be established beyond doubt that it’s Brand Modi and not the party, which can deliver consecutive electoral victories even in the absence of a proclaimed chief minister. Modi had earlier delivered Maharashtra and Haryana using the same strategy. It will also prove that Mo-Sh is the BJP’s perfect and invincible team, capable of annihilating all antagonists. It will also finish whatever little opposition is left in the party. Finally a clean sweep in all the five states will enable Modi to impose his choice for all important political posts, including that of the President and the Vice-President. For the Congress, it will be beginning of a slow death. And a convincing vote against Rahul’s leadership qualities.
If the BJP wins only UP and Uttarakhand, and loses other three states: A victory in UP after over two decades will be the crowning glory of Modi’s national debut. It would compensate the loss of Punjab and Goa, which play a marginal role in national politics. UP is MoSh’s new electoral laboratory where their political acumen and election management skills will be put to the test. Since the NDA won 73 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats and led in over 325 Assembly segments, defeat will be a setback for the PM and his party chief to cement their national relevance. A decisive win in UP will be enough for the Prime Minister to get his nominee elected as the President of India and install his personal candidate as the CM of India’s largest state in terms of the number of legislators.
If the BJP loses all the states: Such a dismal outcome will indicate the erosion of Modi’s personal popularity and Shah’s fabled organisational skills. It will lead to realignment of anti-Modi forces within the party and may encourage RSS to intervene more purposefully in government and political matters. It may nudge a section in the BJP to seek a change in the top leadership. It will also revive the cheer of chief ministers and Union ministers who now find themselves hardly relevant in the decision-making process. Above all, it will be major setback for the PM who will be forced to compromise with other parties on choosing the least-hostile Presidential candidate.
Debacles in all the five states will also bolster the demand for a collective leadership in the BJP, capable of contesting the remaining state elections leading up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Above all it will sabotage Modi’s ambition of making India Congress-mukt by 2019. A majority in the Rajya Sabha will become a pipe dream, crippling Modi’s ability to enact major economic, social and political reforms.
It’s ironic that Modi’s mojo is dependant on the collective will of just 16 per cent of the national votes in five states and not his politics and governance. The poll outcome can either be a loud wake-up call for Modi to reimagine his role as a nation and party builder, or a resounding mandate for the consolidation of Brand Modi.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla