Now that the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh election schedule has been announced, it is worth repeating the obvious: depending on the results, there could be a sea change in the country’s overall political atmosphere. More specifically, the outcome in the two states will decide the dates of the next general elections, currently due in May 2014, and signal major realignments.
The D-day for Himachal is 4 November, and for Gujarat 13 and 17 December. Results will be known on 20 December.
First, Himachal. The BJP now has a big majority in the assembly, and if it successfully defends its title this time, it will not only have demolished anti-incumbency but also put the BJP as a potential contender for power at the centre. A defeat for the BJP here would not be disastrous, but it would raise a question-mark over the party’s durability.
Thanks to the diesel price hike and the curtailment of subsidised LPG cylinders, the BJP will try to put the blame on the centre, while the Congress will try to raise local issues of corruption and governance.
Second, Gujarat. This is the election that will decide the future of the BJP, the NDA and the UPA – not to speak of Narendra Modi himself.
With a thumping win of 117 seats in a 182-seat assembly in 2007, Modi has to win as convincingly this time to be a contender for the prime ministership in 2014. A moderate win – with a majority of, say, 95-100, will mean he has been dented by dissidents in the party, and the slim majority will empower Modi’s internal critics to flex their muscles.
At the state level, he will have to keep his flock happy and this could reduce his ability to govern unchallenged as in his previous two terms. At the central level, his rivals in the prime ministerial sweepstakes could lobby with the RSS and their NDA allies to back a different candidate since Modi does not look like a surefire vote-winner any more.
The third possibility – a defeat for Modi – will be calamitous for him and the BJP. The Congress could then think of bringing forward the 2014 poll to harness the favourable winds from a Gujarat win. Sonia and Rahul can rightfully claim to be giant-killers and the Congress’ prestige will rise skyhigh – which will give them a huge advantage in the next general elections.
So what do these elections mean for the Congress and the UPA? If the BJP wins both states, there is little possibility that the UPA will call for early elections. But it is also unlikely that the government will fall, since a rising BJP will give both the Congress and other regional parties cause for pause as they will have to consider the impact of Modi on the national scene and their minority vote base.
Parties like the Trinamool and Janata Dal (U) will be wary of the BJP, and they could be persuaded to keep the UPA going in case some other party tries to pull the plug.
The Samajwadi Party – which claims to be backing the Congress only to keep communal forces out – cannot now bring down the UPA when the BJP is roaring away, and Modi’s star is in the ascendant.
The biggest dilemma is for the BJP – if it wins both states convincingly.
The first point is that it will have to take a formal call on Modi’s leadership.
If it decides to opt for him, the party will have to play for larger stakes by trying to win over 180 seats in the Lok Sabha – that is, match Vajpayee’s 1999 feat. Without these numbers, there is no way the BJP can attract enough allies to form a government.
The chances are the BJP will implicitly give Modi a bigger role without formally giving him the mantle of leadership so that it can keep its options open after the elections and elect a different leader to bring in allies.
A weak BJP performance in Gujarat may be more preferable to the central party, since this will keep the NDA alive – but this also means any future NDA-2 government may be weaker than even UPA-2.
The future of Indian politics may turn upside down on 20 December.