Modi's Cabinet reshuffle targets 350-plus seats in 2019: Party balancing polarisation with social engineering

With eyes firmly on 2019 , the Narendra Modi government is all set for an expansion and a Cabinet reshuffle on Sunday morning. BJP president Amit Shah has rolled out a blueprint for 350-plus seats in the Lok Sabha elections and true to the party's ruthless approach to elections, some major heads are expected to roll and key appointments will be made.

Union minister Mahendra Nath Pandey's appointment as Uttar Pradesh BJP president, in place of deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya, has kicked-off a re-configuring of the caste calculus ahead of the general election.

The seasoned BJP leader, one of the better known Brahmin faces of the party in the state, had served as a minister in previous BJP governments in Uttar Pradesh. Shah's decision to put Pandey in charge of the state unit appears to be aimed at consolidating the party's hold over the state's sizeable Brahmin population.

Modis Cabinet reshuffle targets 350-plus seats in 2019: Party balancing polarisation with social engineering

A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah. PTI

With caste being a key political factor in the state where the party opted for a Thakur in Yogi Adityanath as chief minister, Pandey's choice is likely an exercise that seeks to keep the caste equation stable.

His predecessor Maurya came from the OBC community and was made one of the two deputy chief ministers in the state government.

With links to RSS going back to his student days, Pandey is being seen as the ideal candidate who will help consolidate the Brahmin vote bank ahead of the 2019 General Elections. He was also the general secretary of the students' union at the Banaras Hindu University.

While many were expecting a minority leader to replace the outgoing OBC leader, the pick clearly points to a shift in BJP's strategy ahead of 2019.

Mission 350-plus

Shah's 'Mission 350-plus' is primarily a rehashing of electoral strategy with key changes in personnel to target what the BJP president calls 'new catchment areas'. The 150-odd seats in these catchment states, which include West Bengal, Assam, Odisha, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala, as per The Indian Express, is expected to help the party muster the target for the whole country. The party has already registered its peak performance in several big north Indian states and may not have a repeat result. That makes the new states strategically important.

The master strategist is learned to have told party leaders that frequent surveys would be conducted to get a feel of the “pulse from the ground” and plans will be altered accordingly.

Evidence of a shift in this strategy can be gleaned from BJP's recent major picks to consolidate the party's electoral standing and further its social engineering experiments.

Kovind as 'Dalit' President

The election of Ram Nath Kovind as the 14th president serves a political purpose, both in terms of messaging and electoral strategy. He is a leader from the Dalit community and his election serves a three-fold objective for the BJP: strengthening of Dalit support to the BJP, a Dalit president sympathetic to Hindutva and division in opposition unity.

As a report in The Wire pointed out, "The reason for the selection of a Dalit for the post of president lies in the recent attempt made by the BJP to strengthen its support base among Dalits in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere. The positive interface between the subaltern castes and Hindutva, especially the non-Yadav OBCs in UP can be traced back to the early 1990s, witnessed in the rise of leaders such as Kalyan Singh. The shift of a significant section of Dalits to Hindutva is a late phenomenon, primarily since the long campaign under the leadership of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah prior to the 2014 election. "

"Consequently, today, as a result of sustained mobilisation among Dalits at the grassroots by the BJP, Dalit discourse is divided into three groups in UP and elsewhere: pro-BSP, pro-BJP and an autonomous, aggressive section critical of both these parties, witnessed in the formation of the Bhim army. Hence, the ascendancy of leaders like Kovind cannot merely be brushed aside as tokenism by the BJP, the seemingly symbolic step, they hope, has the potential to marginalise the other two streams of Dalit discourse and empower the pro-BJP stream."

His appointment also served Shah and Modi's desire of breaking the Opposition's unity. By using Kovind's Dalit credentials to outsmart the parties considered to be champions of identity politics – BSP, SP, RJD – the party moved closer to fulfilling Modi’s dream expanding the BJP umbrella across the country by bringing the Dalits into its fold.

As this The Indian Express report pointed out: "Sending Kovind to Rashtrapati Bhawan is intended to blunt the Opposition’s argument about the BJP being a party of upper castes. The message is, in fact, likely to travel to Dalits well beyond the cow belt. Any attempt to portray the BJP as anti-Dalit will be politically countered with Kovind's name."

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Champion of Hindutva cause

By appointing Yogi Adityanath as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, the saffron party managed to bind its religious Hindutva ideology with its conservative and stubborn brand of politics, thus consolidating a wide section of the Hindu voter-base in India's most populous state.

Not the kinds to rest on their success, Modi and Shah left no stone un-turned to consolidate and secure the mass polarisation induced in the lead up to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls by appointing a Hindutva hardliner in Yogi.

As a report in The Indian Express noted, "Yogi’s appointment is being interpreted as the 'strongest signal in the run-up to the 2019 elections' by Modi and Shah, and of their 'willingness to go for Hindu consolidation' ahead of the polls."

The report quoted a source as saying: “It would have been dishonest not to read the mandate of 2017. People of Uttar Pradesh gave a decisive mandate for both Hindtuva and development. To those not in the BJP, Yogi may appear to be a brazen choice. But he is a natural choice for Modi and Shah. It sends a strong signal.”

Thus, Yogi is seen as just the right person to set the stage for the party ahead of 2019. As this DailyO piece expounds: "The future is bound to have Hindutva as the overriding principle. The BJP after having garnered unexpected gains through reverse polarisation now can't afford a U-turn and by putting Adityanath at the forefront, it is trying to send aloud the message that it will stick to the agenda of Hindutva."

Venkaiah Naidu and BJP's ambitions in the south

Venkaiah Naidu's appointment as the Vice-President of India is also being seen as an attempt to boost the morale of the southern party cadre, especially in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The fact that the saffron party has struggled to make inroads into the southern states made Naidu's pick a clear move towards electoral appeasement to further the party's interests.

The BJP, which wants to discard its image as a north Indian party, as this The Indian Express report points out, "has identified Andhra, where it is in a ruling alliance with TDP, and the TRS-ruled Telangana as a prime target area to win seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

"The party is not in power in any other southern state but has launched a ‘South Mission’ to expand its base and strengthen its position electorally."

Nitish Kumar's somersault

The power shift in Bihar, with chief minister Nitish Kumar breaking the Mahagathbandhan and joining hands with the BJP is bound to have a bearing on the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The BJP will see tremendous gains, as this The Indian Express report suggested.

Nitish was seen as the face of the Opposition's resistance against Modi because of his clean image and his stance against corruption. His popularity among non-Yadav OBCs and poor sections in the state would give BJP a much-needed booster shot ahead of 2019.

According to report, this coupled with Modi’s decision to choose Kovind will help the party wield significant influence over backward sections ahead of the next Lok Sabha polls.

Cabinet reshuffle crucial for Modi-Shah's 2019 blueprint

The last cabinet reshuffle took place in July 2016 in which Modi inducted 19 new faces and elevated MoS for Environment Prakash Javadekar to cabinet rank. Five junior ministers were also dropped.

With 18 months to deliver before the 2019 polls, Modi will need to weed out the dead wood from the government and infuse new blood in the cabinet. This also gives him and Shah the opportunity to reinforce personnel to fine tune and balance its polarisation efforts with its social engineering exploits.

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Updated Date: Sep 01, 2017 18:45:45 IST

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