Narendra Modi was at his combative best in both Houses of Parliament last Wednesday, as only he can be. It is difficult to imagine another prime minister batting so spiritedly on the front foot when pushed to the wall. Let us admit that the narrative has not been going in the BJP’s favour over the last six months or so. This has added a new swagger in the Opposition’s gait. Rahul Gandhi is already talking like the Prime Minister in waiting and predicting the exit of Modi. The BJP baiters among the chatterati, media and intellectual circuit can barely hide their glee at signs of a resurgent Congress. But then, as Modi said at the conclusion of his speech in the Lok Sabha: “Main ladne wala insaan hoon”. He is not one to go down without a fight.
Rhetoric and innuendos apart, the going has not been easy for the BJP in the last year and a half, or, one can say, roughly since demonetisation in November 2016. This was followed by GST and the consequent GDP slowdown, the Gujarat election and finally, the Rajasthan by-poll setback. On the international front, we had Doka La and continuous skirmishes along the Line of Control with Pakistan. Kashmir has returned to the boil again, belying hopes of any breakthrough.
All this while, as this writer has consistently noted, Narendra Modi and his team deserve credit for staying the course and not yielding to short term quick-fix populism under pressure. At the same time, it cannot be denied that they have scored some massive self-goals, the most recent being Padmaavat and LTCG (Long-term Capital Gains) Tax, albeit in two different spheres. Add to these, a couple of PR disasters and we have a pudding largely of the BJP’s own making.
First, Gujarat was a massive miscalculation. While Narendra Modi would have factored in the impact of demonetisation and GST (some believe he did not wish to delay GST beyond June 2017 to have enough time to deal with the glitches before the Gujarat polls), BJP definitely did not bargain for the level of anti-incumbency on the ground, especially among the Patidars and Dalits. Otherwise, it is difficult to imagine that a master strategist like Amit Shah, who had worked miracles in an alien territory like Uttar Pradesh, would come so close to biting the dust in his home turf.
With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, one can argue that straws were already blowing in the wind when, despite his best efforts, Amit Shah could not prevent Ahmed Patel’s return to the Rajya Sabha. Equally, the Modi-Shah duo had underestimated the traction Rahul Gandhi’s campaign would be able to generate with the meticulous planning of a seasoned general like Ashok Gehlot in the field, Ahmed Patel working behind the scenes, Sam Pitroda in the war-room and some help from Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani.
The story of Gujarat bears repetition only because it could contain seeds of reverses in other states. The Rajasthan by-polls may have been a timely harbinger of this. One does not need a psephology expert to decipher the level of disenchantment on the ground with the present BJP dispensation in Rajasthan. However, for reasons one can only guess, the BJP central leadership has not hinted at a change of guard in Jaipur before going to the voters later this year. If it is banking on Narendra Modi to deliver the goods, this could be a tall ask, going by the current mood in the state.
The situation may not be very different in other major states going for elections this year. In Karnataka, there is little to choose between Yeddyurappa and Siddaramaiah. Also there are no indications that the BJP’s grassroots management is going to be vastly superior to that of the Congress in this southern state. So, ultimately it may boil down to local alliances and caste calculations, with no distinct competitive edge for either party. But the BJP has far greater stakes in Karnataka, since a setback is likely to have a cascading effect on other state elections and its Lok Sabha ambitions for the south.
In Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh too, the BJP is faced with classic dilemmas. At this stage, so late in the day, they cannot afford to replace either Raman Singh or Shivraj Singh Chouhan, even though both of them carry a heavy load of anti-incumbency. Chhattisgarh has always been a narrow call. One has to wait and see if the progress made by the state in containing Maoist insurgency will fetch dividends for Raman Singh. In Madhya Pradesh, the organisational strength of the RSS and feudal factions in a royalty-ridden Congress may still see through the day for the BJP.
In the North East, Nagaland turned out to be an embarrassment, with none of the parties filing nominations. While the BJP may have an edge in Tripura, it is unlikely that the party will make much headway in Meghalaya. BJP’s flirtations in Tamil Nadu have not led to any meaningful liaison. In West Bengal, it is still a distant second despite the recent acquisition of Mukul Roy into the fold.
In short, from all projections, it is not going to be an easy run for the BJP in the coming months. Sensing this, the BJP’s alliance partners have started flexing their muscles. First it was the Shiv Sena, and now it is Chandrababu Naidu. The Akalis are voicing their unhappiness through a vocal Naresh Gujral. Pavan Varma has been doing the talking for JD(U), while Nitish Kumar is maintaining a studied silence.
All this has bolstered the Congress’ confidence and it is behaving as if they are not only back in the game, but also certain of ousting Modi, if not the BJP and NDA, in the next Lok Sabha elections whenever they might be. This is visible in Rahul’s body language, voice and tweets, which have got back the characteristic Gandhi-dynasty ring of arrogance.
The excitement in the so-called “Lutyens Eco-System” at the prospect of the old order returning is palpable and the Congress hashtag “#BasEkAurSaal” seems to have deeply resonated with this constituency that was becoming increasingly restless and frustrated.
Undeniably, there is disquiet in the BJP camp, and the much-ridiculed “bhakts” who are emotionally invested in Modi are betraying signs of nervousness. Yet, their faith in Modi’s magical abilities to turn the tables at the right juncture remains intact. The more circumspect among them are being cautiously optimistic.
During all this, ignoring the undercurrents of tension and surface turbulence, Modi is going about his business as usual with the supreme self-assurance of being around for a second term. This was apparent in the Budget, which though gift-wrapped for the poor, was pragmatic and prudent in its content. He first hosted Benjamin Netanyahu and then ASEAN leaders for Republic Day, after which he has now left for visits to Palestine and Arab countries. He also fit in election rallies in far-flung Tripura and Karnataka in his punishing schedule. All this shows he is working to a plan.
Although Modi keeps talking about “one nation, one poll”, the rumours of bringing forward the Lok Sabha polls to as early as April-May this year was probably just a test balloon. It may have been a ploy to force Rahul and the Opposition to peak too early and lose steam before launching the Modi 2.0 campaign.
Modi is not one to start his campaign with a passionate war cry. He is more likely to sound the bugle with a major disruption that will change the rules of the game, catching his opponents unaware and unprepared. So, all eyes are now set on Modi, watching his next move and expecting the unexpected from arguably one of the greatest mass leaders this country has produced.
Pundits and punters have already jumped into the seat projection game. But, it may be a trifle too soon in the day to start counting the chickens.
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