BJP's dilemma: CMs' selection

The party must decide to project state level leadership's face in all states going for polls in the next three years.

The BJP has been on the horns of a dilemma after two consecutive stunning defeats in Delhi and Bihar assembly elections. Both the defeats put question marks over the effectiveness of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who campaigned vigorously in both the states, and about ability of BJP president Amit Shah to manage state elections in BJP’s favour.

Many thought that the results reflected Modi’s declining popularity and his party’s distancing with the masses. In spite of that, the party chose to elect Amit Shah as full time BJP president for three years.

Amit Shah has heavy brief during his tenure. He has to face assembly elections in 20 states culminating in Lok Sabha elections in 2019. Five states of

Assam, Kerala, Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal go to polls this year; seven states – Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand next year, and eight states of Chattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Rajasthan and Tripura face elections in 2018.

Out of 20 states, the BJP governments exist only in five states of Goa, Gujarat, Chattisgarh, MP and Rajasthan, and in three states, Punjab, Nagaland and Pondicherry, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is in power. Shah has onerous responsibility of not only ensuring the BJP and NDA comeback in those states, but also of bringing some more states in BJP’s kitty.

So far, the BJP had over-used Modi in state elections with disastrous consequences. The party took a position that it has battery of state level leaders in each state and will have no difficulty in electing the leader of the legislature party whenever the party gets majority in a state. This argument has become unacceptable to the electorate as clearly demonstrated in Delhi and Bihar.

Since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, electoral campaigns have become presidential in character, where the voters expect a clear leader who could be held accountable for governance and welfare promises. Hence, the BJP made tactical changes in Assam where former Congress minister Himanta Biswa Sarma was inducted in the BJP in August last.

In West Bengal, though BJP may not expect a win, by removing Rahul Sinha and appointing Dilip Ghosh as new party president, Shah has sought to give electorate a new and more acceptable face. Politics in Kerala is so evenly balanced between the UDF and the LDF, and in Tamil Nadu between the DMK and the AIADMK that the BJP has little scope for a space in state politics. It would be good for BJP if Shah makes some kind of alliance with LDF in Kerala, and with Jayalalitha’s AIADMK in Tamil Nadu.

But, the most important state is UP where the BJP and Shah have high stakes. So far, the party has not been able to decide about its leadership face in UP. While the caste arithmetic warrants someone from the OBC category, there is no such face that may have a pan-UP presence and popularity.

One OBC face – former CM Kalyan Singh – is presently Governor of Rajasthan and is spent force now. Ram Shankar Katheria, Agra MP and Minister of State in HRD Ministry, is another name doing the rounds but he is limited to Agra and has no all-UP presence.

Matching the titans

The leadership face is so very important in UP because the BJP will face two very popular figures in UP – Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, and BSP supremo Mayawati. Hence, the BJP may have to discover a face that will not only be a befitting match for Akhilesh and Maya-wati, but also supersede them in oratory and public support.

One such person is Smriti Irani. She is visiting Amethi (Ra-hul’s constituency) regularly despite being defeated, has all-UP and all-India domestic presence because of her TV serial background, and is an effective spea-ker who could sell ideas to masses and sway voters to her side.

The BJP may be in a dilemma thinking that Irani may lose on caste factor, and, that such an advance declaration may aggravate factionalism in the party that may also push some ambitious and strong leaders to leave the party. This possibility cannot be ruled out, but the party will have to take a call on this. Losing elections without a leader is one option, but risking some factionalism to win public support is another. Surely, for the BJP it will be a hard choice.

Amit Shah will have to understand that while Modi continues to be rated high in public esteem so far as national governance is concerned, he cannot win state elections for the BJP because the electorate has learnt to differentiate between the national and state elections.

Amit Shah has to finally decide to project state level leadership face in all the states going to polls in the next three years. If he thinks that he heads a party that is disciplined, then he should have no hesitation in doing so. But, if he would be in a state of dilemma, then Delhi and Bihar might get replicated in state after state bringing to himself and his party regular embarrassment.   
 
(The writer is Director, Centre for Study of Society and Politics, Kanpur)

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