There may be nasty surprises for BJP in Assembly polls

A flurry of brainstorming sessions of core groups of BJP leaders from the states and its chief ministers and Union ministers were chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi between August 23 and 27. The sense of urgency which ringed these deliberations that lasted several hours left one message clear.

Modi had just one poser: what are you doing to take the message of this government right down to the doorstep of people? Are you monitoring each and every flagship programme in your area? Do they show that “we” (the BJP) care for the poor, Dalits and tribals – more than any other political party? Are you in touch of the pulse of what they (the people) feel? Are you motivating BJP cadres to make these deliverables as talking points? Are there foolproof results on the ground that can be showcased? Even as many a BJP leader fumbled for answer, the challenge before the party and the government was apparent.

Between now and the next Lok Sabha polls in 2019, the BJP sees a mega battle of perception that could tilt the scales. Assembly polls are a mixed bag in the states they are due in 2017: Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. In 2018, the polls will take place in Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Rajasthan and Tripura.

Though each of these elections will be fought on local issues, performance of incumbent governments and picking the right candidates, Modi government’s performance could influence or determine the voters’ choice.

BJP president Amit Shah did not mince words at a party convention in Panaji (Goa) on August 21. “Winning the assembly elections in Goa, UP, Himachal, Manipur and Punjab is critical. It will lay the foundation for the 2019 general elections which the BJP has to win,” Shah said.

Does that mean Modi or Amit Shah have a strong game plan? The media was told by BJP leaders about a strategy that appeared to rest on a simplistic approach: be aggressive in the states where the party is in the opposition, work hard at booth-level where it has a strong chance to return to power, and at least, open an account where the impact is nil so far.

But, insiders in the party insist that the party needs to do more than that. The enthusiasm and energy that Modi tries to bring into the government and the BJP does not appear to have percolated down to the grassroots in many states and there could be nasty surprises.

In fact, Amit Shah’s task for 71 BJP MPs from UP is: aim at winning three assembly seats each. Each parliamentary constituency has an average five assembly segments. “If 71 MPs can win three assembly seats each, the BJP’s final tally would be 213. This is more than a clear majority,” a BJP leader explained. The UP Assembly has 403 seats, making 202 the half-way mark.

However, a politically complex state like UP defies such a target. But Shah thinks it is a practical way of measuring up to the challenge. Putting behind episodes like Una in Gujarat and verbal duels with BSP chief Mayawati over the issue, even BJP’s 17 Dalit MPs are to travel in about 300 Assembly constituencies that have significant SC population. Other Backward Class (OBC) and Thakur MPs will campaign in areas where their community members are strong in number.

Coming back to the BJP’s original problem, Modi could not hide his apprehension when he addressed around 370 top BJP leaders on August 23. His worst fear is that controversies like cow vigilantism could shift focus from his government's pro-poor schemes that should  make impact on the ground. He specifically asked BJP leaders to be on guard to avoid tripping on “extraneous” issues raised by the party’s rivals who, as he put it, wanted to “disrupt” the political narrative.

Attacks on Dalits
Modi told the leaders, who make up the party’s core teams: “We are working 24x7 on issues of poverty and development and rebuilding the economic foundation of the country. There will be no compromise in our efforts. There are some forces at work to disrupt our concentration but we won't let them succeed.” Alluding to the opposition’s campaign on the issue of attacks on Dalits at Una and other places, he emphasised that the BJP leaders must not let anyone distract them on talking about the government's efforts to end poverty.

Modi told the BJP's core group members that they will have to fight the perception and allegations about the government failing to stand for and protect the weaker sections of society.

“Eighty per cent of party workers come from the SC/ST (Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes) and OBC (Other Backward Classes) category. Don’t let the misinformation succeed,” the PM told his team. As for the issue of nationalism, he said that it was the BJP's commitment to its brand of nationalism that gave him such a huge mandate and remained a strong point.

Ironically, even this statement of his got a newspaper headline “Nationalists are with us, let’s reach out to Dalits, Backwards: PM to Party.” As Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi tweeted attacking Modi for “not considering dalits as nationalists,” the PM’s aides got the party to issue a strong denial.

On August 27, Modi’s interaction with BJP chief ministers saw him asking them to set an example in implementing the Centrally funded pro-poor schemes through “maximum and flawless” delivery. Be that as it may, Modi continues to see the next round of elections as a test of his standing and his government. Therein lies the litmus test for the BJP.

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