Is BJP playing on the defensive?

Released after much churning inside the party, the first list betrays a lack of confidence despite the bravado shown in ‘ab ki baar, 400 paar’.
Last Updated 04 March 2024, 09:25 IST

Ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is playing it safe. That’s the initial impression one gets upon going through the first list of 195 Lok Sabha candidates released by the party on March 2. India’s ruling party, which has dominated India’s electoral politics for the past decade by a mile, seems to have abandoned its tendency to surprise and shock political watchers, and appears to largely maintaining the status quo in renominating most of its sitting MPs. Released after much churning inside the party, the first list betrays a lack of confidence despite the bravado shown in ‘ab ki baar, 400 paar’. 

One cannot be blamed if the first list comes across as a dampener. The BJP leadership has refrained from a major shake-up despite raising expectations that drastic changes were on the anvil and that no one could take their ticket for granted. One will have to wait and see if the BJP appears more confident in the subsequent lists of candidates.

While it was politically daring and ready to upset conventions in 2014 and to a lesser extent in 2019, has the goal of a third consecutive term (in addition to the fear of anti-incumbency) made the BJP leadership play on the defensive?

This is glaringly opposite to the national party’s approach in the assembly elections in December. Then, after retaining power in Madhya Pradesh, and wresting Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh back from the Congress, the BJP leadership decided to sideline Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Vasundhara Raje, and Raman Singh swiftly and effortlessly.

It was thought that this zeal to bring in young, fresh faces to power would continue at the national level and Modi would cut the flab while selecting Lok Sabha candidates. 'Huge decisions' being promised by Modi in his third term are also applicable to ticket distribution.

The first list by the BJP belies that. Now, Chouhan has been made a candidate from his pocket borough of Vidisha, signalling a role for him at New Delhi, and in a move to placate Raje, her son Dushyant Singh has been renominated.

That said the seats where new candidates have been nominated could give a hint of the ruling party’s electoral strategy. Delhi is a good example. The national capital has seen a major change in four of the sitting seven MPs not getting a ticket. If those denied a ticket are upset, it could mean further trouble for the national party in Delhi. Former Health Minister and Chandini Chowk MP Harsh Vardhan, known as the BJP’s face in Delhi before Modi’s rise at the national level, and still well-regarded in party circles, has been denied renomination. Vardhan has been marginalised in Delhi politics after being removed from the Union Cabinet. His instant announcement to retire from politics must be seen as a rare but significant act of defiance against the party leadership’s decision. Perhaps, sensing the change, East Delhi MP Gautam Gambhir took to social media saying that he had requested the party president to relieve him of political duties.

Ramesh Bidhuri and Parvesh Singh of Delhi failed despite making hate speeches, and so also the controversial Pragya Singh Thakur from Bhopal. This could be a sign of the BJP dialling down a bit on sharp polarisation and, thereby, sending a message to voters outside its core vote-bank.

Bhojpuri star Pawan Singh’s bowing out of the contest from Asansol in West Bengal following controversy over his candidature looked like a self-goal by the BJP, much to the glee of the Opposition which had been quick to dub him as anti-women.

The renomination of Ajay Mishra Teni, whose son is in jail for ploughing a jeep amid agitating farmers, is going to be a talking point when farmers’ protests refuse to die down. 

In Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram, the candidature of Union minister Rajiv Chandrasekhar against Congress’ Shashi Tharoor is an interesting one. Thiruvananthapuram has got a sizable BJP vote-bank and it could be an interesting contest here.

That candidates from seats in Maharashtra have not figured in the first list could reflect how the ruling alliance parties are yet to reach a seat-sharing deal. It would be interesting to see how the BJP decides tickets in Maharashtra amid squabbles within allies Shiv Sena (Eknath Shinde) and Nationalist Congress Party (Ajit Pawar) at a time when it is faced with a challenge from the opposition Maha Vikas Aghadi. Interestingly, the candidature of Kripa Shankar Singh has been announced from Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh, but the name of BJP heavyweight, former party chief, and Union minister Nitin Gadkari is missing from the first list.

The BJP has fielded about 71 per cent of its sitting MPs in its first list, and its interpretations could vary — the BJP leadership is happy with the performance of most of the sitting MPs and sees no reason to remove them. The other view is that the BJP leadership is playing it safe and does not want to upset the applecart.

Modi is still popular, but if that goodwill does not extend to the candidates, crossing the 370 mark in the 543-member Lok Sabha could be a challenge.

(Sunil Gatade and Venkatesh Kesari are senior journalists.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

(Published 04 March 2024, 09:25 IST)

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