Gujarat, Himachal polls: a watershed moment for Modi?

As Delhi gets the first whiff of mild winter in the air, placards put up by lesser-known Congress leaders flutter around the roundabouts in the central parts of the city. They seek to build on the political mood in the national capital with messages like “Gujarat janata jag rahi hain, BJP bhaag rahi hain (People of Gujarat are waking up, and the BJP is on the run).”

Another hails the advent of Rahul Gandhi as the soon-to-become Congress president. At the AICC headquarters, where buoyant Congress leaders turn up in greater regularity after a busy day in the courts, their aides dig up more talking points for a sharper attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

At the BJP headquarters on Ashoka Road, too, and in far-away Gandhinagar and Shimla, key BJP leaders reassess their strategy, wondering whether it needs to be recast for Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, which go to polls in December.

Both sides are beginning to look for a watershed moment for their bosses in the outcome of these state polls, saying that these may cast a bearing on the Lok Sabha polls in 2019. After a string of by-poll upsets, coupled with the state of the economy, the BJP won’t deny that it does not have the comfort of any cushion. On the other hand, after several months now, the Congress is looking for an opportunity to show a big dent in the prime minister’s vote-hauling capacity.

A stunning victory in the once BJP-Akali Dal bastion of Gurdaspur, by a record margin of 1.93 lakh votes, makes many a Congressman believe in better tidings. Before that win, the Congress-affiliated National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) won posts of president and vice-president in the Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU) election in September.

Last month, the Rajasthan University students’ poll saw an ABVP rebel grab the president’s post while NSUI won the vice-president and general secretary positions. The Samajwadi Party’s student wing made it to the top in the Allahabad University poll. Earlier, the NSUI had also won the students’ elections in Panjab University, bagging three of the four posts.

Are these signs of a grand revival of the Congress across India and a decline of the BJP? Will we see these signs in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh in December?

After a successful “Gujarat model” of development when he was chief minister, Modi is seen pushing harder on development, declaring that 2017 would be a Vikasvaad (development) versus Vanshvaad (dynasty) fight. BJP president Amit Shah makes it clear that the party is seeking votes again in the name of Modi to retain power in Gujarat. He is not scaling down on a target of over three-fourths majority in the 182-member assembly.

But, there is a looming agrarian crisis. Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani has had to announce a scheme of 0% interest loans for farm loans upto Rs 3 lakh. Even traders in the largely mercantile state are a displeased lot, with the GST and other related issues weighing on them. Not an enviable situation, says a Congress poll manager.

The BJP has enjoyed power since 1995, excepting for a 16-month break in 1996-98, when a splinter group led by Shankersinh Vaghela held power in a minority government supported by the Congress. Today, Vaghela is out of the Congress but his rebellion to form a third front has not created a big advantage for the BJP.

Drifting away
Once solid supporters of the BJP, the Patel community looks distant. With dwindling returns from their traditional occupations, they aspire for government jobs. Their leader Hardik Patel has run a relentless campaign for inclusion of Patidars in the Other Backward Castes (OBC) category so that they can avail the benefits of reservation.

Like Hardik Patel, a new leader on the horizon is Alpesh Thakore who is opposed to the inclusion of Patidars in the OBC category. He is also against the BJP, working to chip away saffron votes. Jignesh Mevani, the lawyer-turned-Dalit activist, has also given sleepless nights to many BJP leaders.

The Congress sees harbingers of change in these men. The BJP secured 117 and 116 seats in assembly elections in 2007 and 2012 respectively, largely on account of wide support for Modi. Today, the situation is different.

On the other hand, notwithstanding the rough ride ahead for the BJP, its organisational network still remains very strong in many places to woo the voter at the booth-level. This is something that the Congress may still be envious of in terms of poll management. Rahul Gandhi’s roadshows make for good atmospherics and media headlines, but can they bring in votes, ask BJP managers.

In Himachal Pradesh, 83-year-old Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh has re-established himself as the supreme leader of Himachal Congress, though Rahul Gandhi wanted a new leadership to emerge. Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s final call was not to upset the party’s applecart. Singh, who has put in five terms as CM, is battling charges of corruption.

Himachal appears like a low-hanging fruit, but the BJP is still caught in a search for a strong leader there. Neither Modi nor Shah are in a mood to hand the baton back to veteran Prem Kumar Dhumal or his son Anurag Thakur, who was embroiled in the cricket control board row. But will Modi-Shah allow the BJP to collapse in Himachal Pradesh or Gujarat so easily for the benefit of the Congress? Certainly not, say their aides.

“Modi is PM today because of Gujarat, and if he fails in that state, can he manage the rest of India? The people of Gujarat, or even Himachal Pradesh, won’t let that happen. A lot of wishful thinking of our critics is at play. They will be disappointed by the outcome,” add the BJP’s poll managers, armed with numerous surveys.

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