As the Election Commission on Thursday set the ball rolling for elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, the BJP and the Congress seemed to be working on different narratives as their poll planks: the former on personality politics and the latter on gaps in governance.
The saffron party is unlikely to nominate a chief ministerial candidate in either state and appears keen on projecting these polls as a Narendra Modi-versus-Rahul Gandhi contest, a strategy that paid it handsome dividends in 2014 general elections. Tuesday’s rallies addressed by BJP president Amit Shah, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath and Union minister Smriti Irani in Gandhi’s Lok Sabha constituency, Amethi, was construed as a tell by political observers. The import of the BJP leaders’ description of Gandhi as “shehzada” and references to “Italian glasses” was equally telling.
Their attack on the Congress vice-president came on a day he was in Vadodara, harping on what the opposition party believes could be the Achilles heel of the ruling party — lack of employment opportunities, economic slowdown, and impact of demonetization and goods and services tax (GST) on farmers, labourers, traders and small businessmen.
Given a strong anti-incumbency factor against the Congress government in Himachal Pradesh– which has been accentuated by allegations of graft against chief minister Virbhadra Singh and public uproar over a recent incident of rape of a minor girl on the outskirts of Shimla—political analysts believe that it’s a battle for the BJP to win or lose in the hill state.
It’s the poll results in Gujarat that could have significant national ramifications. It might determine whether the NDA government sticks to fiscal consolidation path or opts for populism, given that eight states are going to polls in 2018 with general elections slated in 2019. It will have an impact on the government’s appetite for bold reforms.
While the BJP projected its success in the last round of assembly elections, especially in Uttar Pradesh, as a vindication of the NDA government’s demonetization gambit, the next round in Gujarat and HP would test the popularity of its economic policies. While Patidars—BJP loyalists who constitute about 14 % of the state’s population—have been agitating for reservation in government jobs and education, the sight of traders hitting the streets in Ahmedabad and Surat against the GST has got BJP strategists worried. The Congress has been aggressively wooing these disgruntled groups in Gujarat and Gandhi has been drawing impressive crowds in his meetings on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s and Amit Shah’s home turf.
Even as the BJP strongly defends the NDA’s economic policies, party leaders believe that turning Gujarat elections into a Modi-versus-Gandhi contest could be a more portent strategy. And political scientists and analysts see merit in the BJP’s strategy. “Think of any variable, finally, the BJP will win this election. Patels are unhappy but who will they vote for? The PM and Shah are from Gujarat and therefore, identity politics will be played in a big way. It will be turned into a matter of Gujarati pride. The state government is also not unpopular. There is no valid reason for the people to vote out the BJP government,” says Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a Delhi-based think tank.
Congress leaders are jubilant about the swelling crowds at Gandhi’s rallies. Since the civic polls in December 2015 that saw the BJP’s voteshare sliding and the Congress’ going up in municipal corporations, municipalities and district panchayats, the opposition party that won its last election in 1985 has been fancying a chance. Agitations by Patidars, Dalits and traders have given it reasons to nurse high hopes.
But a look at the party’s electoral performance in the past 22 years of the BJP rule comes as a dampener. In the last five elections, the difference in the voteshares of the BJP and the Congress has hovered over 9 %– 10.40 % in 2002, 9.49 % in 2007, 9 % in 2012. In the last three elections, the Congress’ tally in the 182-member assembly has ranged from 51 to 61. It might be too big a gap for the Congress to fill, with Modi’s personality cult showing little sign of diminishing.