Assembly polls: Cong, BJP scrambling for victory

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The state assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh hold immense significance for the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress because both parties’ prestige is at stake. In electoral terms, victory for the BJP in both states is not that significant because it is already in power at the Centre and about half of the states of the Union. However, in political terms, it matters a lot for it because losing in Narendra Modi’s home turf where he ruled for more than a decade as chief minister prior to his anointment as Prime Minister could be a major setback for his personal prestige, apart from being a severe blow for the party.

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However, a win for Congress in Gujarat will be a great morale booster for the party and a personal victory for Rahul Gandhi, who is likely to take over the reins of the party very soon. The BJP and the Congress are seemingly working on different narratives as their poll planks: the former on personality politics and the latter on gaps in governance.

BJP’s stakes

BJP’s stakes are very high in Gujarat and its bid to win Himachal Pradesh will add another feather in the party’s cap. Apart from being the home state of PM Modi, Gujarat is also the home state of party chief Amit Shah. Besides, the party has been in power in Gujarat for over two decades. Thus, the fight for Gujarat assumes more than mere prestige for the BJP.

BJP president Amit Shah’s claim to secure 130-plus seats in his home state doesn’t seem to be an achievable goal because of a strong anti-incumbency wave coupled with decline in GDP growth rate, jobless economic growth, ill-effects of demonetization and GST which have adversely impacted medium and small traders. If news reports are any indication, the people of Gujarat want a change in regime. Besides, the Patidar movement spearheaded by Hardik Patel, growing angst among Dalits and OBCs against the ruling party and coming together of these groups against the BJP entails the potential of making a severe dent in BJP’s electoral prospects.

The RSS, which usually has been the spine of BJP’s electoral victories in the past, has recently been somewhat critical of Modi government’s economic policies. In view of Gujarat people’s angst against the ruling party, the RSS support in the ensuing assembly polls can evoke an enfeebled response to ‘teach’ the party a lesson that can serve as a warning for the party bosses in light of the forthcoming 2019 general elections. While pointing out that the BJP has nominated its chief ministerial candidate for Himachal Pradesh but not Gujarat, some critics opine that the BJP appears keen on projecting these polls as a Narendra Modi-versus-Rahul Gandhi contest, a strategy that paid it handsome dividends in the 2014 general elections.

In Himachal Pradesh, there is a strong anti-incumbency factor against the Congress government with allegations of graft against chief minister Virbhadra Singh and public uproar over a recent incident of rape of a minor girl in Shimla. Himachal Pradesh has usually witnessed bipolar contests where the pendulum of power has oscillated between the Congress and the BJP. In its bid for a comeback in the state, the BJP is cashing in on PM Modi’s supposed charisma and the various schemes rolled out during his three-year rule at the Centre.

Some experts feel that the Himachal polls may well be the litmus test for Amit Shah’s organisational skills as he has succeeded in keeping intra-party squabbles among ambitious leaders at bay thus far. In Himachal Pradesh, opinion polls have given a clear mandate for the BJP; its chief ministerial candidate is a veteran and seasoned leader of state politics on which the party can count. It is to be seen as to how far anti-incumbency can go in favour of the party.

Congress’ Hamletian dilemma

Congress has been faced with the Hamletian dilemma of ‘to be or not to be’ because the outcome of these assembly polls would be very crucial for the party in general and its vice-president Rahul Gandhi in particular. Whatever the outcome, decks are clear for Rahul Gandhi to take over the party’s presidency. However, Congress’ victory in both states, apart from boosting the morale of the workers, will help in projecting Rahul Gandhi as a credible leader to lead the party in 2019 general elections. During these state assembly elections, the Congress campaigns, primarily pioneered by its vice-president Rahul Gandhi, are focusing on what the party believes could be the Achilles heel of the BJP — lack of employment opportunities, economic slowdown, and impact of demonetization and goods and services tax (GST) on farmers, labourers, traders and small businessmen.

Gujarat is very significant for Congress. Patidars’ agitation for reservation in government jobs and education and the sight of traders hitting the streets against 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 Modi’s and Shah’s home turf. The swelling crowds at Rahul Gandhi’s rallies have elated Congress leaders. In wake of the BJP’s vote-share sliding and the Congress’ going up since the civic polls in December, 2015 in municipal corporations, municipalities and district panchayats, the Congress has been fancying a chance. Agitations by Patidars, Dalits and traders have given it reasons to nurse high hopes. However, some critics feel that in view of poor performance of the Congress in the last three elections, it might be too big a gap for the Congress to fill, with Modi’s personality cult showing little sign of diminishing.

In Himachal Pradesh, a troubled Congress is betting on its old war horse — six-time chief minister Virbhadra Singh — despite the corruption and disproportionate assets cases that are bearing him down. Besides, Virbhadra also faces a challenge from within the state unit of the party. Despite these drawbacks, some critics don’t doubt Virbhadra’s ability to fight back. Media reports make it discernible that while the Congress is facing anti-incumbency, the BJP is concerned by public distress over factors like inflation, demonetization and economic disruption due to GST.

Challenges ahead

The assembly election in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat hold immense political significance for the Congress as well as the BJP. While asserting that Himachal Pradesh is a small state that does not wield much influence over national politics, some critics point out that it currently happens to be one of the two territorial entities in the country (the other being Gujarat) that will indicate which way the 2019 Lok Sabha polls are likely to turn. Many experts are unanimous in their view that the poll results in Gujarat could have significant national ramifications and it might determine whether the Modi government sticks to fiscal consolidation path or opts for populism, given that eight states are going to the polls in 2018 with general elections slated in 2019. Another expert has opined that the state polls are crucial from a national point of view because apart from judging the performance of the state government, voters will also evaluate the gap between the promises made by the Modi government and what was eventually delivered.

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