Cover Story: Mid term test for Modi

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shri_rajnath_singh_address_during_a_road_show_at_lucknow_bjp_office_uttar_pradesh_on_december_24_2016_1_20161224_1833089944The 2017 assembly election is no ordinary one. Nearly one-fifth of the total electorate in India would turn out to exercise their franchise. The elections to the Assemblies of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa to be held during February and March would involve 690 assembly constituencies.

The election would not only be the last hurrah for seasoned politicians such as Mulayam Singh Yadav, Parkash Singh Badal and Capt Amarinder Singh, who has already declared it would be his last elections, but would also be a harbinger for the emergence of a young set of leaders.

But it is not just the magnitude of the elections that would make them important. At stake is the midterm test for the Narendra Modi government and the poll outcome would pave way for the next showdown in 2019 when the Centre would seek a second term. These would also be the first assembly polls after demonetisation of high-value currency notes and many are considering this as a referendum on the issue. It may not be a referendum on demonetisation as such, but the issue would certainly be talked about and have an impact on the final outcome.

Stakes are high for all political leaders, but the biggest test is for PM Narendra Modi and the BJP. In 2014, he was the challenger and he succeeded with elan. This time around, he would be seeking a verdict on his performance and shall like to pave the way for a second term in office. No wonder Brand Modi is up for a major test and he is not shying away from it.

Timing of demonetisation had something to do with the polls. The use of cash by SP and BSP during polls is well known

Significantly, the BJP has not projected any CM candidate in any of the states going to polls. This despite the fact that the party had lost out in Bihar where it had not projected any candidate as possible CM. On the other hand, the party had gone ahead with declaring Sarbananda Sonowal as its CM candidate in Assam and the party had hit the bull’s eye in that state.

No stone unturned

It is said that the road to the Centre passes through Uttar Pradesh. It is true that the NDA could not have formed a stable government at the Centre without its squad of 73 MPs from the state. The ruling Samajwadi Party won just five seats. At stake now is the strength of party in Rajya Sabha, which it desperately needs to improve. That would be possible only if the party performs well in UP and can get more of its Rajya Sabha candidates elected. In addition, UP is also his karambhoomi as he has retained his Lok Sabha seat from Varanasi.
No wonder then that Modi as well as national BJP chief Amit Shah are leaving no stone unturned in UP. The timing of demonetisation definitely had something to do with the upcoming assembly elections in the state.Obviously, the worst hit by demonetisation are the SP and the BSP. The use of cash by these parties in elections is very well known.

The family feud within the SP, therefore, has come as music to the ears of BJP leaders, particularly Modi. Whatever the final outcome in the UP elections, the fact remains that the party has suffered much damage due to infighting between factions led by SP founder Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son and outgoing CM Akhilesh Yadav.

Whatever may be the final outcome of the UP elections, Akhilesh would emerge as a long-term factor in the state. He has already proved that a vast majority of party leaders and legislators back him and that his modern thinking would take him a long way.

The ensuing elections in the state would also be an acid test for the BSP and its leader Mayawati. Though she has been successful in the past due to “social engineering” and emerging as a Dalit icon, there were indications that the Dalits were moving away from her party. She is banking on Muslim voters to gravitate towards her party after the infighting in SP, but her insistence on going it alone may harm her prospects.

Similarly, though Dalits constitute the highest percentage of voters at 32 per cent in Punjab, but the BSP has never done well in the state. This despite the fact that even her mentor Kanshi Ram hailed from Punjab. Though the party had put up candidates from all 117 Assembly constituencies in the state, none of them could score a win. Yet the party bagged five per cent of the votes, contributing to the defeat of Congress in the previous elections.

Another five per cent of votes were taken away by the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) floated by rebel Akali leader Manpreet Singh Badal, first cousin of outgoing Deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal. Again his party did not score a single victory. He is now contesting the Assembly election from the Congress.

Thus neither the PPP nor the BSP turned out to be serious contenders in the previous elections and this is the first time that Punjab is headed for a three-cornered contest. Over the past 50 years, ever since the reorganisation of states, Punjab has seen either the Congress or the SAD-BJP combine, including in their previous avatars, ruling the state. The entry of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has dramatically changed the political equation in the state. The party made a dramatic entry on the Punjab poll scene when it bagged four Lok Sabha seats in 2014 despite the ‘Modi wave’ in the country. The party also attracted a handsome 24.4 per cent vote share. It is now making a determined attempt to wrest power in the state and was the first to take off with campaigning about a year ago.

AAP party's 'Majha Fateh' rally in Majitha.

On its performance in Punjab lies the political future of Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal. It is the stepping stone to a larger role in national politics. A victory for his party here would propel him to take on
Modi in the next general election. It is, therefore, important that he concentrate in Punjab (and the tiny state of Goa), while ignoring the main battlefield in UP.

Much water has, however, flown under the bridge in Punjab since 2014. The voters in the state are looking to fill the political vacuum after a double anti-incumbency factor caused by the anger against the previous Congress-led UPA government at the Centre and against the SAD-BJP government in the state. The AAP fitted the bill perfectly and was rewarded with victory in four of the 13 Lok Sabha constituencies.

Anti-incumbency factor

The situation has significantly changed now. While anti-incumbency sentiments may still go against SAD-BJP, the Congress is not burdened with that handicap anymore. In fact that factor may have got more acute for the SAD-BJP. Also the AAP’s own dismal performance in Delhi, and half-a-dozen of its MLAs facing criminal charges in Delhi, may impact its performance in Punjab. Besides, two of the party’s four MPs have left the party and its state convenor and founder member Sucha Singh Chhotepur was shunted out of the party on charges of alleged corruption. The dominance of leaders from outside the state in deciding the candidates as well as its choice of candidates have taken the sheen out of the party. To make matters worse, the party has shied away from announcing its CM candidate, which has led to speculations that Kejriwal himself was eyeing the post. The lack of a credible Sikh face for the post could also adversely affect the party’s prospects.

The emerging triangular contest has confused pollsters and analysts no end and no one is willing to burn fingers by hazarding the outcome. Even the two opinion polls conducted before the imposition of model code of conduct have come out with contradictory results.

It is a fact that both the Congress and the SAD-BJP combine have solid vote banks, which they have been able to retain despite losing elections. It would thus be an uphill task for the AAP to retain and improve upon its strength in Punjab. The ruling coalition would also be banking on a split in the anti-incumbency votes between the Congress and AAP to its benefit.

The Congress, which lost the previous assembly elections partly due to its own failures, including delayed and wrong selection of candidates, may be repeating some of its old mistakes. Even as the Election Commission announced the election schedule in the first week of January, and gave mere 28 days for political parties in Punjab to campaign, Congress was yet to decide its candidates for the 40 seats. Its fate would depend on the selections, and the possibilities of rebellion, in these seats.

Interestingly, a hat-trick of sorts is on the cards in Punjab. Either Capt Amarinder would score a hat-trick of defeats or the party’s election strategist Prashant Kishor would win the third time after ensuring victories of PM Narendra Modi in 2014 and Bihar CM Nitish Kumar last year. For the Congress, however, Punjab is its only hope for a revival in its fortunes.

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At a glance

♦ The poll outcome will pave way for the main showdown in 2019

♦ BSP supremo Mayawati banking on Muslims to support her following the family feud in SP

♦ The Congress is yet to release its list of candidates for Punjab

♦ The AAP, which has been mired with problems, will find the going tough in Punjab

♦ After routing the Congress in Assam, the BJP is striving to wrest power in Manipur

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The party is in a bad shape in the other two states going for elections — Uttarakhand and Manipur. It is the ruling party in both the states and was able to save its government in Uttarakhand only due to the intervention of the courts. The party had split and one of the factions had joined hands with the BJP to form a government in the hill state. The massive response that Modi got during his pre-election rally in the state gave an indication that Congress would find it difficult to defend its citadel in the state.
Similarly, the Manipur government, led by Okram Ibobi Singh of the Congress, would find it an uphill task to retain power. After routing the Congress in Assam, the BJP is making a concerted effort to wrest Manipur and is banking on dominant Hindu Meitei voters.

The Congress has also faced rebellion in Manipur where a new factor would be at play after the human rights activist Irom Sharmila too has jumped into the electoral fray.

The southern state of Goa, with an area equivalent to two districts of bigger states, is too insignificant to make an impact on the country’s election scenario. It is currently ruled by the BJP-led coalition, but is facing rebellion from its own cadre. The Congress is also on a weak wicket and this is the only other state than Punjab where the AAP is making an attempt to wrest power.

Even as the election results from all the five states would be keenly awaited on March 11 (counting day), another important test is on the horizon for Modi and the BJP before the 2019 general elections — assembly polls in his janmabhoomi Gujarat, along with Himachal Pradesh.

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