POLITICS

In A High-Risk Gambit, BJP Is Hoping Demonetisation Can Be Its Main Election Plank

It will be a challenging battle ahead.

09/01/2017 10:19 PM IST | Updated 09/01/2017 10:49 PM IST
Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters
File photo of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Amit Shah, the president of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Although opinion polls give the BJP an edge in the upcoming state polls, with some even predicting clear victory, the party itself seems unsure about its prospects. The just-concluded National Executive meet in Delhi gave a glimpse of the anxiety gripping the party as it prepares for a challenging battle ahead.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah tried hard to pump up spirits. But beneath the hype and assertive rhetoric which turned emotional at one point, there appear to be niggling concerns that saffron wins across the four states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa and Punjab (in alliance with the Akali Dal) are not a done deal.

Strangely, the party has failed to find a chief ministerial face for both UP and Uttarakhand while in Goa and Punjab, its CMs are facing a strong anti-incumbency backlash.

It is significant that the BJP has chosen to turn the upcoming state polls into a referendum on demonetisation instead of focusing on local issues. After all, these are assembly polls and people will be voting for their next chief minister. Strangely, the party has failed to find a chief ministerial face for both UP and Uttarakhand while in Goa and Punjab, its CMs are facing a strong anti-incumbency backlash.

It is to cover up this deficiency that the BJP has decided to go all out on demonetisation, projecting it as a pro-poor move to fight black money and corruption. Serving the poor is serving God, Modi declared in his concluding address to the National Executive as he exhorted his party to keep the faith with regard to his government's decisions, particularly demonetisation. To stress the point, he quoted a Sanskrit shloka to say that he did not covet power, heaven or a second life but only wanted to end people's sufferings.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

By setting the stage for a campaign dominated by the demonetisation issue, the Modi-Shah duo is taking a big risk. The impact of note ban has not been fully assessed but ground reports suggest that the rural economy has been shattered by the government's unprecedented decision to suck out 86% of the cash from the system. At the same time, the BJP claims to have received feedback that the move is hugely popular with the poor who feel that for the first time, the rich have been made to suffer because of the war against black money.

The impact of note ban has not been fully assessed but ground reports suggest that the rural economy has been shattered by the government's unprecedented decision to suck out 86% of the cash from the system.

Those who are preparing for battle are not quite sure how note ban will affect their fortunes. To put it plainly, they are worried and anxious despite Modi's efforts to assure them that the poor are solidly with the BJP on this biggest, boldest and brave decision.

The outcome of the polls will reveal how successful the BJP has been in turning assembly elections into a national referendum on the Modi government. The party is going into battle afflicted by a slew of local problems in each of the four states. Can a pro-poor pitch spearheaded by a campaign on demonetisation turn things around for the BJP?

Let's take the states one by one, starting with Uttar Pradesh which is the most crucial battle of the four.

After humming and hawing for months, the BJP has been unable to pick a CM face from among its warring leaders. Nor has the party been able to craft a credible poll plank that can address voter concerns in a state election. It has zig-zagged its way through a variety of issues, from beef ban to Ram mandir to wooing OBCs before returning to development. But nothing seems to have resonated enough to recreate the 2014 wave which saw the BJP sweep 71 of UP's 80 Lok Sabha seats.

There are also reports of internal troubles in the faction-ridden state unit and growing unhappiness with the entry of ticket seekers from rival parties. One estimate suggests that as many as 75 new entrants are likely to get BJP tickets at the cost of old-timers and long-serving party loyalists.

But the BJP's biggest vulnerability is its inability to attract minority votes. In fact, there is danger of the Muslims polarizing against the BJP to cast a veto vote. In a state with a Muslim population of 19% which has the ability to affect the outcome in at least half the assembly constituencies, this is bad news. The BJP's fortunes in UP depend largely on whether it can divide the minority vote the way it did in 2014.

Channi Anand/AP

Although it does not face a minority problem in Uttarakhand, the BJP is as faction-ridden and divided in this tiny hill state as it is in UP. It has added to its troubles by inducting Vijay Bahuguna and six MLAs from the Congress when it tried to pull down Harish Rawat's government. It lost the battle but it now has to accommodate these rebels from the Congress, again at the cost of its own party workers.

In Goa, all hell has broken loose in the saffron camp. In an unprecedented move, the RSS sacked its Goa chief Subhash Velingkar after he revolted against the BJP and vowed to defeat it in the forthcoming election. Velingkar's grouse was that the BJP had not implemented its pre-poll promise to stop government grants to English medium schools and promote the Marathi language. Virtually the entire RSS unit in Goa rebelled in support of Velingkar, leaving the BJP without the saffron support it needs at election time.

The party's problems were confounded by the decision of its ally, Goa Gomantak Party, to break away and contest separately. Both the Congress and new entry Aam Aadmi Party are hoping to capitalise on the confusion in saffron circles.

And finally, Punjab. The incumbent Badal government and ally BJP are facing huge local anger after two terms in power. Although the AAP wave seems to have abated somewhat, Arvind Kejriwal's rigorous campaign against the Badal family and Punjab's severe drug problem have set the stage for the possible exit of the ruling alliance.

Pollsters have bitten the dust in recent times, not just in India but in the UK and the US where they completely missed the mood in favour of Brexit and Donald Trump.

No election is won till the results are out, whatever opinion polls may predict. Pollsters have bitten the dust in recent times, not just in India but in the UK and the US where they completely missed the mood in favour of Brexit and Donald Trump. Will the polls get it right this time or will they be wrong again? We will know on 11 March.

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