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The Assembly election results vindicate the need for powerful regional leaderships

Smita Gupta | Updated on November 01, 2019 Published on October 31, 2019

Top-heavy: The Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo led from the front in the two state polls, but could not replicate the results of the general elections in May   -  PTI

The BJP’s showing in the just-concluded polls in Maharashtra and Haryana demonstrate that local issues and local leaders with mass appeal do matter

The rumblings in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are getting louder. The outcome of the recent Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana is being held up as an ominous sign. It’s time the party’s top brass, insiders stress, understood the importance of state leaders.

The Assembly polls, they hold, point to the marginalisation of state leaders. Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani was the first of the BJP’s second crop of chief ministers to test his fate at the hustings in 2017. Maharashtra’s Devendra Fadnavis and Haryana’s Manohar Lal Khattar became the second and the third to do so. And the message was mixed.

Rupani had replaced Anandiben Patel — who had succeeded Narendra Modi in 2014 after the latter became Prime Minister — in 2016. Under Rupani, the BJP returned to power in the state the following year, but with a considerably reduced majority. In Haryana, the BJP emerged as the single largest party, but had to secure the support of the fledgling Jannayak Janata Party (JJP) to form a government; in Maharashtra, the BJP is on rocky ground with its demanding ally, the Shiv Sena.

What the three elections demonstrate — apart from the limitations of playing the politics of polarisation — is that local issues and local leaders do matter in Assembly polls. Just five months before the elections in Maharashtra and Gujarat, Modi and BJP president Amit Shah led the campaign that saw the BJP win a second term at the Centre, with an enhanced majority. In the Assembly polls, the Modi-Shah duo once again led from the front, with the local leadership taking its cue from them, but with very different results. The most recent issue of the RSS organ, Panchjanya, stresses that the Haryana results are a “chetawani” (warning) to the party.

When they were plucked out of obscurity and made chief ministers, Fadnavis and Khattar did not have a national profile. Today, five years later, they are known but are — in the evocative words used by an RSS insider — pawns on a chessboard. Fadnavis started out in the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, and held some organisational positions in the BJP in Maharashtra; Khattar, a swayamsewak, had never held any administrative post. The two men have grown but neither can boast of being a mass leader.

Second chance: Until he became the chief minister in 2014, Khattar, a swayamsewak, had never held any administrative post   -  PTI

 

Fadnavis, of course, cut down his rivals within the party, tried to weaken his allies, attracted leaders from other parties and, above all, used his five years to cultivate the Mumbai media carefully to project himself as a possible Prime Minister. What he forgot was that he — and Khattar — had been made chief ministers because they could never become a challenge to Modi. They need Modi’s image to stay afloat.

Game plan: Fadnavis used his five years as chief minister to project himself as a possible Prime Minister and weaken allies   -  PTI

 

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Indeed, wind back to April 2002. The then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had arrived in Goa to attend a meeting of the BJP’s national executive, determined to sack Modi for his alleged role in the communal violence in Gujarat earlier that year. But Modi mobilised an influential section of the party, upstaged Vajpayee, and went on to win three consecutive state elections in 2002, 2007 and 2012. In 2014, he became the Prime Minister.

Others in the first crop of the BJP’s chief ministers, starting in the 1990s, were not as powerful — or successful — as Modi. But they had spent many years working their way up the organisational — and, in some cases, governmental — ladder, and had built reputations of their own. In 1991, for instance, Kalyan Singh — the tallest of the leaders in Uttar Pradesh — was an obvious choice for the BJP in the state. He was always his own man.

Over the years, BJP leaders — from Shanta Kumar or Prem Kumar Dhumal in Himachal Pradesh, Madanlal Khurana or Sushma Swaraj in Delhi and Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh to Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh, Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan, Manohar Parrikar in Goa and BS Yeddyurappa in Karnataka — were personalities in their own right. The manner in which they operated may have been different, but most had mass appeal, with some even acquiring popular sobriquets — Chouhan was known as Mamaji (a term for a favourite uncle), and Raman Singh as Chawalwala Baba (because the poor were provided rice at cheap rates). Swaraj was always popular among the people — and the slogan that rang through the party after she rose to become Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha was “Agli bari, behen hamari” (Next time/ it will be our sister’s turn). Some, like Shanta Kumar, Raje and Yeddyurappa, had shown their capacity, when cornered, to even challenge the central leadership.

Compare these leaders created in the Vajpayee-Advani era — a period when inner party democracy existed, if not flourished, in the BJP — with the second crop of chief ministers. Apart from Rupani, Fadnavis and Khattar, there is Raghubar Das in Jharkhand, Sarbananda Sonowal in Assam, Biplab Deb in Tripura, and Jai Ram Thakur in Himachal Pradesh — all first-time chief ministers. Barring Sonowal, all the others have an RSS background. The Assam leader cut his teeth in state politics in the All Assam Students’ Union and the Asom Gana Parishad and then hit the headlines in 2005 when he was a petitioner in the case in which the Supreme Court scrapped the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983.

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, however, does not fit the pattern — and this is something the central leadership is aware of. His ascension as chief minister saw Hindi TV channels projecting him as the PM-in-waiting, as the man who would eventually succeed Modi at the Centre. But within a month that changed and Adityanath’s missteps began to gain traction on those very channels. BJP sources had then said the central leadership did not approve of the attempt to give the UP CM a national image and the channels had been warned off. In the two years since then, it has become plain that Modi’s successor will be Shah. The two men want the BJP’s chief ministers to be their envoys in the states, not political figures with followings of their own.

In some of the states, the chief minister has been selected from the non-dominant community to unite the smaller castes against the major grouping. So Fadnavis, a Brahmin, runs a Maratha-dominated state, and Khattar is a Punjabi in a Jat-dominated state. Das, an OBC, heads Jharkhand, where tribal communities dominate. But while this worked in the last Assembly elections, in the just-concluded polls, the Marathas, under Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar, mounted a fierce campaign. In Haryana, the Jats, though owing allegiance to three parties — the Congress, the JJP and the Indian National Lok Dal — did not waste their votes: They voted for the strongest Jat candidate in each constituency.

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Today, the situation in the BJP is somewhat similar to that in the Congress in the early ‘70s, when Indira Gandhi, after the liberation of Bangladesh, was at the height of her powers. She had no time for dissenters in her party, nor did she brook any challenges. And if the power structure in the Congress depended on regional leaders building their bases, she began the process of weakening them.

Indeed, the subject of state satraps is one that crops up often in informal conversations in the Congress: The party, its members feel, needs not just a strong leadership at its helm, but also in the states. The exit of Pawar and Mamata Banerjee from the Congress is often cited as reasons why the party weakened in Maharashtra and was almost wiped out in West Bengal. Similarly, the late YS Rajasekhara Reddy had played a stellar role in the erstwhile state of Andhra Pradesh — if the central leadership had dealt with greater tact the aftermath of his death in a helicopter crash soon after he won a second term in office in 2009 (it had, instead, alienated Reddy’s widow and son), the state would not have been divided, and the Congress decimated in both halves.

In 2017, it was only after the party belatedly gave Captain Amarinder Singh the charge of Punjab that the Congress succeeded in winning the state back after 10 years in the opposition. And now even the belated handing over of Haryana to former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda has paid the Congress dividends: In the recent state elections, along with former Union Minister Kumari Selja, Hooda was able to build a strong social coalition of Jats, Dalits and Muslims and double the party’s score from 16 to 31.

The BJP leadership, some insiders whisper, would do well to take a lesson from the story of the Congress. Weakening regional leaders can adversely affect the party’s strength on the ground; in the long run it can shrink the party’s base on the one hand and encourage the growth of regional outfits on the other. And that is often the beginning of the end.

Smita Gupta is senior fellow at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy

Published on October 31, 2019
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