The monsoon session of parliament was being projected as a triumphant one for the BJP with those opposing the GST Bill falling in line. Its passage was being seen more as a question of when, rather than if. The prospect of GST becoming a reality soon was giving an additional fillip to the already prevalent feel-good factor in the ruling dispensation.
The party had scored a victory in the northeast by claiming Assam, the monsoon gods were showering bountiful blessings after two years of drought, the cabinet expansion and reshuffle was by and large hailed as a masterly exercise which combined political messaging, regional aspirations, caste equations and administrative requirements. And the Indian economy and stock markets had not just weathered Brexit well, but the timing too was Godsend. Our own Rexit, in RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan’s quitting before a second term all but drowned in the global hullabaloo.
All was going well for the BJP, or so it seemed. But the political developments of the past few days have seen the party ceding advantage to its rivals. The BJP leadership, which prides itself on thinking and planning ahead, outsmarting and outwitting its rivals with a mix of strategy, speed and resources, is no longer looking all that pat. Their winning ways, the deft touch, the masterly strokes all seem to be deserting the BJP as its leadership finds itself outmanoeuvred and outwitted.
It all started with Arunachal Pradesh. Of course the cat was set amongst the pigeons by the Supreme Court but then the BJP should have anticipated it; especially after Uttarakhand. The reversal is not just about losing a remote state to the Congress. The manner in which Congress got its act together, marshalled its troops and outsmarted the BJP gave Congress just the lifeline it needed at a time when the party was gasping for oxygen, resigned to a slow, agonising and humiliating political demise.
The Arunachal comeback headlined by India’s largest selling newspaper as “Congress snatching victory from the jaws of defeat” has given Congressmen across the country hope, a reason to believe in themselves.
What the Congress leadership could not do since the crushing defeat in May 2014 the BJP managed it by its needless and ill-timed adventurism in Arunachal. And the party may repeat its folly if the leadership continues to depend and be guided by the likes of Himanta Biswa Sharma, who crossed over from Congress just before Assam elections.
Then came the announcement of Sheila Dixit as the Congress chief ministerial candidate in Uttar Pradesh. It’s unlikely she and Raj Babbar can galvanize the party to victory, but if the road show in Lucknow was any indication the duo has definitely succeeded in energising the party workers. Dixit’s entry has complicated matters for the BJP, which is looking bereft of a strategy in this crucial state.
With the three other political parties now projecting a face in these elections in Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati and Dixit, how long can the BJP avoid this question? The BJP has maintained that it will not project a face — or do so at the right time — but the fact is that with Dixit joining the fray, the BJP’s hand is almost forced. It may still not announce a candidate, saying it has many leaders to fit the role but one can see through its discomfiture.
Surely, the electorate of India’s most populous state, which returned 71 NDA MP’s in 2014, deserve to know who their chief minister will be if they vote for BJP in 2017. The one winning horse the BJP could have backed in UP suffers from the handicap of a wrong surname — Varun Gandhi.
The UP battle is truly open and the BJP is definitely a serious contender. But here again, the turn of events is making BJP look more like a reactive force than a proactive one.
It’s in Punjab that the BJP has suffered the biggest shocker in the exit of Navjot Singh Sidhu. With Sidhu gone, the party has lost its most charismatic face in Punjab. Sidhu is not just all charisma, he is the right caste as well (Jat Sikh). Sidhu has not just left the party faceless in Punjab, his timing has also left the top brass red-faced and squirming.
He quit on the first day of the monsoon session, just a few weeks after he was nominated to the upper house. Sidhu’s angst with the Badal-Jaitly duo was one of the country’s worst kept political secrets, so who brokered the deal of Sidhu’s Rajya Sabha membership in return for his silence?
If Sidhu becomes the face of AAP in Punjab — as is widely speculated — the assembly elections really open up.
Let’s look at the possible outcomes: the Akali-BJP combination will want the opposition vote to be divided between Congress and AAP. This means it can return to power. The Congress would like its vote share to remain intact and in addition get the anti-incumbency vote. That will ensure a Congress win. The AAP will like a repeat of Delhi which means AAP getting all the anti Akali-BJP votes and a Congress washout.
That’s what happened in 2014, when the AAP secured about 24 per cent vote share in Punjab, just marginally behind the Akali Dal and won four seats (the same as the Akali Dal).
For the BJP, it’s the third scenario which gives them the nightmare. They don’t mind losing Punjab to the Congress. But an AAP will brings the party and Arvind Kejriwal back on centre stage in national politics. A win in Punjab and the BJP will find the AAP cadre swarming Gujarat, where assembly elections are due in December 2017.
A re-energised Congress is something the BJP is still comfortable dealing with in 2019. But not a revitalized Kejriwal and AAP.
A scenario which the BJP may just have forced upon itself by forcing Sidhu’s hand.
(Sanjeev Srivastava is founder-editor of EditPlatter.Com and former India Editor of BBC. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)