The BJP is like an organisation that is in permanent election-fighting mode.
Barely days after the results of the Haryana and Maharashtra polls were out, party president Amit Shah reallocated senior BJP office-bearers, putting them in charge of different states, including ones that are headed for elections soon; in November — three months before it usually starts — the party’s annual membership recruitment drive will kick off with emphasis in states where its presence is weak or negligible; this will be accompanied by an expansion of its district offices from around 300 now to cover most of India’s 675 districts; and in states where its base is limited teams of motorcycle-borne BJP workers have been tasked with spreading the word.
These efforts may be sharply in contrast with what’s happening in the other national party, the Congress (by most accounts: not much), but pretty much in keeping with two things.
First, the BJP’s avowed mission to achieve a ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’, which means winning in as many of the state elections as it can. After the two most recent assembly elections, the BJP now has a majority government in six states (Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Goa, Rajasthan and Haryana; and shares power with allies in five, including one Union Territory (Punjab, Nagaland, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Puducherry). Its aim is to increase that tally.
That’s where the second reason for being permanently poll-ready comes in: beginning with Jharkhand and Jammu & Kashmir, where elections were announced on Saturday, there is a slew of state elections lined up over the next couple of years. These include Delhi (likely in early 2015) and Bihar (also in 2015); Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal in 2016; and Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Punjab and Uttarakhand in 2017.
Compared to the BJP’s tally of 11 states where it either rules or shares power, the Congress has nine states — Himachal Pradesh, Assam, Karnataka, Kerala, Uttarakhand, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh.
In Kerala and Assam, the BJP has no traditional base: in Kerala, it has tried to piggyback on the RSS but that hasn’t got it votes; and in Assam, the BJP would like to be a strong contender to the Congress by usurping the regional AGP’s position but it lacks a base and it has, in the Congress, a competitor for Hindu votes in that state.
But closer at hand are the Jharkhand and J-K elections — in the first the party would like to win and, in the second, where although winning could be a far cry, it wants to make a mark with a big tally. In Jharkhand, the BJP currently has 18 of the 82 seats (same as the tribal party, JMM) but it is a Congress-JMM-RJD combine that is in charge.
Tribal votes are crucial in the state — efforts by Shah to merge former chief minister Babulal Marandi’s party, JVM, have failed and much would rest on how the BJP manages to win those votes. In J&K, it’s a different challenge altogether. The BJP’s presence is negligible in the predominantly Muslim Kashmir valley, which accounts for 46 seats, but it has a clear edge in Jammu’s 37 seats and Ladakh’s four. Currently, the BJP has 11 seats in the J&K assembly, a tally that its leaders say it wants to increase significantly. The obvious challenge would be to make inroads into the valley.
Whether the BJP achieves its mission to have an ‘India sans Congress’ will be watched keenly as a dozen states go to the polls in the coming months but the outcome of the elections in one state, Uttar Pradesh, could be of special interest.
Under Shah, who was in charge of UP in the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP performed spectacularly but in the recent assembly by-polls it did poorly. How the BJP fares in India’s most populous but caste-divided, communally tense and woefully under-developed state could be its real test.