Assembly elections in five states in February and March could be a game-changer for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, with the potential to re-define their identities and future.
If Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation gambit clicks, the BJP might aspire to emerge as the Congress of yore by adding a mélange of castes and communities to its traditional Brahmin-Bania vote bank--except perhaps Muslims who remain wary of it. The ruling party is eager to see demonetisation—a supposed vent for the angst of the poor against the rich--transcend castes and communities and change its image for good. The BJP had witnessed a massive expansion in its support base in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, but it was anti-incumbency against the UPA that imparted velocity to the Modi wave. The BJP struggled without it in subsequent elections in Delhi and Bihar. The coming assembly elections would determine whether the recall of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes would help the BJP gain currency beyond its traditional vote bank.
If that happens, the grand old Congress, at 132, might be staring at an existential crisis with a huge dent in its standing as the principal challenger to the BJP. In the event of the Aam Admi Party (AAP) doing well in Punjab and Goa, it could emerge as a possible answer to the perceived quest of voters for an alternative political platform, even though the party has proved no different from others. It might also shake Congressmen’s belief that if India is a computer, the Congress is its default programme, as vice-president Rahul Gandhi enunciated at a party workshop in 2013.
If the demonetisation decision were to boomerang on the BJP as its rivals hope in the forthcoming polls, the BJP would find itself in a precarious situation with its back on the wall in Gujarat- scheduled to go to polls in November-December 2017--and in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh a year later. An adverse outcome in this round of assembly elections would have a strong bearing on the functioning of the NDA government at the Centre. With more ammunition available for party snipers and dissidents within the Sangh Parivar and the opposition camp bolstered, Modi government might be left hobbling, especially in the context of politically contentious decisions.
February-March assembly polls offer a big opportunity to the Congress to arrest the slide in its fortune. It would hope to encash anti-incumbency against the BJP-SAD combine in Punjab and the BJP in Goa to counter the BJP’s derisive call for a “Congress-mukt Bharat”. The party might fancy its chances in Uttarakhand--where the opposition BJP is witnessing an internecine war among half-a-dozen chief ministerial contenders--and Manipur where it looks well-ensconced so far. If the Congress were to do well in the coming assembly polls, it would also set the stage for its fight back in 2019 general elections, starting with Gujarat later this year and Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh—all BJP-ruled— towards the end of 2018.
While the two major national parties are keeping their fingers crossed, some other players also have their future at stake in the coming polls. The AAP’s performance in the coming polls would largely determine its national ambitions. It was a front-runner to replace the BJP-SAD regime in Punjab but has lost its momentum since. It is also making a valiant attempt to dislodge the BJP in Goa. If the AAP succeeds in these two states, it would pitchfork the four years old party as the presumptive challenger to the BJP at the national level as well. If the AAP flops, it might put paid to its national ambitions in immediate future.
Whichever way the results go in Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party (SP) looks set for a churn. If chief minister Akhilesh Yadav decides to part ways with his father Mulayam Singh Yadav in this election, he would emerge as a leader in his own right, no matter which party he floats and which way the results go. Even if Mulayam relents and makes way for Akhilesh, the SP or its politics will not be the same any longer.
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