The monsoon session of Parliament was being projected as a triumphant one for the BJP with those opposing the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Bill falling in line. Its passage was being seen more as a question of when, rather than if.
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, but the timing too was a 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.
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 decision, 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.
Then came the announcement of Sheila Dikshit as the Congress chief ministerial candidate in Uttar Pradesh. It’s unlikely that Raj Babbar and she can galvanise the party to victory, but if the road show in Lucknow was any indication the duo has definitely succeeded in energising the party workers. Dikshit’s entry has complicated matters for the BJP. With the three other political parties now projecting a face in these elections in Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati and Dikshit, how long can the BJP avoid this question?
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 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-Jaitley 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.
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 win will bring the party and Arvind Kejriwal back on the centre stage in national politics. An AAP win in Punjab and the BJP will find Kejriwal’s cadres 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 revitalised Kejriwal and AAP. It’s a scenario that the BJP may just have forced upon itself by forcing Sidhu’s hand.
(Writer is former India Editor of BBC. The views expressed are personal.)