With its ear to the ground, how the BJP is sharpening its poll strategy

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s decision to change leaders in three states and introduce major changes in the Union council of ministers, is a sign of the party preparing for both, the upcoming assembly elections and the 2024 Lok Sabha polls
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Representational Image. (File photo)
Updated on Sep 22, 2021 06:44 PM IST
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The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s decision to change leaders in three states (including, most recently, in Gujarat where it has also replaced the entire council of ministers), and introduce major changes in the Union council of ministers, is a sign of the party preparing for both, the upcoming assembly elections and the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

The decisions appear driven by two major factors: Caste and anti-incumbency. The party is revisiting its social engineering formula to ensure that it can leverage caste equations in light of new demands and movements; and it has made sweeping changes at the top to nip intensifying anti-incumbency in the poll-bound states of Gujarat and Uttarakhand — which go to polls in 2022, and Karnataka — where the next assembly election will be in 2023.

Party leaders and political commentators concur that these changes go beyond the realm of the 2022 assembly elections, and have been crafted with an eye on the 2024 general elections and the party’s growth over the next two decades.

Out with the old, in with the new

The realisation that the next set of elections, including the 2024 polls, will need more than just Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s appeal has pushed the party to revisit its organisational edifice.

This includes promoting newer leaders, refining its pitch of Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas to the new churn in caste equations in the polity, and taking decisions that may be seen as unorthodox.

“Not many parties would change chief ministers [CMs] closer to the elections. It can backfire, but the BJP does not fear what the change can bring. The party leadership has shown gumption whether it was changing the CMs in Uttarakhand twice within four months or letting go of the person in Gujarat who was believed to have the backing of the top leaders,” said a senior party functionary.

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Over the last week, the Congress, too, has seen this shift in Punjab months before the assembly election, with Captain Amarinder Singh’s resignation and the appointment of Dalit leader, Charanjit Singh Channi, as CM.

The changes in the BJP, however, are dubbed as a natural progression of allowing younger, newer faces a platform for growth, and effected without rancour. “I believe that Gujarat’s development journey needs to be led under the new energy and enthusiasm with the guidance from PM Narendra Modi. Considering this, I have resigned from the post of chief minister of Gujarat,” 65-year-old Vijay Rupani said last Saturday while stepping down from his position.

Earlier in July, the 78-year-old Karnataka strongman, BS Yediyurappa also stuck to the congeniality script. “I am not resigning in grief. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, [home minister] Amit Shah and [BJP president] JP Nadda have given me a two-year term as CM, and I can’t thank them enough,” he said after stepping down two years after being sworn in.

There is more to these changes than just an opportunity for the newer leaders. Several party leaders agree that political expediency in switching to the traditional outreach towards dominant castes was a key consideration.

Maharashtra-based political commentator, Abhay Deshpande, said that the changes are an attempt to moderate the growing sentiment against the government at the Centre and in the states on various issues — from the reluctance for caste-based enumeration to governance issues.

“The cabinet reshuffle for instance has a long-term imprint. The BJP is trying to build leadership for the next 20 years,” he said. In picking leaders, the party also ensures that they do not emerge as larger than the party. “Even if Bhupendra Patel is from the numerically and economically stronger Patidar community and Pushkar Dhami a Thakur, these are leaders who have been chosen to ensure they retain their hold over castes without overshadowing the party,” he said.

The caste question

The rejig is also an indicator that the BJP is not entirely impervious to caste factors, even though the party had initially opted to create an alternative to the community-dominance construct in the polity. After the expansion of the council of ministers, the BJP said that 47 of the 77-member council representing Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Scheduled Castes (SC) categories are an indication of the party walking the talk on inclusivity and equality. There are 27 ministers from 19 OBC categories spread across 15 states, eight from the Scheduled Tribes (ST) community from across seven communities and eight states, and 12 from SC community from across 12 communities and eight states in the Union council of ministers.

Also Read | BJP may drop 50% of MLAs for 2022 assembly polls to blunt anti-incumbency

“When [Manohar Lal] Khattar was sworn in, the party relayed the message that the caste of the leader had little bearing. The leaders would work for all castes and all sections. The move to appoint a CM who was not from the politically and economically dominant Jat community was seen as a political masterstroke,” said the senior party functionary.

The appointment of a non-Maratha, Devendra Fadnavis, as CM in Maharashtra, and a non-Tribal, Raghubar Das, in Jharkhand came to be known as the BJP’s model of social engineering wherein the party wooed the non-dominant castes and built itself a support base similar to that of other regional satraps, much like the support that the Samajwadi Party draws from the Yadavs or the Bahujan Samaj Party’s dependence on the Dalit votes.

A political commentator requesting anonymity said that, like all other parties, the BJP too experimented with their leadership.

“Earlier the BJP followed the model of appointing the senior-most; there was Bhairon Singh Shekhawat in Rajasthan, Ram Prakash Gupta in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Virendra Kumar Khatik in Madhya Pradesh. Later, after the Mandal era of politics, when caste became an overriding factor, there was Kalyan Singh in UP; Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan, and Shivraj Singh Chauhan in MP; even PM Modi alluded to his caste,” the commentator said.

Commenting on the recent round of changes, the commentator said, “The third step was appointing non-dominant CMs in line with Hindu Samarasta; but now since the party has lost elections in several states including Delhi, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, they feel the need to revisit the caste factors so that they can prevent politically empowered groups from moving away.

Not all in the BJP agree that the changes are a sign that the party has changed its strategy of wooing the non-dominant castes to coalesce these into a broader support group. “Most of the time these decisions are based on dominant local considerations. Sometimes, the leaders were picked from a group that did not threaten the others. No thumb rule was being followed in giving the non-dominant leaders the top job. However, in doing so the party could negate the implicit caste rivalries and the shortcomings of the power matrix,” said a second party functionary.

The impact of the second wave

Political commentator Manisha Priyam attributes the changes to remedial action being taken by the party. “The changes show the BJP’s hard nosed ear-to-the-ground politics. In Gujarat, for instance, what could they do to counter the anger against Covid-19 mismanagement so close to elections? So, they returned to the dominant caste issue,” she said.

The change in leadership, she said, has been deftly executed to counter resentment after the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially in the rural areas. “Hardships (post-Covid) have acutely been felt in rural areas. The BJP’s narrative of this emerging urban vote-bank is a charade. For instance, in Karnataka, the BJP has kept the dominant Lingayat vote-bank untouched, but also tried to consolidate its vote-bank by bringing in a leader with a socialist background. Similarly, in Uttarakhand, the tragedy was immense after the second wave. To change things, [Pushkar Singh] Dhami was brought in. He is considered closer to Rajanth Singh, so the Rajput factor is also kept intact,” she said.

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    Smriti covers an intersection of politics and governance. Having spent over a decade in journalism, she combines old fashioned leg work with modern story telling tools.

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Tuesday, November 30, 2021