Elections are here once again. So what? In India, elections are the only business that survives and thrives with bulls and bears romping on the political fairgrounds. Mysterious investors bet on the outcome with multicoloured political chips. Some rake in huge returns. Some come a cropper. In this national game of vote and scoot, state elections rarely make a countrywide impact. But something unusual rides the winds blowing from middle and south India that smells of change and chance.
The results of the Assembly elections in Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh will go beyond deciding the fate of the BJP and the Congress; as well as the provincially picayune TRS. They will dictate the future colour and composition of the new regional and national leadership. If May 2014 catapulted a charismatic chief minister into the hot seat of Indraprastha as the most powerful prime minister after Indira Gandhi, the December 2018 Assembly poll verdicts will define the destiny of future prime ministerial aspirants.
They will also shake and shape the present stature of Narendra Modi and his tested and trusted party president, Amit Shah. It is Minimum Modi and Maximum CMs. If ground reports are true, the PM has decided that chief ministers and local party chiefs would lead from the front. Modi will confine himself to the role he is best at: the Mass Maximus whose acerbic aggression can storm the stoutest citadel. Brand Modi was the magic wand that conjured up saffron victories in most of the previous state polls. None of the current chief ministers was projected as a future CM. Two-third of the states had come under the Modi spell and surrendered to the BP and its allies—surpassing the Congress record under Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.
It is the first time since 2014 that chief ministers like Shivraj Chouhan, Raman Singh and Vasundhara Raje are testing their personal popularity instead of invoking Modi’s hypnotic personality as their ballot magnet. The Congress, on its part, is using Rahul Gandhi sparsely on its publicity material. Previously, hoardings, buntings, ads and social media campaigns would boast big pictures of Modi and Shah while the state-level leaders had only pygmy presence or were altogether missing. Election rallies were dominated by roaring slogans that exalted Modi.
The emotionally enlivened and reverberatingly responsive audiences of those days were unwilling to listen to any other leader. But the BJP would soon lose Delhi, Bihar and Punjab and later Karnataka. It has shifted its battle strategy from Modi-driven campaigns to assaults anchored by the incumbent chief ministers. While Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh and Singh in Chhattisgarh have been in office for three terms, Rajasthan’s Raje is completing a second term after losing in 2008. All three face double incumbency at both the state and the Centre.
In 2013, they fought and won on their own with none of the national leaders to amp up their people power. History is being repeated in 2018 as they are left to fend for themselves so that the Central leadership is insulated from a possible blowback. Modi and Shah are addressing fewer rallies in these states as compared to Karnataka and Gujarat. Victory or vanquishment will have far-reaching implications for the party. If Singh and Chouhan secure a fourth term, they are bound to become even more powerful.
The leader to watch is the 59-year-old Chouhan, since he is the youngest and healthiest of the second-generation BJP politicians groomed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani. Both Raje and Raman are eight years older. Chouhan trounced incumbency in 2013, when Modi had little chance to campaign in his favour. Even now his popularity is higher than his party’s in MP. Despite corruption charges, he has earned the reputation of a man with a method and a mission. He has spent more days (4,710) in office than Modi as chief minister (4,510).
Before Modi captured Raisina Hills, it was Chouhan who was seen as the BJP’s future national leader with his backward and modest background. Raman Singh holds the national record of occupying the CM’s office for 5,463 days. But his interests are limited to his state. However, tremors would be felt in Rajasthan and Delhi were Raje to win this time. Her hallmark is her defiance of the Central leadership. Victory would make her one of most the important players in BJP’s national politics. Chouhan and Raje together contributed 52 of the BJP’s tally of 282 Lok Sabha members.
Chouhan’s role in national politics was negligible until Rajnath Singh made him a member of the central election committee and the party’s all-powerful Parliamentary Board. With Sushma Swaraj, one of the BJP’s tallest and most credible leaders, announcing her decision not to stand for elections next year, the role of elected satraps like Chouhan over unelected netas will definitely get a boost. Amongst the active national leaders, Modi is the oldest, followed by Rajnath Singh, who is a year younger. Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, too, are younger, but both have health issues limiting their campaigning mobility. Shah, Yogi Adityanath and Devendra Fadnavis are yet to acquire national stature.
It is not just the fate of the BJP chief ministers that hangs in the balance. An electoral backlash for KCR in Telangana will cause tremors in Delhi, thereby affecting Modi’s clout. The TRS is the only powerful regional outfit which is expected to be a BJP ally in 2019. Other likely rule-buddies like Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra and the AIADMK are unlikely to play significant roles in determining the power balance since they are dithering in their own states. The BJP is betting on huge gains from the south and east India to compensate for possible losses in the north and the west.
A saffron rout in the three states will create a maha manthan and weaken the BJP’s local leadership and hasten the Mahagathbandhan formation against Modi. Since the BJP’s loss would be Congress’s gain, it would enhance RaGa’s acceptability among leaders who have been ignoring him so far. Though Opposition parties haven’t declared their captain yet, the officer ranks are of different ages.
Akhilesh (45) and Rahul (48) are under 50, while Pawar at 77 is the oldest, followed by Naidu, Mamata and Mayawati. In the Age of Modi, they are willing to talk the walk but not walk the talk yet. Expect December 11 to change that. The outcome is guaranteed to accelerate the geographical and generational shift in Indian politics before the 2019 political Mahabharata.