UPON HIS RETURN home from the US after the ‘Howdy Modi’ jamboree, Prime Minister Narendra Modi got a hero’s welcome from party workers and leaders. It sounded the bugle for the BJP’s campaign in two key states going to polls on October 21st. The crowds hailing Modi were a clear signal to voters in both Maharashtra and Haryana that after his US visit, Modi’s popularity has surged on the back of a diplomatic victory over Pakistan on the global stage on the issue of Kashmir. In Houston, Modi had referred to his Government’s historic decision to abrogate Article 370 that has shaped Jammu and Kashmir’s relationship with the rest of India for several decades. In response, Modi got a huge applause from the 50,000-strong Indian American audience. Awed by his popularity, US President Donald Trump compared Modi to Elvis.
That signal will reverberate through the polling in Haryana, where voters have been traditionally influenced by issues concerning the Centre. Haryana and Maharashtra are both Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-governed states, with chief ministers who are popular in their own right and were handpicked by Modi. Neither Manohar Lal Khattar nor Devendra Fadnavis has lost an election, local or national, for the BJP since they took office. Under their watch, the BJP’s tally improved in the 2019 General Election compared to 2014, winning new vote banks in regions that were not the party’s strongholds.
As with the Balakot airstrike before the Lok Sabha polls, the abrogation of Article 370 is set to do the same for the BJP in the impending state polls. The issue is set to take centrestage for Modi. It was a message that would be driven home to his political detractors amid a cyclical economic slowdown in key sectors that they sought unsuccessfully to dent Modi’s image with. These key developments—both on the global stage and at home—are expected to bring in big gains for the BJP in both states, with Fadnavis and Khattar at the helm.
Fadnavis was an unlikely choice for Maharashtra’s chief minister after the BJP won 122 seats in the last Assembly election. Only the second Brahmin Chief Minister of Maharashtra after Manohar Joshi of the Shiv Sena (as far back as 1995-1999), the party thereafter won almost all civic and local body polls with Fadnavis in charge. But Fadnavis’ biggest test came in the 2019 General Election, when he took the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance to the cleaners.
Devendra Fadnavis’ biggest coup was the decision to accord reservations in jobs and education to the Marathas, after his systematic poaching of the community’s satraps from the Congress and the NCP. He proved his mettle among distressed farmers with a farm loan waiver and a sound irrigation policy
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Caste equations were overlooked in Fadnavis’ appointment as Chief Minister in a state where Marathas account for 30 per cent of the electorate. Since 2014, however, the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance has made deep inroads into western Maharashtra, Vidarbha and the Marathwada regions and has gained gradual control of a large number of civic bodies in these regions. Handling the Maratha quota stir adeptly, Fadnavis’ biggest coup for his party was the decision to accord reservations in jobs and education to Marathas, after his systematic poaching of the community’s satraps from the Congress and, particularly, the NCP. As Chief Minister, Fadnavis proved his political mettle among the state’s distressed farmers through his government’s announcement of a huge farm loan waiver and a sound irrigation policy. This stood in stark contrast to former NCP leader Ajit Pawar’s open ridicule of irrigation projects as well as the allegations of graft against him in their execution.
The BJP’s key rival in the crucial state is wracked by a disaffected state leadership and a demoralised cadre. Defections and intra-party rivalries headline the Congress’ existence. Despite the return of Sonia Gandhi as party chief, a complete change in the political landscape under Fadnavis, given his grip on the electorate and his ability to respond promptly on key issues, has meant further debilitation of the Grand Old Party, leaving a leadership vacuum in the state at a critical time. The Congress is imploding, with nobody to helm its units in the states.
In Maharashtra, large-scale defections from the Congress have demoralised the average party worker, fortifying the perception that the BJP has a rock-solid lead over its main rival. After its defeat in the General Election, the bickering between former party chief Sanjay Nirupam and his successor Milind Deora came to the fore, with the latter resigning from his post. New entrant Urmila Matondkar too deserted soon after, citing rough treatment. Nirupam has not stopped his covert attacks on Deora. But implosion doesn’t even begin to describe the sorry state of the Congress. Six of its MLAs are currently waiting to join the BJP in Amit Shah’s presence. All of this has meant a big trust deficit in the Congress as far as the voting public is concerned.
But it was successfully luring strongmen from Sharad Pawar’s stable that proved Fadnavis could destabilise the NCP supremo, who had long dominated the state’s politics. These strongmen add value to the BJP since their holds extend not just to their Assembly constituencies but also to the powerful cooperative sector whose network is spread all over. From the Vikhe-Patils of Ahmadnagar to the Mohite-Patils from Akluj to Indrajit Patil of Indrapur, the BJP now has them all in its bag. The three descendants of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj—Sambhajiraje Bhosale, Shivendraraje and Udayanraje—have been brought into its fold. But the BJP’s gameplan in co-opting them is not restricted to the state elections but aimed at countering any long-term plan by the Congress-NCP to raise the bogey of anti-Brahmin sentiment among the Marathas.
By shaking the ground under the Maratha strongman’s feet, Fadnavis has proved that Sharad Pawar is not invincible. By poaching strategically from the NCP, the BJP stands strengthened in places where it had little hold earlier. The fire has now reached the top echelons of the NCP
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The move is expected to work out well for the BJP in the upcoming polls. Soon after the Lok Sabha victory, the Chief Minister had announced that he would launch a mega recruitment drive for the BJP. By July, the real meaning of this was apparent after five key NCP and Congress leaders—and 52 councillors in the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC), the second richest after Mumbai in the state—jumped ship and joined the BJP. Among these were Congress MLA Kalidas Kolambkar, NCP MLAs Sandeep Naik, Vaibhav Pichad and Shivendraraje Bhosale, as well as former state president of the NCP women’s wing, Chitra Wagh. It was a clever move by which the BJP wrested control of the NMMC. This was a body blow for the NCP. Pawar’s party had already lost its grip of local corporations in other key areas, including Mumbai and Thane. Many of the NCP leaders joining the BJP were reportedly at loggerheads with Sharad Pawar’s nephew, and former Deputy Chief Minister, Ajit Pawar. But the former’s efforts at peacemaking had come to naught. The July developments have since had sequels, debilitating the NCP further. By shaking the ground under the Maratha strongman’s feet, Fadnavis has proved that Pawar is not invincible. More importantly, by poaching strategically from the NCP, the BJP stands strengthened politically in places where it had little hold earlier.
The fire has now reached the top echelons of the party, adding to the political uncertainty increasingly wrapping the NCP. Top leader and former Union Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel, deputy to Sharad Pawar, is already being probed by agencies for alleged corruption and violation of processes during his stint as minister. More recently, the Enforcement Directorate has even registered a money-laundering case against Sharad Pawar and his nephew Ajit in a Rs 25,000-crore scam in the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank. The Congress and NCP MLAs, meanwhile, continue to keep their political options open.
In Haryana, a state that it ruled from 2005 to 2014, the Congress finds itself plagued not by defections to the BJP but by a problem of plenty. Its biggest hurdle is not Chief Minister Khattar, mostly seen as leading a capable government. In a state dominated by Jat politics, Khattar is only the fourth non-Jat Chief Minister. It should not have been an uphill climb, politically, for the Congress. But it is instead seized by factionalism.
But the big boost to the BJP is the fact that the opposition in the state, both the Congress and the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), have imploded. The Congress is rudderless, with too many claimants for the chief minister’s post and rivalries among party leaders. It is in disarray, with former party chief Ashok Tanwar, a Rahul Gandhi appointee, determined not to cooperate with his replacement, Kumari Selja and former Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who has re-positioned himself as a chief ministerial aspirant.
Hooda’s return to the top rungs came after he had earlier differed with Rahul Gandhi’s opposition to the Modi Government’s revoking of Article 370. He also sought to outflank Khattar’s pro-farmer measures. The two-time Chief Minister went so far as to indicate that he could consider setting up a separate political outfit and quit the Congress, apparently compelling Sonia Gandhi to accept his re-elevation in the state party’s pecking order, although nearly every other leader of any significance has problems with him. Following this, state unit chief Tanwar and Congress Legislature Party leader Kiran Chaudhary were replaced by Kumari Selja and Hooda respectively. Selja is understood to have thrown in her lot with Hooda more recently, deciding not to contest in the election. Despite that, the Congress has an uphill task in finding a foothold.
Manohar Lal Khattar showcased his determination to change the image of graft in land deals associated with Haryana. His government changed the costs of all major projects, making them transparent. Bhupinder Singh Hooda has been unable to escape the dragnet of corruption probes in the real estate sector
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SINCE ITS LAST stint in power in Haryana, much has changed politically for the Congress. On Khattar’s watch—and with no mean help from an overwhelming Modi factor—the state BJP garnered 58 per cent of votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls compared to 34 per cent in 2014. Haryana has been saturated with Central welfare and social-sector programmes, such as Ujjwala Yojana and Ayushman Bharat Yojana. The state was dogged by land and real estate pricing as well as sales scams earlier, much of it peaking during Hooda’s tenure. But Khattar showcased his determination to change the image of graft in land deals associated with the economically booming state. He ensured that his government changed the costs of rendering of all major projects, making them transparent, besides introducing online allotment of all plots and e-auctioning of residential plots. Today, all of these policies are perceived by the electorate as decisive moves to contain graft in the sector. Hooda, on the other hand, has been unable to escape the dragnet of corruption probes in the real estate sector.
Among Haryana’s top political outfits not long ago, the BJP’s erstwhile ally, the INLD, had checkmated itself after party supremo Om Prakash Chautala and his son Ajay Chautala were convicted in the teacher recruitment scam. This was followed by a bitter family feud, putting the party’s existence in jeopardy under Abhay Chautala’s leadership. By the time of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, differences between Abhay Chautala and his nephews, Dushyant Chautala (former Hisar MP) and Digvijay Chautala (head of the INLD students wing), had come to a head. Their suspension from the party triggered a struggle for control of the party. Naina Singh Chautala, Ajay Chautala’s wife, staked claim on behalf of her sons. The INLD’s self-goal has meant that the Jat opposition to Khattar, if any, has failed to unite behind a charismatic leader.
As if its problems in the states weren’t bad enough, the Congress finds itself forced to struggle with its negative image at the Centre, following the arrests and/or investigations of many of its tall leaders and their relatives, including P Chidambaram and his son Karti, among several others. The party that once proudly called itself ‘the natural party of governance’ today finds itself stuck in the quagmire of inertia, factionalism, desertions and, above all, a widening trust deficit with the public.