Narendra Modi is now under attack for bringing a slowdown in India’s economy. He is being berated by none other than his own, former finance minister Yashwant Sinha, not to talk of scathing fire from political rival and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi. His government’s big bang moves, demonetisation and GST, are being condemned vehemently by those, who in drawing room debates till a couple of months back, hailed him as a strong leader with the guts to take bold steps to flush out black money, order a surgical strike to eliminate Pakistan-sponsored terror, introduce a muscular foreign policy with Islamabad and counter Chinese domination at Doklam. It is no longer about Modi’s promises but about him not being able to keep them. The wait for ‘acche din’ by the unemployed has started to become unbearable. The enchanted are showing signs of getting disenchanted.
Modi’s detractors and political opponents are feeling upbeat. They smell a wind change. Are these really signs of the tide turning against Modi and the BJP or are they jumping the gun? An accurate barometer of the public mood is going to be the state elections in Gujarat (December 2017) and Madhya Pradesh (2018). These will be the litmus test not only for Narendra Modi but also BJP chief Amit Shah and the RSS cadre which has held the two states in its grip for decades. As importantly, the assembly elections will also reveal if the Congress is able to resurrect itself in Gandhinagar after a gap of 22 years and in Bhopal after 15 years. Even if the Congress is unable to wrest power from BJP in Gujarat, its success will be read in the sort of fight it puts up. If the Congress is able to turn the Gujarat battle into a neck-and-neck race, substantially bring down the BJP vote share and number of BJP held seats(122 out of 182), it will indicate a tell-tale wane in the Modi magic. In Madhya Pradesh the Congress will have to do much much more. It will have to romp home victorious to make an impact worth noting.
Gujarat is a prestige fight personally for Modi. It is his home turf. It is from here that he emerged on the nation’s political firmament as the successful chief minister of Gujarat (2001-2014) and staked his claim to be the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 general elections. Modi, Shah, the BJP and the RSS are understandably going to put their entire might in the Gujarat fray. The polls here will be a test of Amit Shah’s organisational skills and his capability to marshal cadres for the battle of the ballot. During his recent visit to Gujarat, Shah in his interaction with the BJP rank and file is learnt to have heard many grievances including resentment against Balwantsinh Rajput, being made the third BJP candidate in the Gujarat Rajya Sabha polls in August only days after he exited the Congress.
In Gujarat, Modi will not only have to combat the changing perception about him at the macro level, but also the fall out of the Patidar agitation spearheaded by Hardik Patel at the local level. The two together can make it rough going for the BJP in Gujarat. The reputation of Modi the invincible and Shah the unstoppable election wizard will be at stake more in Gujarat than in Madhya Pradesh. To their advantage, and it is a big one, is the shoddy shape in which the Congress state unit is in at present. Not only is it faction ridden but its chief Bharatsinh Solanki is hardly in command of things. His political maturity is repeatedly questioned by party workers. In fact he is considered the bane of Congress troubles in Gujarat. He is the reason for Shankersinh Vaghela, who was the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, quitting the Congress and taking 14 MLAs with him. While he has not gone into the BJP fold, some of the MLAs have.
In a bid to contain organisational problems in Gujarat, the Congress high command who chose to back Solanki instead of Vaghela, has had to form a state election team comprising four working presidents, 14 general secretaries, seven spokespersons, 63 secretaries, four executive committee members and nine special invitees! While the team is chaired by Solanki, Sonia Gandhi has also put her political aide Ahmed Patel, Madhusudan Mistry and Gujarat leaders Arjun Modhwadia from whom Solanki took over in 2015 and Shaktisinh Gohil in it.
While the Congress has found it strategically suicidal to name a chief ministerial candidate in Gujarat, it is well on its way to projecting Member of Parliament Jyotiraditya Scindia as its chief ministerial face in Madhya Pradesh. Veteran Madhya Pradesh leader Kamal Nath more than indicated this days ago while speaking in Scindia’s Guna constituency. This not only marks a generational change in Madhya Pradesh politics but also shows that the Congress is no longer a house divided there. Digvijay Singh, former Congress chief minister of Madhya Pradesh has finally made space for Scindia by embarking on a religious Narmada yatra.
Madhya Pradesh politics has historically mirrored the national mood. It swings in accordance with it. BJP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan was the choice of Atal Behari Vajpayee, Sushma Swaraj and Pramod Mahajan and he rode the BJP wave in 2003 to come to power. Digvijay Singh had to bite the dust because the anti Congress mood had already set in by then. If there is an anti Modi mood when Madhya Pradesh goes to polls, it is bound to affect Chouhan’s prospects.
The Congress is far more confident in Madhya Pradesh than it is in Gujarat. Not only is Chouhan handicapped by the anti incumbency factor, but also the fact that in 25 to 30 seats the Muslim population ranges from 20% to 50%. The Muslims of Madhya Pradesh, like those of Gujarat or for that matter the entire country repose no confidence and faith in the BJP. Of the 230 assembly seats, Congress at present holds 55. If Scindia is able to present himself as a credible alternative to Chouhan, the Congress will find the going easier in Madhya Pradesh than Gujarat.
Modi can turn the public mood full circle again and stem threatening disenchantment by one single factor – by improving the economy. The bottom line is that the economy must start showing signs of recovery. Improving the job market is essential, along with an end to the GST triggered price rise which is directly affecting the middle and lower middle class and the poor. With his own former finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, going public on this matter, the prime minister has his task cut out. Will he rise to the occasion again, as he has so spectacularly done in the past ?