The BJP's total reliance on Narendra Modi to rally the crowds during election campaigns shows the lacklustre leadership and the divided nature of state leadership. Image Credit: ANI

Does Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stellar standing (he enjoys a 70 per cent approval rating in most polls) eclipse the regional leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which will be tested in the three upcoming state elections?

Allow me to test the hypothesis. Elections are due in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh, where the BJP faces off against the traditional rival the Congress party. During the last elections to Rajasthan, which the BJP lost under the leadership of Vasundhara Raje Scindia, the main slogan was “Modi tuj sei bair nahi, Vasundhara teri khair nahi” (we have nothing against Modi but, we will set Vasundhara right). This is not the first example of the Modi Teflon effect.

Many leaders including Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi party (AAP) have cannily sought to distinguish themselves at the state level seeking votes while Modi rules the country. Kejriwal sought votes for himself in Delhi in a campaign years ago using the same parallel.

The growing Modi effect

The Modi effect has gained in strength after the successful Chandrayaan mission and the Delhi Declaration at the conclusion of the G20, which saw wall-to-wall mainstream media coverage and showcased Modi as the successful host playing into the vishwaguru (world sage) narrative assiduously cultivated by the ministers and BJP President J P Nadda. A special session of the Parliament in the new Parliament is set to record both the events for posterity.

So while Modi’s approval ratings have shot through the roof the regional leaders, BJP Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan in Madhya Pradesh and Raje in Rajasthan, pale in comparison.

The BJP campaigns for the upcoming elections look to be in trouble. Raje has long had problems with the BJP’s central leadership of Modi and Amit Shah. The recent Yatra undertaken by the BJP parading Gajendra Singh Shekhawat and other Rajasthan leaders barely attracted crowds. A sulking Raje kept away as the BJP showcased a “collective leadership”. Officially, the BJP attributed the dismal show to rain, but the party seems to be having serious doubts about keeping away Raje from the campaign. If she now fronts as the leader, Raje will be impossible to ignore as a chief minister prospect if the BJP wins.

Vasundhara Raje
Vasundhara Raje addresses an election rally in support of BJP candidate Shankar Singh Rawat in Beawar, Rajasthan, on November 27, 2018. Raje has had problems with the BJP’s central leadership, but if she returns to head the poll campaign her claims for the chief minister's post will be impossible to ignore if the BJP wins.

Rajasthan is a bipolar polity and is known to shuffle between the Congress and the BJP. The BJP disarray has come as a welcome development for the Congress, which is split between the incessant feud between Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his young rival Sachin Pilot. Scenting a possible victory and counselled by Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge, who also found a berth for Pilot in the Congress Working Committee (CWC) — the highest decision-making body of the party —Gehlot and Pilot have buried their differences and are working together. Voters in Rajasthan have been incredulous at seeing the bitter rivals praise each other.

The central leaders of our party were so busy working out the power-share that they seem to have forgotten that we have to win the elections first, quipped a senior BJP leader. As factionalism and the Raje factor bedevil the BJP, Modi like in Karnataka is expected to lift the BJP campaign. While Modi certainly gives the BJP a lift with huge public turnouts for his rally and roadshows, the dismal leadership and lack of performance of the BJP government ensure that the BJP doesn’t win.

The total reliance on Modi to do the heavylifting also shows the lacklustre leadership and the divided nature of state leadership. Take Madhya Pradesh where the BJP has four chief minister candidates all desperate to replace Chauhan. They include Jyotiraditya Scindia, who defected from the Congress and brought the Kamalnath-led Congress government down, Kailash Vijayvargiya and two others.

The games Chauhan and Scindia play

Chauhan has smartly played off one against the other. Scenting a threat from Scindia he ensured that the aviation minister is not part of the ticket selection panel and that the MLAs who defected with Scindia are not given tickets. Scindia, who makes no bones about the fact that being CM is his dream job, has been holding serial public meetings in his areas of Chindwara, Gwalior and Guna, but the turnout has been low.

Meanwhile, Kamalnath and Digvijaya Singh are united in their desire to give the “maharaja”, as Scindia the former maharaja of Gwalior is called, a bloody nose. They have deployed Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to hit back at “defector” Scindia.

read more

In Chattisgarh BJP faces off against a popular Congress government led by Bhupesh Baghel who has ensured many public benefits to the voters. The BJP has former CM Raman Singh, Lata Usendi and Saroj Pandey, who barely enthuse the voters.

Most observers say that the Congress will fare well in the three states, but the BJP will win in the same states in the big fight of the Lok Sabha elections next year.

If this happens, the Modi effect will again be the reason. While Modi continues rally the people over India lifting, the party leadership is dwarfed by the long the shadow of his enormous popularity. That’s a cause for worry.