Test for BJP Satraps, not Modi: The PM remains BJP’s galvaniser-in-chief but local issues dominate MP, Chhattisgarh polls

Narendra Modi
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If poll posters ever tell a larger story, the most striking thing about BJP’s campaign in Chhattisgarh is the re-emergence of Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the party’s election publicity. BJP billboards across Raipur and the Chhattisgarh central plains are dominated by mega-size cutout images of chief minister Raman Singh in the foreground, emerging from an equally large silhouette of the late Atal Bihari in the background. To be sure, the poll posters also sport the visages of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, party president Amit Shah and other state leaders, but these appear in much smaller squares on the side.

The PM undoubtedly remains the party’s chief vote catcher and galvaniser-in-chief but the local political messaging is clear: in Chhattisgarh, BJP’s longest serving current chief minister in the country is the mascot, fighting on his governance record, all packaged within the Atal lexicon: from the Atal Drishti Patra, a vision document for what BJP calls ‘Navya Chhattisgarh’ 2025 to the renaming of Naya Raipur as Atal Nagar to Raman Singh’s Atal Vikas Yatra, flagged off from Dongargarh by Amit Shah in September.

The recourse to Vajpayee is absent in BJP’s positioning in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, but the ‘great leader’ imagery of Raman Singh repeats itself with respect to chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Here too BJP’s ‘Mamaji’, in power since 2005, is fighting on a similar brand of welfare politics. Jobs remain his biggest challenge but he is banking big on schemes that give the poor a flat Rs 200 electricity bill (for a bulb, fan, cooler, power socket), waiver of past electricity bills, Rs 12,000 on childbirth, Rs 5,000 for last rites and Rs 1,000 per month for fruits and milk to tribal families.

It is this model of big ticket social welfare spending through schemes like the Sambhal Yojana that he hopes will keep the urban poor, Dalit and tribal voters on his side, along with his OBC tag, turning back the fatigue of anti-incumbency even though farmers remain divided after the 2017 Mandsaur incident. The imagery of ‘Mamaji’ and phool-chaap is what is driving the BJP campaign in MP’s hinterland while party posters in Bhopal have two dominant visages – Chouhan and Narendra Modi.

It is easy to over-read posters on the wall but they also reflect the subliminal messaging a party wants to project to voters, especially for a party like BJP that has always been more sensitive than anyone else to the subtle meanings and finer details of political communication. It is clear that for BJP, both MP and Chhattisgarh are turning out to be very different campaigns from assembly poll contests in the past year in Karnataka and Gujarat.

Unlike Karnataka, where the PM’s rally blitzkrieg towards the end clearly provided a late surge to BJP or the campaign in Gujarat which was entirely fought on his legacy in the state alone, MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan are largely turning out to be battles of the regional satraps. Modi remains the unquestioned political ‘sarve sarva’ of BJP but the party, for whatever reason, has changed its ground tactics this election.

Modi addressed 34 election rallies in Gujarat, 21 in Karnataka. In contrast, TOI’s election tracker shows that he only addressed 5 rallies in the now finished Chhattisgarh campaign, one public meeting in Rajasthan so far (though he will do more) and is scheduled to hold a total of 11 rallies in MP. It is Amit Shah who has been the lynchpin of the BJP campaign so far, holding 10 rallies in Chhattisgarh, 14 in MP (with more to come) and 3 so far in Rajasthan.

In contrast, Rahul Gandhi has been carpet bombing these states with more rallies than the Modi-Shah combine: 43 public rallies so far (18 in Chhattisgarh, 19 in MP and 6 in Rajasthan) with more to follow.

Given that the three Hindi heartland states account for 65 Lok Sabha seats between them and BJP won 62 of these in 2014, the characterisation of this contest as a semi-final before 2019 is but natural. It could also be a tad simplistic. The semi-final portrayal is partly due to the fact these are the last major direct Congress-BJP faceoffs before the general election. It is also because, at the highest stratosphere of the election, campaign rhetoric has focused a great deal on meta-national narratives like Rafale, CBI vs CBI and charges of crony capitalism on one side and ‘naamdar’ vs ‘imaandar’ on the other. This has fuelled the positioning of these polls as yet another Modi vs Rahul Gandhi contest whose outcome will be read as signs of the endurance of Modi magic or harbingers of a changing national mood.

The resurrection and sheer prominence given to the Vajpayee persona in Chhattisgarh show that for BJP, this election is more than just about Modi’s voter connect. In that sense, these state assembly elections in the Hindi heartland mark a return to ‘traditional’ contests we saw before the Modi wave upended India’s political chessboard.

Their central praxis is turning on the BJP’s chief ministers and what voters see as their delivery record. Whether it is 50 lakh smartphones distributed in Chhattisgarh or MP’s scheme for Rs 4 lakh compensation if a family member dies or direct benefit transfers under Rajasthan’s Bhamashah scheme, the basic BJP model in these states is the same: largescale social spending fronted by a charismatic local satrap. It is this model that is on test before an aggressive Congress campaign rather than a larger referendum on Modi.

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