Is Finance Minister Arun Jaitley deliberately keeping a low profile or has he been sidelined by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the planning for the Bihar assembly polls?

Whatever the reason, there is no denying that  the finance minister has no major role in the preparation for this crucial election, which is surprising since he was not just in-charge of the BJP but also the chief strategist of the NDA combine in 2005 when the BJP, ended up winning an all-time high of 58 seats and, with the Janata Dal (United)'s 88 seats, were able to form the government. In 2010, again, under his watch,  the JD(U)-BJP alliance won a landslide four-fifth majority, with the BJP tally going up to 91 and JD(U)'s to 115.

This time round, it is BJP president and Modi confidant Amit Shah who  is calling the shots while a host of senior leaders and ministers including Ananth Kumar, JP Nadda, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Rajiv Pratap Rudy have been roped in for assistance. Jaitley  seems to have been given a face-saver by getting him to release the party's vision document in Patna on Thursday.

The go-to leader

This is a far cry from the past several elections when Jaitley was known to be the “go-to” leader  in a poll season. In fact, the senior leader was looked upon  with awe and admiration by the BJP rank and file, particularly after he delivered a series of victories in Gujarat, Karnataka and Bihar.

Often referred to as the man with the Midas touch, Jaitely acquired a special place in the BJP hierarchy as a clever strategist and political troubleshooter. Not only did Jaitley play a key role in deciding candidates but he also handled the poll campaign and media relations. The crowds thronging his residence and office testified to his top ranking position in the BJP. It also helped that he was close earlier to veteran party leader and deputy Prime Minister LK Advani and now to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Drubbing in Delhi 

Given his formidable reputation, it was not surprising that Jaitely was especially called in to manage the campaign in the last Delhi assembly election after a panic-stricken BJP realised that it was lagging behind the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Admi Party. The party believed Jaitley had the right credentials to turn around the election  because of his familiarity with Delhi. Subsequently, the finance minister and his team of protégés – Union ministers Nirmala Sitharaman, Piyush Goyal and Dharmendra Pradhan – took charge of the campaign, much to the chagrin of the local party leaders who were understandably upset at being sidelined.

However, Jaitely’s luck ran out in Delhi as the election result proved to be a disaster for the BJP which managed to win only three of the 70 seats. The verdict  was a major setback for the party and for Modi in particular as he had been riding high till then after his spectacular victories in the Lok Sabha election and subsequent  assembly polls in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand.  With this result, the word was out that the famous Modi magic had begun to wane.

Following this drubbing, Jaitley and his team members came in for a lot of flak from within the party. While the minister’s known detractors – Kirti Azad and Shatrugan Sinha – lost no time in going public with their criticism of the Delhi campaign, a host of other leaders spoke privately about entrusting such an important election to a person who was unable to win his own Lok Sabha seat at a time when the BJP wave  was at its zenith. Still others pointed out that Amit Shah was being  unnecessarily blamed for the rout while those who were actually responsible for the results were not being held accountable.

However, Jaitley managed to weather the storm and the finance minister and his loyalists continue to be hot favourites in the current dispensation. But it is also clear  that after its bitter experience in Delhi, the BJP leadership could not afford to take any chances in the Bihar polls.

Taking no chances

It was for this reason that Modi and Shah decided not to give any important responsibilities to Jaitley in this election. The more charitable explanation is that the minister chose to keep away as the heavy workload in the finance ministry left him little time to take on any political activity.

It is imperative for the ruling party to win this election as a victory here will prove that Delhi was a mere aberration and that the Modi charisma still holds.

A win will silence the opposition parties and enable the Prime Minister to push ahead with his reforms agenda with greater authority. If the BJP’s strength in the Bihar assembly goes up, it will also boost the party’s numbers in the Rajya Sabha where it is presently in a minority.

Most importantly, Bihar could provide an opening to the BJP to expand its footprint in the Eastern states where it has currently no presence. West Bengal and the North East will be next on the BJP’s radar.

Although the importance of the Bihar election for Modi can hardly be over-emphasised, it is equally critical for Amit Shah as he has to live up to his reputation as a master strategist. He could also find himself under attack from his detractors in the party if he is unable to deliver this time. Little wonder then that Shah is supervising every minute detail of the election, from candidate selection and the poll campaign to booth management.