The new strategy – or the return to the pre-Modi era practice – will continue even after the Assam elections, party officials said. “Although Delhi showed the first signs of fatigue with the Modi-centric strategy, Bihar results confirmed this,” a senior BJP leader said, requesting anonymity. “Now the situation is such that the party would have to suffer if it continues to seek votes in the name of the prime minister.”
Several states, including Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Punjab, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, go to polls in the next year and a half. Of these, the BJP has little or no chances in Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and in Punjab it contests as a junior partner of the Shiromani Akali Dal.
Since the remaining three states – Assam, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh – are crucial for the party, the BJP appears in no mood to take the risk of projecting Modi as its electoral face.
The first steps
The first step in this direction was taken over a month ago when the BJP decided to appoint Union Minister of State for Sports and Youth Welfare Sarbananda Sonowal as the new president of the party unit in Assam as well as the chairman of the state election committee. Party insiders say Sonowal will be projected as BJP’s chief ministerial candidate well in advance.
Sonowal was the Assam unit chief at the time of the Lok Sabha elections, in which the BJP won seven of the state’s 14 seats. Soon after the general elections, though, he gave up the state post and joined the Narendra Modi government at the Centre.
The sweeping victory in the general elections, which the BJP fought around Modi, started a trend that continued in Maharashtra, Haryana and Bihar. In these states, the saffron party announced no chief ministerial candidate, instead seeking votes in the name of Modi. Now that trend will end.
According to insiders, it is this changed electoral approach that has delayed the identification of new state unit presidents in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, where elections are due in early 2017.
“In Uttar Pradesh, the moot question before the central leadership is whether the new party chief should be from an upper caste or from OBC [other backward classes],” said a BJP leader. “In Uttarakhand, the effort is being made to identify someone who is acceptable to all factions.”
In both these states, the next party president is likely to be projected as the chief ministerial candidate, insiders said.
The shift is being seen in the BJP as further proof that Modi, a leader who revels in electoral jousts, may no longer be the dependable vote-getter he was once portrayed to be.
The first indication of the dwindling confidence in his electoral abilities had come soon after the Bihar results were declared on November 8. In Ratlam-Jhabua Lok Sabha constituency, where campaign for a by-election was in full swing then, the Bihar outcome had an unusual impact – it made local BJP leaders so nervous that they removed several posters and hoardings featuring Modi they had put up before November 8. Though the tactic did not work, and the party lost the seat to Congress anyway, it did indicate nervousness in the ranks on the question of seeking vote in the name of Modi.
Party leaders say the new strategy may create a new challenge for Modi – if it works, it would be difficult for him to regain his erstwhile status of being his party’s most precious political asset.