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The Big Story: Rejig

Imminent elections in four Indian states have resulted in a flurry of political activity with lots of story lines to dig into:

But this week we are looking at a couple of developments a little further away from the election spotlight that tell us more about how the BJP is working to entrench its dominance of Indian politics. The obvious caveat to any discussion of BJP success is that Indian politics simply does not present a level playing field to all, which is what we covered on last week’s edition of the newsletter.

One of the intriguing themes of the current BJP era has been the party’s relatively lukewarm performance at the state level, even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity at the national level remains sky-high. Connected to this is the Modi-Amit Shah-era BJP’s preference for lesser known faces as chief minister.

As we discussed in the run-up to the Bihar elections in 2020:

“Most BJP chief ministers over the last few years have been politicians selected by Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah to take charge, rather than popular state leaders who powered the election campaigns. Even Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath, now one of the most prominent BJP leaders in the country, was not projected as a chief ministerial face before the elections.

“Part of this is the result of a very deliberate effort to build up Modi’s image at the cost of everything else within the party, particularly state leaders – as we wrote in the Political Fix last week. This explains to some extent why the BJP has actually done poorly in state elections in recent years, especially when a Modi-era chief minister (Manohar Lal Khattar in Haryana, Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra) is up for re-election.”

Even when the chief minister is a mass leader in their own right, the High Command in Delhi has found ways to cut them down to size, as with its treatment of Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa last year. While doing so, however, the party has also sought to convey that it will not buckle to public or factional pressure and regularly change leaders or ministers in a manner that seemed more common in the past.

All of which makes last week’s developments in Uttarakhand very interesting. Days before Trivendra Singh Rawat was about to mark four full years as chief minister, the national leadership asked him to step down. “Party discussed and collectively took a decision that I should hand over this opportunity to somebody else,” Trivendra Rawat said, after resigning.

As Nistula Hebbar wrote in The Hindu:

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah are known to back the chief ministers appointed by them staunchly even in the face of resentment by respective Bharatiya Janata Party State units, pressure from the public opinion, and even from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The case of former Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat, who was asked to quit by party chief JP Nadda on Tuesday, therefore bears a close examination.”

The next few days saw rumours fly about who would replace him. But nearly everyone was surprised when the party chose Tirath Singh Rawat over more prominent BJP leaders. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh man’s name was certainly not at the top of any list.

There were plenty of reasons for many in the state party to be unhappy with outgoing Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat, as Lalmani Verma explains in a piece in The Indian Express that brings out the challenges facing the new chief minister as well:

Despite repeated demands from the MLAs, Trivendra did not expand [the] cabinet and held with him portfolios of over 50 departments…

“Centralisation of power in this manner created dissent in BJP MLAs and office-bearers. Moreover, in the Trivendra cabinet, there were five ministers who had left the Congress to join BJP within three years before the 2017 polls.

“There was also dissatisfaction among a few Cabinet members who alleged that secretaries of their department were taking directions from the CM’s Office.”

But you can find complaints like this about nearly every chief minister in the country, particularly BJP ones who have had to come to power while accepting a large number of rebels from the Congress.

The more interesting question is: what made the BJP leadership decide to change tack and sack a chief minister this time?

One anonymous source from the party made the comparison to Jharkhand, another North Indian state that had a central leadership-picked chief minister in Raghubar Das, who received much criticism from party factions ahead of elections in 2019. At the time Modi and Shah backed Das, only to see the party be bundled out of power in the state.

Liz Mathew expands on this:

“Political developments in Uttarakhand, a relatively small state, seem to hold a larger message for the BJP chief ministers handpicked by the central leadership. Political observers pointed out that Rawat’s exit from the post under pressure from the state unit has yet again proved that the leaders imposed from the central leadership do not last in BJP-ruled states.

“While in Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis had to face tremendous pressure from the state unit during his term as chief minister, Manohar Lal Khattar is still reeling under the intense factionalism in the Haryana unit. Both Fadnavis and Khattar were handpicked by the central leadership of the BJP.”

Now, Uttarakhand – and the BJP unit of the state in particular – has an ignominious history of factionalism and replaced chief ministers, so this development may be specific to the state.

But if the Uttarakhand decision does represent something of a message or a new tactic, there are two elements to it:

  • Even a Modi-Shah-picked chief minister can be replaced, if there is enough pressure or concerns about an upcoming election,
  • But also, they might very well be replaced by another anointed face with an RSS background, not necessarily a mass leader or one of the top names.

Leaders like Yediyurappa or Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, an ally of the BJP, have always known that they have to guard their seat with care or risk losing it to someone more popular at the BJP headquarters.

But what does such a move mean for someone like Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani or Haryana Chief Minister ML Khattar, an RSS man handpicked by Modi and Shah, who only remained in power by cutting a deal with the Jannayak Janata Party after elections in 2019?

Khattar last week pulled off the impressive feat of keeping the Jannayak Janata Party – a party that is led by the Jat community – on board in the face of a no-confidence motion, despite the three-month long farmer uprising that has swept up Jats across the state.

But winning a vote in the Assembly is not the same as doing the same across the state, even with all the institutional and monetary advantages that the BJP already has. And Khattar may not be the most popular chief minister going into the next elections, even if there is some counter-Jat mobilisation in his favour.

Now that the party has shown that it won’t necessarily be loyal to the handpicked names if there is enough pressure from within, does that change personal calculations?

Approaching this question – of how state BJP leaders can build and maintain power in the Modi-Shah era – from a slightly different angle is political scientist Neelanjan Sircar, who recently wrote about the party’s state-level struggles and why a leader like Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has had to reinvent himself in the image of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath over the last year:

“[The] extraordinary centralisation of power [under Modi], not just institutionally but also within the BJP, implies that the voter is increasingly likely to ‘attribute’ (that is, give credit for) the delivery of economic benefits to Modi rather than the state-level leader…

“This pattern of economic centralisation and attribution to the center empowers Modi and his coterie to centralise power within the BJP – as it adversely impacts the independent bases of support for strong regional leaders with the BJP…

The implication is that as the political attribution for welfare benefits is given to the center, the identity-based linkages of BJP’s regional competitors become more salient in determining state-level electoral outcomes…

I suspect the next generation of BJP regional leaders, much like Yogi Adityanath, will likely look to establish their credentials not in welfare delivery but in Hindu mobilisation.”

Flotsam & Jetsam

  • Leaders of the QuadPrime Minister Modi, United States President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japan’s Yoshihide Suga – participated in a virtual summit in which they reaffirmed a committment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, and also sought to take their cooperation into arenas other than defence, such as agreements to help India augument its Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing.
  • Speaking of Covid-19, there are enough indications that India is starting to see a second wave of infections, after the last peak in September. On Sunday, India registered 25,320 new coronavirus cases, the highest single-day rise in infections in nearly three months. And in Maharashtra, which has accounted for 15,000 of those new cases for several days now, Nagpur is back in lockdown, and Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has called on residents to take the virus seriously or risk more state-wide restrictions.

  • Although India’s vaccination effort seems to be doing far better than many other richer countries, with more than 1.2 million doses being administered per day, the rate relative to the overall population is still slow compared to where the country needs to be if it wants to cover a large percentage of the population within the year.

Can’t make this up

In the proud tradition of arresting pigeons from across the border comes this important update:

Plus, for Hamilton fans, a bit of entirely unexpected trivia:

That’s all for this week’s The Political Fix. Send feedback and suggestions to rohan@scroll.in. Thanks for reading!