If BJP retrieved some momentum back in its favour in 2016 with a maiden assembly election win in Assam, the biggest question on the minds of its top brass was whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetization gamble will pay off in the new year in a series of assembly polls, especially in Uttar Pradesh. BJP President Amit Shah will look back at the passing year with fondness as it presented him with some promising rewards and shored up his authority after back-to-back massive defeats in Delhi and Bihar in the preceding year had prompted leaders within the party, including veterans like LK Advani, to point fingers at him.
The saffron party put up a creditable show in Kerala and West Bengal, two states where it has been traditionally weak, pulled off wins in bypolls held across the country, including in Assam and Madhya Pradesh, besides in local polls in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Its impressive show in Maharashtra and the tiny municipal corporation of Chandigarh was held by the party as an evidence of people’s support to demonetization at a time it has come under intense attack from a united Opposition over the decision, cited by the government as a measure against black money and corruption.
While economic fallout of the radical exercise will take some time to be evaluated, there won’t be a long wait before its political implications are out in the open. Five states, including Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur, are going to the assembly polls early next year and demonetization has clearly emerged as the war cry of not only the saffron party but also its rivals, who have latched onto the hardships facing people in form of long queues outside banks and ATMs to term the measure anti-people.
Besides Uttar Pradesh, it has a lot at stake in polls to three other state assemblies, including Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa. In Manipur, it has never been in power but has forged a strong regional alliance to have a realistic shot at power. In Punjab and Goa, the presence of AAP has upset the conventional poll dynamics and BJP, which is in power in both the states is trying hard to keep the Arvind Kejriwal-led outfit at bay while battling its traditional rival Congress.
However, it is capturing the big prize of Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha compared to 22 of four other states together, that is at the heart of BJP’s poll strategy in the fag end of the outgoing year. After taking over as the party chief in January for the second time, Shah continued with his efforts to build the organisation in states which he has identified as important for BJP’s poll prospects in 2019 Lok Sabha polls. He believes that it is imperative for the party to put up a decent performance in states like Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal, Telangana and Kerala– the coromandal region– besides northeastern states if it is to repeat its strong show in 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
It will be hard for the party to repeat let alone better its landslide win in the western India besides the Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and any loss in these regions can be made up by better shows in the coastal and northeastern states, BJP leaders believe. A win in Assam and vote share of more than 15 and 10% in Kerala and West Bengal were seen by the party as a big step to this direction.
Though its performance in Tamil Nadu was disappointing it looks at ruling AIADMK as a friendly outfit with which it can have a political understanding. The untimely death of Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has brought the leadership of two parties closer as the state government leans on the central government for support.
Appointments of a number of state chiefs, including in Punjab and Bihar, underlined efforts of the saffron outfit, which has for decades been identified with Brahmin-bania support base, to broaden its appeal among the backward castes and Dalits, two Hindu groups which may have supported it in the past but never embraced it.
Shah surprised many within the party by appointing Manoj Tiwari as Delhi BJP president as he is seen as an outsider with no ideological upbringing of the sort its regional satraps are expected to have. It was a clear indication that he was willing to move on from the city’s entrenched leadership which has failed to deliver in polls.
If 2014 was the milestone year in the BJP’s history as it emerged stronger than ever before, 2015 exposed it to the limits of solely banking on Modi’s charisma. This year, BJP used its organisational heft and credible local leadership, as in the case of Assam where Sarbananda Sonowal turned out to be its lucky mascot, to expand into newer territory. However, it will be the new year that can provide the strongest signal yet of whether its hope of a repeat of 2014 landslide in the next Lok Sabha polls will ride on firm foundations or not. Uttar Pradesh will decide.