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BJP remains the side to beat in 2019

May 17, 2018 12:51 IST

'Karti Chidambaram may be the beginning of a larger can of worms that the government has waited thus far to pop open,' says Vikram Johri.

Prime Minister Narendra D Modi, left, on the campiagn trail in Karnataka
IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra D Modi, left, on the campiagn trail in Karnataka.

With the Bharatiya Janata Party handsomely registering its presence in the north east in the assembly elections, the party's onward march continues unabated.

Every time the party finds itself in the dock -- most recently, for example, with the outsize PNB scam -- it receives good news electorally.

Its setbacks at the hustings since 2014 have been either minor or reversed with new partnerships, like in Bihar.

The victory in the north east was also the week when the scale of the scam involving Karti Chidambaram, former finance minister P Chidambaram's son, began to be realised, with the Central Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement Directorate moving fast to build their case.

Juxtaposed against the victory in the north east, the BJP will be significantly strengthened by this salvo, notwithstanding Karti's valiant attempts to showcase he is in the right, expressed rather incongruously in the victory sign that he flashed every time he was shifted between courts.

The two events underscore the growing reach of the BJP not just electorally, but also as a shaper of public opinion.

 

No issue brings this facet to light with greater clarity than the government's attempts to tackle black money and corruption.

In the build-up to 2014, the anti-corruption agenda largely belonged to the Anna Hazare movement and directly benefitted Arvind Kejriwal politically. But since the change in government at the centre, that is no longer the case.

To be sure, one wonders if the Karti saga was timed to deflect criticism hurled at the government over Nirav Modi, but that is ultimately a question of optics.

If there was a case against Karti, and it now looks like there is, the government's choosing an opportune time to showcase it becomes secondary.

Indeed, Karti may be the beginning of a larger can of worms that the government has waited thus far to pop open.

Speaking about the non-performing assets mess in public sector banks in Parliament earlier this year, Prime Minister Narendra D Modi signalled that his government would leave no stone unturned in bringing to book those -- he meant members of the Opposition -- who had looted the country.

The prime minister is a fierce orator at the most ordinary of times, but his attack was uncharacteristically direct for Parliament and it left one with the feeling that the government had studiously built up an arsenal that it planned on detonating in the final leg of its tenure.

This would be a continuation of the government's anti-black money campaign that shifted focus from repatriating ill-gotten wealth from abroad early in its term.

Since demonetisation, the government has marketed its intentions as cleaning the system back home, with that exercise providing the agencies with the evidence to go after shell companies and recalcitrant accountants.

And the public is arguably with the government on this. Not only was it willing to undergo the physical demands of demonetisation but the arrests of individuals -- and when those cannot happen, the seizures of assets -- showcase a system that is finally acting against the high and mighty in a country where farmers kill themselves for their inability to repay loans that are a pittance when compared to the magnitude of the scams unearthed.

The build-up in vote share in the north east is a simultaneous plank of the government's re-election bid next year.

While not significant in terms of the numbers it sends to the Lok Sabha, the region has been the focus of this government as its new stomping ground.

Under Himanta Biswas Sarma's stewardship, the BJP has shown remarkable agility in gaining a foothold there, both deploying the services of sister organisations, long active in the north east, and adapting its message when required.

To be sure, 2019 is not yet in the bag. Karnataka is the biggie this year, followed by elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Meanwhile, murmurs about Vasundhara Raje's re-electability can be heard in Jaipur but none of these state-level decisions are likely to affect the central government.

For one, Modi's standing as a national leader, buoyed by outcomes such as the north east, remains largely undiminished.

Two, the party has put in place a mechanism that lets the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh take the call at the state level, as evidenced by the chief ministership of Manohar Lal and Yogi Adityanath.

This allows the Centre to benefit from the BJP's growing footprint while not getting sucked into intractable conflicts between state leaders, a problem that has been the bane of, say, the Congress in MP.

For now, the BJP remains the side to beat in 2019.

Vikram Johri
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