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Modi and the BJP's challenges lies ahead

Last updated on: December 09, 2013 12:00 IST

The elections were held in states where the BJP has a strong presence and organisation and where it was pitted directly against the Congress. The party's real challenge lies in states outside the northern belt where it has a negligible presence and has to contend with strong regional players, reports Anita Katyal.

Widely dubbed as a semi-final before next year's Lok Sabha election, the results of the assembly elections hold important lessons for the two key players -- the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The drubbing it has received in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi should serve as a warning to the Congress that it needs to do some serious introspection or else the anti-Congress momentum generated by this verdict could reduce the grand old party to a marginal player in the 2014 general election.

This result has reaffirmed that Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi lacks mass appeal and his credentials as a crowd-puller and vote-catcher are in serious doubt.

Having successfully routed the Congress in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and won a narrow victory in Chhattisgarh, the BJP also has reason to be worried about its inability to cash in on the unpopularity of the three-term Sheila Dikshit-led Congress government in Delhi where it has conceded vital political space to the debutant Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party.

More importantly, the results of the four assembly elections have put a question mark on BJP Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi's contribution to the party's victories. This is particularly so since Modi campaigned extensively in all states, particularly in Delhi, but his massive rallies failed to stop the AAP in its tracks and ensure a clear win for its chief ministerial candidate Dr Harsh Vardhan.

In fact, the newspapers were splashed with full-page advertisements on the eve of the Delhi election in which Modi's smiling visage dominated while Dr Harsh Vardhan was reduced to a stamp-sized photograph, showing that the BJP depended heavily on the Gujarat strongman to turn the tide in its favour.

On the other hand, the party's triumph in Madhya Pradesh is being credited to its Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan who has won a record third term, and Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan who campaigned tirelessly against Ashok Gehlot to unseat the Congress government with a massive margin.

In the same league as Modi who secured a hat-trick in his home state Gujarat last year, Chouhan now finds himself in the party's big league.

Similarly, the Chhattisgarh result also showed that local issues and local players held the key there and that Modi was not a factor in these elections. Had the Modi wave prevailed, the BJP should not have been struggling in Delhi and Chhattisgarh.

While celebrations were clearly in order at the BJP headquarters in Delhi, its party spokespersons were quick to point out that these assembly elections were not fought in the name of Modi. BJP leaders Ravi Shankar Prasad and Rajiv Pratap Rudy consistently maintained that Modi had only lent a helping hand to the state leaders who led the campaign.

At the same time, they said Modi had been instrumental in galvanising BJP cadres and the electorate.

It is also the BJP's contention that it will be a different story in the Lok Sabha election as the party will then seek votes for its lead player Modi, repeatedly underlining that today's verdict was not a referendum on its prime ministerial candidate's popularity.

On the other hand, Prasad and Rudy maintained, the anti-Congress wave which was so evident in these assembly elections will convert into a wave of support for the BJP in the coming general election.

The BJP will face its real test now. The present elections were held in states (Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi) where the BJP has a strong presence and organisation and where it was pitted directly against the Congress.

While the BJP can hope to get the optimum results from these states in the Lok Sabha poll, its real challenge lies in states outside the northern belt like West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar where it has negligible presence and has to contend with strong regional players like the Trinamool Congress, the Biju Janata Dal, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party, and the two Dravidian parties.

It is to be seen if the Modi magic can make up for the party's lack of social base in large swathes of southern and eastern India.

To this end, Modi will make a concerted effort to build on the anti-Congress mood which was so evident in the assembly elections by leading a high-decibel, aggressive campaign in the run-up to the general election.

The BJP's effort will be to convert the Lok Sabha poll into a Presidential form of contest to make up for its obvious handicap by highlighting the glaring inadequacies of the Congress party's undeclared prime ministerial candidate Rahul Gandhi.

While the BJP's chief concern is to consolidate on the gains it has made, the Congress has to worry about stemming its losses. The margins of its defeat in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi have stunned the party leadership.

The Congress will have to return to the drawing board to draw up a fresh strategy, programme and message for the Lok Sabha election, failing which it will be all downhill for the grand old party.

The Delhi and Rajasthan results were particularly galling for the Congress as these states were being viewed by it as a test case for the UPA government's pro-poor programmes.

While accepting defeat, Congress spokespersons admitted that among other factors, its political communication strategy was faulty. "We lost because of our shortcomings," remarked Union Power Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia who led the Congress campaign in Madhya Pradesh, stating that the party had obviously failed to highlight the inadequacies of the Chouhan government.

Predictably, the Congress was loath to blame Rahul Gandhi for its dismal performance and instead rushed to insulate him from Opposition attacks. As in the case of Modi, Congress spokespersons maintained that these were state elections led by state leaders and that Rahul Gandhi had played a limited role.

Although there is little doubt that these results are a cause of serious concern to the Congress, it may be early to write it off. Sonia Gandhi had found herself in a similar position in 2003 when the Congress had lost to the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.

Instead of retreating into a shell, she had stepped out to build up an alliance with like-minded secular parties, which ultimately resulted in a victory for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in the 2004 Lok Sabha election. It was the same story in 2009.

However, the difference today is that Sonia Gandhi has taken a backseat and handed over the party to Rahul Gandhi who does not have the same credibility as she does. It will not be surprising if there is a growing demand in Congress circles, especially from the old guard which has been feeling marginalised after Rahul Gandhi took charge, that she should play a more proactive role in leading the campaign.

The coming months will see a lot churning in the Congress party, but the immediate worry for the government is to ensure that governance does not suffer.

Its first test will be to ensure the smooth functioning of the ongoing winter session of Parliament. This could prove difficult as a resurgent BJP is bound to up the ante against the ruling alliance and stall the passage of key legislation, including the Telangana statehood bill.

The Congress will also have to reach out to its allies who may be tempted to distance themselves from it in the wake of its dismal performance.

Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, a Congress ally, was the first off the block. His posts on Twitter stated: 'Never underestimate the underdog/newcomer with a fresh face and message,' followed by 'Voters will see through crude attempts to buy support with last minute populist schemes,' seen as a clear reference to the Congress party's unveiling of its ambitious food security programme on election-eve.

Anita Katyal in New Delhi