The first electoral referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popularity after the massive victory in Lok Sabha elections is about to take place during the Assembly polls in Maharashtra and Haryana. The Congress which is fighting for survival is eyeing a possible improvement in its performance but whether that will be enough to counter Modi's increasing dominance remains to be seen on the result day on October 24.
The ruling BJP's narrative on muscular nationalism packaged around Article 370's abrogation in J&K and the formal delivery of the first Rafale fighter jet to the IAF have pepped up the campaign for the Assembly polls in Haryana and Maharashtra Assembly polls while the Opposition parties, including the Congress and the NCP, have tried to drill holes in claims of the saffron ruling dispensations in both the states on the state of economy, joblessness and fight against corruption.
The abrogation of Article 370 is undoubtedly proving to be a trophy for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah who have adopted a very aggressive posture on the issue by daring the Congress and its allies to promise voters that they would undo the landmark constitutional decision of the BJP government at the Centre. The two star campaigners of the saffron party have so far managed to paint the rival Congress in a “less patriotic” colour than the BJP and asked voters to punish the party that routinely questions the saffron party's decisions taken in “national” interest.
The “dynastic rule” in the Congress, exemplified by the recent replacement of Rahul by Sonia Gandhi as the party chief, has also given a handle to BJP's star campaigners to run down the Opposition party which is hoping to improve its performance in the two states as compared to the last Assembly polls.
The BJP's carefully crafted poll agenda of demanding the Bharat Ratna honour for Hindutva ideologue V D Savarkar and repeated attacks on the Gandhi family's dominance in the Congress has managed to whip up passions similar to the ones that had helped it register a big win in LS polls in the backdrop of Balakot air strikes.
In comparison, the Congress has not been able to add a new flavour to its oft-repeated electoral issues like GST and DeMo woes. During his rallies in Maharashtra's Yavatmal and Wardha, Rahul Gandhi slammed BJP's policies like demonetisation and GST for economic woes and unemployment. The Congress current approach has also bared its failure to comeup with a voter-convincing flaw in the Modi government's move on Article 370.
“Modi ji lies wherever he goes, this way, he deviates your attention away from the core issues, Modi Ji never speaks on issues related to farmers and unemployment,” Rahul said at one of his rallies.
Modi's campaign in the two states brought freshness into his approach toward his favourite political punching bag – Congress. "The (Congress) party is taking its last breath. It sees 'rashtra bhakti' (nationalism) in 'parivar bhakti',” Modi said at one of his election rallies.
In his rallies in Haryana and Maharashtra, the PM also flogged the Congress for allegedly spreading rumours abroad over scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir's special status – a veiled reference to a recent discussion held by the UK unit of the Indian Overseas Congress with Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in London over the issue of Jammu and Kashmir.
"Congress leaders can abuse me as much as they want. I have no problem if you speak against me. But they should stop backstabbing India," said Modi at a rally, seeking endorsement from voters for his government's landmark decision to pull Kashmir out of the spiral of violence.
Engaging the audience at a rally, Modi asked, "Do you agree with the Congress's stand. Should they not be punished severely? Would you do that on October 21?"
Seeking to invoke an emotional connect with voters on the Kashmir issue, Modi said, "For political gains, rival netas are saying that Article 370 has nothing to do with Maharashtra polls but I need to remind such politicians that Kashmir and its people are also sons of Maa Bharti. They have fought cross-border terrorism and embraced death."
Shah followed in Modi's footsteps to take an aggressive stand against the Congress on Article 370 and accused it of not supporting a nationalistic step because of vote bank politics. He said only the Modi government could dare to abrogate the special status for Jammu and Kashmir for making the region an integral part of the country.
Political analysts, who have predicted an uphill task for the Congress and the NCP in dislodging the ruling BJP in both the states, base their projection on the successful caste mix that the saffron party has targeted to subdue the dominant social groups in both Haryana and Maharashtra – Jats and Marathas – that have traditionally supported the Congress. The BJP has managed to bring together almost all other social groups, except Muslims, under its umbrella eroding the traditional support base of rivals in the two election-bound states.
The Congress is not expecting any immediate wonder in the two states when voting takes place on October 21 yet its leaders in both the states are trying their best by attacking the BJP and its policies. Haryana Congress president Kumari Selja, during her campaign, alleged corruption under the M L Khattar-led BJP government. She also targeted the BJP on the scrapping of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir besides raising other issues surrounding nationalism.
"People want answers from the BJP on local issues that are agitating them. The BJP has nothing to showcase as an achievement in Haryana," said Selja. While Congress' CM face B S Hooda attempted to present a report card of his teneure in CMO and compared it with that of Khattar's, the sitting Chief Minister of the BJP questioned the Congress on its poll promise of giving unemployment dole. "Haryana is known for its hard work and we will not allow our youths to not work and get things for free," said Khattar, criticising the Congress for offering joblessness dole.
Khattar got support from Shah who accused the Hooda-led government of indulging in shady land deals and challenged the Congress on the corruption issue.
In the run-up to polls in the agrarian state, the Congress suffered a setback when the party's former Haryana unit president Ashok Tanwar announced his support to Dushyant Chautala-led Jananayak Janta Party (JJP). Tanwar, a competitor of Hooda, had resigned from the Congress after the party's “unfair” ticket distribution and even held a protest against Sonia Gandhi outside her residence.
In Maharashtra, NCP leader Supriya Sule is trying to counter the BJP's well-oiled campaign machinery by raising local issues like farm distress and floods, while questioning the efficiency of Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. She also dubbed the BJP's demand for the Bharat Ratna honour for Savarkar as an "election gimmick".
The BJP won 47 seats and the Congress got 15 in the 90-member Haryana Assembly in 2014. In the 288-member Maharashtra House, the BJP won 122 seats, its ally Shiv Sena bagged 63 while the Congress won 42 seats and its ally NCP got 41 seats in the last Assembly polls.
After the landslide victory in Lok Sabha polls of 2014, the BJP continued its good performance in the Assembly polls in Haryana and Maharashtra which were held a few months later. This year, too, the BJP has crushed the Opposition in the Lok Sabha polls and there are ominous signs for the Congress and the NCP that the winning streak of team Modi-Shah is unlikely to end on October 21 when voting takes place in the two states. If the poll result on October 24 goes against the Congress, it will re-establish the invincibility of Modi-Shah and bring further misery to Rahul Gandhi who is still smarting under the blows of Lok Sabha poll defeat. If the Congress manages to win in both the states, the credit would go to Sonia Gandhi and infuse life into the Congress which is virtually gasping for breath.