AAP's Victory Will Hurt Rahul Gandhi Much More Than BJP

Published: March 09, 2017 12:45 IST
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The assembly elections in five states have been billed the semi-final of the general election in 2019. Of the 5 states whose results will be counted on Saturday, two were held by the BJP-led NDA: Goa and Punjab. In Uttarakhand and UP, the BJP is the challenger for the top job and it is hoping to displace the Congress in Manipur. But it is the result of UP and Punjab that have the country hooked - for three specific reasons:

1. Will BJP be able to repeat its parliamentary performance in UP, where it won 73 seats in 2014 (including one of the Apna Dal)?

2. Will AAP be able to replicate its Delhi performance in Punjab?

3. Will Congress be able to bounce back from its colossal defeat in 2014?

In UP and Punjab, at stake is the reputation of two leaders, Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal, one the reigning champion and the other the challenger. Separately, Rahul Gandhi has to prove that he is still politically relevant in the changed scenario.

In May, Modi will complete three years in office - more than half of the tenure is over, so is the honeymoon period, and the promises he made during the 2014 election will be measured for delivery. In 2014, his high-pitched campaign raised the hopes of people to a new level, especially given how unhappy they were with the Congress's misrule and corruption. For Modi, the results will also reflect the sentiment of the people on the much-criticized issue of demonetization.

Over the last two decades, the BJP had lapsed to third or fourth position in UP, where the Samajwadi Party and BSP have been the prime movers, forming governments alternately. So in 2014, the BJP sweeping all but seven parliamentary seats in UP was nothing less than a miracle. Credit was given to Modi's overwhelming popularity and the belief that as a "strong and decisive" leader, unlike Manmohan Singh, could change the fate of the nation. If the BJP now fails to form the government in UP, it will be assumed that either the BJP's victory in UP in the general election was a fluke, or Modi's charisma has faded away. A defeat will raise serious questions about his governance at the centre, dent his image permanently, and promote doubts he will return as Prime Minister in 2019.

It will be double disaster if the BJP loses Uttarakhand and Goa too. Modi's credibility as a leader the within BJP and outside will be seriously damaged. And if BJP wins all three, then it should be understood that Modi is unstoppable in 2019, his popularity is intact despite the harsh decision of demonetization. Even if the BJP loses Goa and Uttarakhand but wins UP, Modi will be Man of the Match, and for him, a second term will be assured.

The Congress is passing through a serious crisis with rising concern over the leadership of Rahul Gandhi. He has allied with the Samajwadi Party in UP. Akhilesh Yadav will get credit for a victory, but a loss will hit only Rahul. That the Congress getting 105 seats was too much in the agreement, and that it turned into to a liability for Akhilesh Yadav has been debated aggressively. Such is the crisis for Rahul that in Uttarakhand and Punjab, in popular perception, it is Harish Rawat and Captain Amarinder Singh who are fighting, not the Congress as a party. The victory or loss will be theirs in those states.

The more serious setback for Congress and Rahul Gandhi will be if AAP wins in Punjab and Goa, which is a distinct possibility. In these two states, the Congress, in the absence of AAP, would have been the default choice, given the severe anti-incumbency against the BJP and its allies. But AAP has spoilt Congress's chances of any kind of resurrection in these states in particular. If AAP loses both Punjab and Goa, its journey forward will become very difficult. Even a loss in Punjab alone will be a bad omen.

AAP's victory in these two states, especially in Punjab, will send a clear signal to the political class that AAP is replacing Congress and occupying the liberal-secular-centrist space in Indian politics. This will also break the myth that AAP's success in Delhi was a fluke, a one-time wonder, a bubble. Besides BJP and Congress, AAP will be the third party to have a formidable presence in more than one state. Regional parties led by leaders like Nitish Kumar, Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati, Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Banerjee, Uddhav Thackeray, Chandrababu Naidu, Stalin, Sharad Pawar etc. can't boast of this, these are one-state leaders or parties. Arvind Kejriwal will be in a different league. This will underscore the fact that AAP is emerging very fast as a national alternative.

An AAP victory in Punjab and Goa will also improve its standing among voters in other states also like in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, which are set to vote in the coming years. This phenomenon will upset the future calculation of both the Congress and BJP.

As March 11 unfolds, so will the steps to 2019. Just two days to go now. 

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(Ashutosh joined the Aam Aadmi Party in January 2014.)

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