Saturday, 31 March 2018

WHAT'S UP BEHENJI?

BSP chief Mayawati

Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) supremo and former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Mayawati was perhaps the most high profile casualty, amongst the many regional leaders who fell victim to the phenomenal Modi wave that has dominated the political scene in the country since late 2013. Arguably, the most popular Dalit leader in the country, her party drew a blank in the 2014 General Elections that saw a resurgent BJP claiming 73 seats in India's most populous state. As Narendra Modi took oath to become India's 14th Prime Minister, Behenji, who has openly expressed her desire to lead the country on multiple occasions, was left licking her wounds.

Demonetization is believed to have hit Mayawati particularly hard; with finances drying up and several key leaders jumping ship, BSP was in tatters before the crucial state assembly polls. As if the humiliation in 2014 elections was not enough, the BSP finished a distant third in the 2017 state polls; its tally of 19 was its lowest since Mayawati took over the reins of the party from her mentor - Kanshi Ram. In what seemed more like a desperate, last ditched effort to garner some sympathy, she resigned from Rajya Sabha in July last year, accusing the ruling dispensation of not allowing her to highlight the atrocities faced by her fellow Dalits across the country under the Modi rule. Though her theatrics did win her some support from the Congress and several prominent regional leaders, her once vice-like grip over her low caste vote bank seemed to slipping away from her.

With her back against the wall, Mayawati finally gulped down her ego and decided to join forces with her nemesis Akhilesh Yadav of the SP to form a united front against the BJP in the by-polls to the prestigious Gorakhpur and Phulpur parliamentary seats held earlier this month. In what was billed as the first test for anti-BJP forces before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the SP candidates, backed by a host of parties, most notably the BSP, handed the saffron outfit a stunning defeat in the seats that were won by the incumbent CM and deputy CM, four years ago. As Akhilesh drove to Mayawati's residence to personally thank her for her backing, many felt that this was the beginning of a broad alliance of regional parties across the country whose existence was threatened by Modi and his ability to break traditional vote banks by talking about development on one hand and arousing Hindutva sentiments on other. The defeat of the BSP candidate for the tenth Rajya Sabha seat from the state in spite of the Congress and some Samajwadi MLAs voting in its favor was seen as a minor setback while fighting for a 'larger cause'; opposition leaders suggested that the defeat would further strengthened their resolve to work together. Behenji and Akhilesh made it clear that the understanding between them was on, 'in the larger interest of the country'.

Mayawati however, has a mind of her own; a champ of the coalition era, who made national parties dance to her tunes, the BSP supremo did a volte face three days later, refusing to activate her cadre in support of the SP candidate for the Kairana assembly segment. What prompted Behenji to break or rather suspend her short lived honeymoon with the SP is difficult to ascertain. Here are some possible reasons why the BSP chief may want to weigh in the many options before her and take time prior to committing fully to an alliance with the SP or any other party:

(1) Playing second fiddle to Yadav: Akhilesh's emergence as the face of the united opposition to Modi led BJP in Uttar Pradesh may not go down well with Mayawati. After all, she is a four time CM of Uttar Pradesh, has served as the deputy CM once and has been active in politics for over three decades. With such an impressive resume, she may not been very keen to work under the much younger Akhilesh, who is seen by many to be quite inexperienced. In fact, after the defeat of her candidate in the recently held Rajya Sabha polls, Behenji, speaking at a press conference pointed out that it was political immaturity on the part of the SP President to rely on independent candidate Raja Bhaiya's vote to secure victory for her candidate. Not participating in the by-polls may be her way of making it clear that she too is an aspirant to lead the regional block, at least in UP in 2019. Moreover, she has sent a clear signal that she cannot be taken for granted and her participation in the anti-Modi block will be on her terms.

(2) BSP's issues with pre-poll tie ups: Mayawati and her outfit have always been averse to tie ups with prospective alliance partners before elections. The fundamental belief behind this, at least the one that the party leaders put up is that while BSP is able to transfer its votes to its ally, the reverse does not happen; thus, while the ally benefits or that is what the BSP believes, it ends up gaining nothing besides the the fact that it has to vacate some seats for its partner. The loss in the Rajya Sabha elections may only reinforce this belief wherein a united Opposition including the SP, Congress and the RLD failed to secure a victory for Mayawati's chosen candidate Bhimrao Ambedkar. Though Behenji was all praises for the commitment displayed by the SP and the Congress in the polls to the Upper House of the Parliament, it is likely that the defeat of Ambedkar will play on her mind as and when she decides to stitch any alliance with them in the near future.

(3) Buying Time: Mamta Bannerjee and KCR have rolled the dice and have heralded the process of the formation of a broader alliance of state parties in their attempt to stop the Modi juggernaut in next year's Union polls. Meanwhile, several regional satraps, chief amongst them being Naveen Patnaik, KCR, Chandrababu Naidu and the Yechury led Kerala block of the CPM would prefer maintaining a distance from the Congress considering that the grand old party is their principal rival in their respective states. As such, there is a very high probability that in 2019, one or more blocks viz the UPA, the Third Front etc. may be formed to take on the BJP. Mayawati may want to weigh in the options before her prior to committing herself to any of the these. Meanwhile, Union Minister Athavale whose party the RPI(A) is a part of the NDA has invited the Dalit leader to join the BJP for the welfare of the down trodden. Certainly, the wily Mayawati would rather focus on strengthening her cadre and wooing back her traditional vote base for the time being so that she is in a more commanding position at the onset of 2019.

The BSP supremo is keeping her cards close to her chest; in the run up to 2019, which could be a do or die situation, both for her and her party, Mayawati may well rise from the ashes, like the proverbial phoenix and play a key role in the formation of the next government at Center, irrespective of who is leading it.
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Sunday, 5 June 2016

MEHBOOBA'S ACID TEST

Mehbooba (right) with father Mufti Mohammad

By-polls to state legislatures are seldom interesting and seven out of ten times, it is the ruling party that wins them, either due to their own popularity or to put it lightly, by 'effective' use of the state machinery. Either way, the odds get stacked into the favor of the ruling party all the more if they have completed less than half of their full term. Considering this, Mehbooba Mufti who is contesting as a PDP candidate from the Anantnag assembly seat scheduled for June 22 should not have much to worry about. Moreover, since she is the heir to the legacy of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, one of the tallest political leaders of Kashmir and the fact that she is herself serving as the Chief Minister, should make her task all the more easy.

However, the shrewd political leader that she is, the junior Mufti knows that her victory in the by-polls is far from assured. Though chances of her losing are bleak, waning personal popularity, deteriorating law and order situation in the Valley as well as dissatisfaction amongst the Kashmiris around the PDP's alliance with the BJP means that Mehbooba just cannot afford to be complacent. Irrespective of the results, the outcome of the Anantnag by-polls is going to have a major impact on the political career of independent India's second Muslim woman Chief Minister.

    Year    
 Event
1996
 Elected to state legislature from Bijbehara constituency as a Congress candidate
1999
 Left Congress to join PDP floated by her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed

 Lost Parliamentary elections from Srinagar to Omar Abdullah of NC
2002
 Elected to state legislature from Pahalgam constituency
2004
 Won Parliamentary elections from Anantnag
2014
 Won Parliamentary elections from Anantnag
2016
 Took oath as the Chief Minister of Jammu Kashmir

The Anantnag assembly segment fell vacant following the demise of former CM Mufti Mohammad Sayeed on January 7 earlier this year in New Delhi. His daughter and incumbent CM Mehbooba who is representing South Kashmir in the Parliament has six months to get elected to either the state legislative assembly or the legislative council to be able to continue in the office. In her maiden term, the PDP supremo's performance has been far from satisfactory. After keeping the BJP guessing for months, she took the oath as the state's ninth CM in April in spite of the fact that the Modi regime at Centre refused to accept any of her demands for special privileges to be extended to the northern state and its people. In the last few months, spiraling violence, rise in militancy and differences with her ally - the BJP on a wide range of issues has put her on the back foot. The firebrand leader appears to be have mellowed down a bit, as she settles into her role as the Chief Minister; her famed ability to connect with the ordinary Kashmiri on the street seems to be deserting her.

Anti-Incumbency: The poor attendance at the funeral of her father, late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was a sure indication that the People's Democratic Party (PDP) which had swept the Valley in the 2014 polls is fast losing its appeal amongst the masses. Mehbooba tried to overcome some of this anger against her family and her party by making the BJP wait before she took over the reins of the government. However, the move has not helped her politically, at least to the extent that she had hoped to. The dissatisfaction with her regime has only been compounded by months of deteriorating law and order situation and the spate in terror attacks. Though South Kashmir has generally been the stronghold of the Mufti family, almost everyone agrees that unlike previous polls, a victory in the Anantnag assembly segment is not going to be a cake walk for Mehbooba.

The PDP-BJP Alliance: The PDP's alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has not gone well with the Kashmiris. Though BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee may have been a widely admired figure in the Valley, the saffron outfit continues to be looked upon as 'communal' and 'anti-Kashmiri'. In fact, the BJP's views on Article 370, the revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), its tough stance on the 'separatists', its anti-Pakistan rhetoric and the beef controversy has left most people in the region worried. Besides, a good number of leaders in the PDP top brass are said to be uncomfortable with this marriage of convenience between the two parties. The tie up with the national party is for sure, going to affect the voter base of the PDP. Of course, one could argue that the Muftis had no option but to join hands with the BJP following the fractured mandate of 2014. But then, there is no doubt that this will play on the minds of the Anantnag voter as he casts his/her vote on June 22. With the BJP offering to campaign for the CM, it remains to be seen if she accepts the saffron camp's offer or not.

Fractured Opposition: In all this though, there is one major silver lining for Mehbooba which in the end could decide whether she passes this 'acid test' or not. Though independent legislator and a fierce critic of the PDP-BJP alliance Sheikh Abdul Rasheed, better known as 'Engineer' Rasheed has opted out of the race, there are still seven other candidates in the fray. The National Conference has nominated Iftikar Hussain Misgar who lost to Mufti Sayeed in 2014 polls whereas Congress has nominated Hilal Ahmad Shah for the seat. Besides, there are five more independents who have thrown their hat in the ring. With the Opposition votes divided, Mehbooba should be able to scrap through in spite of a strong anti-incumbency wave.

What if Scenarios: June 25 is going to be an important day in the political career of the lawyer turned politician who is trying to emerge out of the shadows of her late father and assert herself on the political stage.

A victory, with say over 8,000 votes will give her the kind of political thrust that she so desperately needs. The cynicism around her abilities to lead the state will be put to rest for the time being and her alliance with the BJP will get some sort of 'legitimacy', however limited it may be. Moreover, all murmurs amongst the cadre for splitting with the saffron camp will be all but over.

A win with less than 5,000 votes though will at least force her to rethink her alliance with the BJP, though she is unlikely to call it off as of now. At the same time though, the anti-BJP block within the PDP will get a lot of ammunition.

A defeat though will be disastrously; not only will she be forced to resign from the post of CM, she would have not option but to break her partnership with the saffronists in a bid to protect whatever is left of her support base in the Valley.

Fifty seven year old Mehbooba has fought many a political battles in the past, winning most and losing a few. However, the upcoming polls to the Anantnag segment, her first since becoming the Chief Minister of Jammu Kashmir could well be her toughest battle till date.
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Saturday, 13 February 2016

WILL THE LOTUS BLOOM IN ASSAM


After the rout in Delhi followed by the ignominious defeat at the hands of the Grand Alliance in Bihar, the Modi bandwagon has all but lost its steam; in fact, after a brilliant 2014, the best in the history of the saffron outfit so far, the year 2015 has been one that the BJP would like to put behind, quite literally. The political setbacks apart, the intolerance debate, the Parliamentary logjam and the inability of the Modi regime to bring in the much hyped 'Acche Din', has to a substantial extent, hit the ratings of the Prime Minister and his party. To be frank, in 2016 too, things do not seem to be particularly good for the saffronists; of the five states that are scheduled to go to the polls, the party has meagre presence in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Bengal and Pondicherry which is unlikely to yield any significant political gains. The BJP is looking for one electoral victory to break the jinx and perhaps the state that could offer them an opportunity to do so is Assam.

Can the BJP storm the Congress bastion: In the last Lok Sabha polls, the BJP won half of the 14 parliamentary seats from the state thanks to the Modi magic, its best performance in Assam so far. In February, the following year, the saffron outfit made further gains in the north eastern state as it won 38 of the 74 municipal boards and town committees, leaving the Congress with just 17. The writing on the wall is pretty clear. The saffron outfit is now, for the first time in its history, the most popular party in Assam. It is all set to win a simple majority or at least finish as the single largest party in the state albeit it shoots itself in the foot, something that the BJP is quite capable of, as seen earlier.

PM Modi at a rally in Assam in 2014
Unlike the Delhi and Bihar elections wherein the saffron outfit was challenging strong regional players, here in Assam, the odds are stacked in its favor. It is a known fact that the BJP does well whenever it is pitted against the Congress. And to make matters worse for the grand old party, it is facing a strong anti-incumbency wave having been in power for three straight terms.

However, the BJP is not taking any chances. In a bid to further boost its chances, it has roped in the BPF (Bodoland People's Front) into a pre poll alliance which has a significant vote base in 16 assembly segments that form a part of the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD), apart from having some influence with sections of voters in another 14 seats. Talks are set to be in process even with former ally - the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP).

Most importantly, in a move that is different from the general norm in the Modi Era, the party has anointed Union Minister and MP Sarbanada Sonorwal as its Chief ministerial candidate for the Assam polls. Belonging to the electorally influential Scheduled Tribe (ST) community, he is known for his clean image. Moreover, a host of leaders, primarily from the Congress and the AGP have joined the BJP in the last few months. Amongst them is Himanta Biswa Sarma, once believed to be incumbent CM Tarun Gogoi's right hand man who has shifted base to the saffron camp after his CM ambitions were not fulfilled in the INC in spite of a long drawn revolt.

The Challenges in Store: For all those who thought that Assam would be a cake walk for the BJP, painting the north eastern state in saffron is not going to be an easy task. For once, the party is fighting history; it has never been able to form a government in Dispur in the past. Even in the last state assembly polls, it could get just five seats. With the Modi wave all but gone, it remains to be seen if the people of Assam will repose their faith in the state BJP leadership.

BJP's CM candidate Sarbanada Sonorwal
Perhaps, the biggest head ache for the party ahead of the polls is the fact that many of the promises it made during its parliamentary campaign in 2014 have remain unfulfilled. The Land Accord with Bangladesh continues to be an emotive issue and has not gone on well with some people whereas no concrete steps have been taken to deport illegal immigrants from the state. The promise of including several communities in the Scheduled Tribes category too has not yet fructified. Besides, the Congress is aggressively wooing the tea workers who are electorally influential in many areas of the state. And then, there is the fear of an alliance between the Congress and the AIUDF which could help consolidate the minority votes against the BJP. Lastly, the saffronists have to consider the aspirations of many leaders who have joined them lately while making sure that those of old timers and loyalists are not compromised; striking such a balance could be the key in wining a majority in the state and forming a stable government for a full term.

The importance of Assam for the BJP: The PM and more so, BJP President Amit Shah desperately need a political victory to break the spate of reverses in the recent past. Assam is all the more important since the party is in no position to win any of the other four states that go to the polls this year. A win here would nonetheless infuse some enthusiasm amongst the cadres, especially ahead of 2017 when the party will be battling for the all important state of Uttar Pradesh.

Himanta Biswa Sarma
Secondly, an important aspect of Modi government's foreign affairs is the 'Look East' policy. With Assam being one of the largest states in the eastern part of the country, it is essential for the BJP to be in power here to fulfill the PM's agenda. Over the last two years, ever since the BJP came to power at the Centre, the relations between Delhi and Dispur have never been cordial, with Modi and Gogoi taking regular pot shots at each other. A saffron regime in Assam will ease this and help BJP implement its 'vision' for the welfare of the state; if party sources are to be believed, this, apparently is not possible till the Congress remains in power in Dispur.

Last but not the least, for BJP President Amit Shah's dream of a 'Congress mukht' Bharat to come true, it is essential for the saffronists to make in roads into north eastern India, where it traditional has been a fringe player. For this dream to be realized, Assam holds the key considering that it borders six other states in the region. A BJP government here will help it expand across borders into Arunachal, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura. No wonder then, the BJP will come out all guns blazing in the fight for Assam.
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Saturday, 6 February 2016

ASSAM POLLS: LET THE BATTLE BEGIN

Sonowal with PM Modi and Biswa
After an incredible 2014, the once 'unstoppable' Modi bandwagon was completely halted after back to back electoral defeats, first in Delhi and then in Bihar. The 'intolerance' debate, rising food prices, the logjam in the Parliament and the subsequent inability of the NDA government to initiate much awaited reforms have certainly hit the popularity of the PM and his party. Modi for sure knows that perhaps the only way to regain some of the lost pride is by registering a major political victory; out of the five states that are schedule to go for polls in 2016, the one where the saffron camp is fancying its chances is the north-eastern state of Assam, wherein the BJP won half of the fourteen parliamentary seats in the last General Polls held in 2014.

In what has become a norm within the BJP in the NaMo era, the party's campaign was kick started by the PM when he addressed a rally in Kokrajhar in western Assam in January where he urged the people to give his party a chance to form a government at Dispur. Earlier this week, he also attended a meeting of tea workers who form a substantial chunk of voters where he famously blamed the Gandhis for holding up key legislation that he claimed would help the people of the state.

Meanwhile, the BJP seems to have learnt its lessons from the debacle in Bihar and Delhi. Sarbananda Sonowal, the Union Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs representing Lakhimpur in the Lok Sabha has been anointed to lead the saffron camp for the upcoming polls. The entry of Himanta Biswa Sarma who was once considered to be close to incumbent CM Tarun Gogoi into the party fold has added to its chances of winning. With the elections expected to be a close contest, the tie up with the BPF (Bodoland People's Front) which has considerable clout in the autonomous councils in the north-eastern state is expected to bring in more acceptance to the BJP which has never ruled Assam. On top of these positives is of course the massive anti-incumbency against the ruling Congress which the BJP could easily leverage to its advantage. Unless it does something really 'stupid', the saffron camp is all set to create history by forming its first government in Dispur or at least emerge as the single largest party in the legislative assembly in case of a fractured mandate.


CM Tarun Gogoi at an election rally
On the other hand, the Congress camp is feeling 'jittery' ahead of the elections. Having been in power in the state for three consecutive terms, CM Tarun Gogoi is facing the heat even as he tries to set the stage for his son Gaurav to succeed him, upholding a long time Congress tradition. The rout in the General Elections followed by a dismal performance in the municipal polls has adversely affected cadre morale; the departure of Biswa, once considered the blue-eyed boy of Gogoi has further dented their chances. However, some believe that this could well be a blessing in disguise since it could rid the party of factionalism, credited by many to be the real reason for the mess that the grand old party finds itself in its stronghold.

However, speaking at a press conference after PM Modi's January rally, Gogoi seemed to be confident of his party winning a straight fourth term in the state. In fact, what he was suggesting is perhaps the only way for the Congress to somehow hang on to power in Assam; if the INC can manage to build a grand alliance, the way Nitish and Lalu did in Bihar, then it has a very good chance of at least keeping the BJP at bay. Even if a formal pre-poll tie up with 'like-minded' parties is not possible, a well thought out strategy to defeat the BJP could also do the trick. But then, are the AGP and the AIUDF ready to be a part of such a formation, either formally or informally is something that will be clear in the next few weeks.


Badruddin Ajmal 
The joker in the pack is the AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front) which has been constantly improving its performance in the state over the last decade. Floated by perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal, the regional outfit which has a substantial voter base in the southern parts of Assam finished as the second largest party in the last state polls with 18 seats and then ended up with a tally of three in the parliamentary elections. As of now, the party has not responded to calls to form an anti-BJP front in Assam ahead of the polls. Most observers believe that the party is keeping its options open. In case of a hung assembly, it could end up becoming the 'king maker'. With this in mind, the AIUDF is concentrating on reaching out beyond its traditional vote base comprising of minority votes so that it can maximize its results.


Once a major political player in the state, the AGP (Asom Gana Parishad) is being wooed aggressively, both by the BJP and the Congress for a pre-poll tie up. However, as of now, the party has managed to stay away from both the national parties. The upcoming elections though are a litmus test for the AGP. Though it was in power for two terms in the state in the past, its popularity continues to be at an all time low and most of its leaders and cadre have shifted base to other outfits. No wonder, the party is trying to use the polls as an opportunity to stage a major comeback and regain some of its lost glory. Will the AGP succeed in its endeavor or will it sink further into political oblivion is something that remains to be seen.


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Sunday, 27 December 2015

2016: THE STAKES ARE HIGH


The year 2015 has been one to forget for the saffron outfit; after being routed in the Delhi state polls, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was further embarrassed in Bihar later in the year when the NDA was convincing beaten by the grand opposition led by bitter rival Nitish Kumar. Rising prices, the 'intolerance' debate and failure of the government to bring in the much anticipated reforms has meant that the aura of invincibility surrounding the BJP and the Prime Minister has been busted; the much hyped Modi wave seems to have vanished and Amit Shah's political acumen seems to have deserted him completely.

Probably, the only saving grace for the party is that the popularity of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to remain high. However, as the Delhi and Bihar polls have shown, it cannot solely depend on the PM to win them the elections in the states. Amongst the five states that are scheduled to go to the polls in 2016, Assam is one where the BJP will fancy its chances in the wake of rising anti-incumbency against the Tarun Gogoi government. It remains to be seen what strategy the party applies in Tamil Nadu and neighboring Pondicherry. Will it revive the NDA in Tamil region and fight the polls with Vijaykant's MDMK or abandon its front and ally with the Jayalalithaa? Moreover, it remains to be seen if the BJP can finally break its jinx and make its debut in Kerala. Also, the party will hope to improve its share in Bengal.

For the Congress, this year has been a mixed bag. The year started on a bad note with the grand old party being wiped out from the capital. However, the victory of the grand alliance of which the INC was a part of in Bihar did bring in a lot of cheers. More importantly, a big hurray for the party is that its Vice President Rahul Gandhi seems to be taking charge of the affairs of late. The party's strategy to stall Parliament has worked till now but then it must make sure that it does not over do it.

Looking forward to 2016, the Congress is still to regain its lost political pride which can only be restored by a famous win in the electoral arena. Probably, from the INC's perspective, the only state where it has a chance to register a big electoral win is Kerala where it is in power. Considering the present political conditions, it is unlikely that the party can win a fourth straight win in Assam in the wake of rebellion within its ranks. Allying with the DMK is the only option to do well in Tamil Nadu whereas Bengal will be a lost cause, unless the INC makes up with the TMC.

Compared to the two national parties, perhaps the upcoming year is the most important for the Left Front as two of the three states where it has a significant presence go to the polls. And to be frank, the situation does not seem to be particularly good. In its former bastion of Bengal, the TMC is all set to retain its hold in Kolkata thanks to the inability of the Communists to put up a spirited fight. The fight in Kerala seems to be a really tight one with the Congress going all out to keep the Left Front at bay.

Finally, the stakes are high for the regional players too. Jayalalithaa who was believed to be comfortably placed to win a consecutive term is now facing the heat, especially after the deluge in Chennai and Cuddalore. The only saving grace for her is that the DMK is ridden with internal strife and the taint surrounding the alleged involvement of some of its top leaders in the 2G scam is yet to go. In the east, Mamta Bannerjee though is in a much better position, thanks to an inefficient opposition and her goons.
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