Rafale, CBI Wars: Political response required in an election year

Muscular show of strength may be counterproductive

The Government’s political response to two issues in an election year may well set the pace for the Assembly polls and the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. The first is the removal of the CBI Director coming up in the Supreme Court on Friday. The second is the Rafale issue. Will the Supreme Court be satisfied that all procedures were followed in the Rafale case? That case comes up on October 29.

If the Government does not calibrate its actions and instead, acts rashly, not keeping the political parameters in sight, this could well be a disaster waiting to happen.

The general elections are barely nine months away. Moves like the midnight raid of the CBI Headquarters, sealing of offices at the dead of night, etc. would have normally shown that the Government wants to indicate that it is strong and robust.

But in an election year such moves could boomerang.

The restructuring in the CBI, it is believed, is central to all this. The Government is expected to renew its efforts, with a new team in place, to get Vijay Mallya back from London. It is also hoped that the extradition of Christian Michel would be effected by November. It is believed he would spill the beans on senior leaders in the Congress involved in the scam. He has already indicated that he is being pressured to do so. This is expected to be a huge political feather in the BJP’s cap. More so for Modi. His CBI has been accused of allowing absconders to flee.

The BJP’s Modi centric strategy is based on a feedback that there is no leader commanding the respect Modi still has. And yet, if there is more “government bungling” like the way the CBI controversy was handled, it could turn totally counter productive. The Opposition onslaught on Rafale is gathering political momentum and it would require excellent political skills to respond.

But so far as surveys indicate, it is believed that the Rafale scam has not reached the resonance that Bofors did for a variety of reasons. It does not seem to be an issue that has stirred up the common man.

Even as the 5 States go to polls in November/December, the BJP focus is getting back to power during the 2019 elections. With a clear Modi-centric poll plan, the Prime Minister is expected to cover 400 Lok Sabha constituencies by February 2019.  It is expected to be a Modi versus the rest battle. This could well be high risk game for both the BJP as well as the Congress.

There is little doubt that Modi continues to tower over the rest of the leaders in communications skills and connect with the people. Also, surveys indicate that while there is a fall in his popularity, he is still liked and thought of as someone who is trying to change a corrupt environment.

While the rest of the opposition is careful against any personal attack on Modi, the Congress is trying to dent his “clean image“.  There is some risk here. If it works, then there is no doubt about the benefits accruing from this strategy. But if the Congress script of “Modi chor hai” fails then the BJP narrative that Modi is being targeted because he is trying to remove the corrupt, may reap huge dividends. To that extent the government realizes the need to insulate Modi from what is going on around him. But increasingly, in the present structure, it is mostly the PMO that is calling the shots partly because there is no firewall.

Congress, Rahul Gandhi, Jaswant Singh Yadav, Rafale deal, Rajasthan
Congress President Rahul Gandhi (file photo)

The BJP’s central leadership is already starting its preparation for the Lok Sabha polls which began in February this year.

*They consist of as many rallies as is possible by the Prime Minister in 400 Lok Sabha constituencies.

*Mega shows and announcements before March end. The shows include a ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ global summit next year and the Kumbh Mela designed to get maximum political mileage.

*There is a specific focus on Uttar Pradesh, a move that has already started with efforts to break the Akhilesh-Mayawati alliance.

*Efforts for post poll tie-up and cementing other tie-ups like JDU.

But there is no good news emanating for the moment for the BJP from 3 of the 5 states that goes to the polls in November/December. Barring Telengana and Mizoram, it would require a miraculous feat for the the BJP if it wrests even one of the States BJP rules —Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

The factors are many for the incumbent party.

*There’s a strong resentment among the upper castes in all the three states.

*Issues like unemployment, rural distress, petrol hike, etc. have become a big issue for the urban voter.

*Both the Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh have been ruled by BJP for fifteen years. A change, it is said, is inevitable.

How important are the state elections?

In 2013, the BJP swept the Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The party swept these states once again in 2014. Sometimes one party may have done well in the state polls right before the general elections and lost the general elections — this is true for 1998-99 (the BJP lost in states but won nationally), 2003-2004 (the BJP won most states but lost nationally), and 2008-2009 (the Congress lost most states but won in the subsequent Lok Sabha polls soon after).

EVM snags in UP, Maharashtra

But the state elections may give a momentum either to the Congress or the BJP depending on who wins in the 3 states in a straight contest.  Either way all bets are off. The Rafale and CBI controversy may still take centre-stage. If Vijay Mallya and Michel are brought to India, the headlines can change.

Much will depend on how the BJP capitalises on its perceived gains and how much political finesse it employs to handle its setbacks.

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