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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Wednesday, 11 November 2015

BIHAR: THE VERDICT


Though many were expecting Bihar to be a close contest after a bitterly fought campaign, with leader from both camps often indulging in 'inappropriate' language and even going below the belt on some occasions, the people of India's third most populous state have delivered a resounding verdict, choosing the 'Mahaghatbandhan' led by by their incumbent CM Nitish Kumar over PM Narendra Modi's NDA. In many ways, it was a fairy tale come back for the JD-U chief; after a series of blunders that threatened to jeopardize his political career altogether, he has 'risen' from the ashes, beating the PM with whom, he has had some scores to settle with. While Kumar is all set to retain the chair of the CM, the 'Man of the Series' is certainly Lalu Prasad Yadav. The former Bihar CM who was once Nitish's staunchest rival is in my opinion, one of the biggest factors responsible for the 'grand' victory of the mega alliance. For the BJP and its allies though, the results have been crushing; saying that the NDA 'lost' the polls would be a massive under statement since they have been 'routed' with the regional front winning thrice as many seats as the BJP led coalition.

The highlight of the Bihar state polls 2015 for me has been the manner in which Nitish, Lalu and most importantly, the cadre of the two parties have resolved the bitter differences that existed amongst them in the past and literally blown away the BJP and its allies. While there is no doubt that this was an alliance to retain their political significance, the JD-U chief and the RJD supremo must be credited for sticking together in spite of varying styles of functioning and reaching consensus on all important issues including the post of CM, seat sharing arrangement, campaign strategy et all. Though there were some murmurs of dissent within their ranks initially, the cadre too seem to have worked. Remarkably, the regional front even managed to transfer their respective vote banks to candidates of the alliance across the state. The electoral campaign of the grand alliance was pretty simple. While the soft-spoken Nitish Kumar harped on the development bandwagon, the more 'brash' Lalu took on the hard line, hitting out at the PM and his aide Amit Shah at regular intervals. Of course, the many blunders from the saffron camp including the failure to project a local leader, the beef controversy and the 'unwarranted' statements regarding reservations made by the RSS chief only gave more ammunition to the regional players.


The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) finished as the single largest party in the state assembly, winning 80 of the 101 seats it contested, its best tally in over a decade. The Janata Dal - United (JD-U) finished with a tally of 71 whereas the Congress seems to have been a big beneficiary of the verdict. The INC won nearly 70% of the total seats it contested.

For the BJP, its dream of a saffron government in Patna was crashed after its alliance finished with a paltry tally of 58 seats. The fact remains that in spite of the NDA's superlative performance in the 2014 General Elections, the saffron outfit was always the 'underdog' considering that the two regional parties had joined hands to counter it. The BJP tried to counter this by roping in the PM to address over 30 rallies in the state and roping in JD-U rebel and former CM Manjhi with an eye on the Extremely Backward Class votes. However, a spate of errors on its part, some of which I have already recounted above cost it dearly. Some of the leaders of the party or belonging to its affiliates only made the matters worse by raking up communal and casteist sentiments further strengthening the anti-NDA votes. Spoilers like the AIMIM, the SP and the NCP failed to make any considerable dent in the Opposition's tally. Moreover, Nitish's record as a 'capable' CM and the lack of any substantial anti-incumbency on the ground meant that the BJP was wiped off Bihar.

The charts displayed here are created using the free online tool - ChartGo (Link).
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