The two-month countdown to the Gujarat election is obvious now. After the GST Council meet yesterday, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley singled out "khakra" (Gujarati savoury snack) and announced the GST on it has been reduced from 12 per cent to 5 per cent. Man-made yarn will also see lower GST now, helping textile manufacturers in Gujarat, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi is currently campaigning on a two-day trip. Another two Modi pit stops are planned for next month and sources say that they could well be doubled in his home state.
This is the second time that the government has blinked in view of the slew of upcoming state elections and the 18 months remaining of Modi's term in office. Just days ago, the excise duty on petroleum products was cut by two rupees.
The tax tweaks came after a huddle between Modi, Jaitley and BJP President Amit Shah. Jaitley missed a scheduled appearance at the World Economic Forum (WEF) meet in Delhi on Thursday. Shah cut short his Kerala Yatra for the brain-storming. Remember Jaitley is the BJP's campaign in-charge of poll-bound Gujarat.
While BJP leaders on record maintain it is business as usual and the party is on course for winning 2019 after repeating its victories in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, a certain nerviness has crept in after former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha's stinging and detailed criticism of economic policies, which saw Modi offering a lengthy and ardent defense.
BJP leader Shahnawaz Hussain told me "The PM is right - all of you in the media are spreading pessimism. I don't need to add anything to what he said. His speech has ensured that the media and the opposition have nothing left to say." On his party's Gujarat prospects, Hussain gushed, "It is the state of Modi and Shah who work there all year unlike Rahul Gandhi who wakes up only when there is an election. I can tell you that we will sweep Gujarat. The day we lose Gujarat, I doubt the sun will rise in the east". The syrupy mixture of deference for Modi and Shah and defiance of nay-sayers is the current BJP default position but Shah is reportedly worried with the surveys conducted in Gujarat for the party's review.
Sources say the surveys show Gujarat remains completely committed to the BJP but Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have been flagged as potentially problematic. Himachal Pradesh is a possible win for the BJP in the last two surveys that Shah ordered in the past two months.
It is to eliminate any chance of dithering among voters that the BJP has planned the Modi blitzkrieg in Gujarat. Earlier, it was to be two trips a month; now it has been doubled to four till the state votes. The medium and message for all the upcoming elections will be Modi as has been the case with even the Delhi municipal elections.
Modi will be portrayed as a man on a mission against corrupt parties and leaders. Some of the slogans being tested are "yeh imandari aur beimani ke beech ladai hai" (it's a fight between the honest and corrupt") and "Fakir versus Shehzada" (a dig at Rahul Gandhi but if the Congress picks Jyotiraditya Scindia as its leading face for Madhya Pradesh, the slogan with the modification of "maharaja" could have its first airing there). Scindia is from the erstwhile royal family of Gwalior.
Sensing its first taste of public disenchantment post the economic failure of demonetisation, the growing agrarian distress, shrinking investments, an utter lack of job creation for the army of young people joining the work force and a string of broken promises that are now being recognised as such, Modi and Shah seem hesitant for the first time since their 2014 success. Hence the prompt response on GST and the switch to 24/7 campaign mode. Shah has reached out to the RSS and asked it to deploy its formidable ground strength for the BJP in all poll -bound states. Sources say that Yogi Adityanath who was recently tested as the new "Hindutva" mascot in Kerala will now also be deployed in Gujarat and Himachal where he will campaign on his pet themes of "love jihad" and the claimed oppression of Hindus. The mahant of the Goraknath math is a veteran at minority-baiting and dog whistle politics. Yogi being used as a campaigner along with Modi in the upcoming elections is tacit acknowledgement of the fact that the BJP is jittery about its "Vikas" (development) and "good governance" agenda and is returning to a sharper focus on the basics of Hindutva including and construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. As part of this plan, Yogi will celebrate Diwali in Ayodhya.
So Hindutva with a touch of namkeen - Shah's favourite snack which he carries on his travels on which GST was also brought down to 5 per cent - will be the BJP's selling points.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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