Dhumal’s loss is Modi’s gain

Semi Column

What could be more significant for BJP than Narendra Modi's third straight victory in Gujarat? In an oblique way that politics often functions in, the answer is Prem Kumar Dhumal's defeat in Himachal Pradesh. Strange as this may sound, it all makes perfect sense in BJP's world of competing leaders and their stakes in the run-up to 2014.

So much so that, in a rare occurrence, Sushma Swaraj walked up to her Rajya Sabha counterpart Arun Jaitley's room in Parliament Wednesday evening to chalk out a media strategy for the party's spin masters. This resulted in the instruction to "not fall into the trap of Modi as PM" questions from the media.

Accordingly, BJP talking heads on Thursday studiously refrained from even flirting with that question. This, in many ways, reflects the underlying tension in BJP's Delhi hierarchy — one that would have been easier to manage had Dhumal delivered Himachal.

For BJP pollsters, there were three distinct possibilities — first, a marginal victory for Modi and defeat in Himachal Pradesh; second, an emphatic win in Gujarat and defeat in Himachal; and third, victory in both states. The first possibility would have provided some breathing space to BJP's "collective leadership" in Delhi to stagger the demand among cadres to anoint Modi as the first among equals.

Victory in both states was the best case scenario, allowing the BJP's central leadership to say they had successfully created an anti-Congress mood in the country. This narrative would have included the incessant demand for the prime minister's resignation over alleged irregularities in coal block allocations, the stand against FDI in multi-brand retail or, for that matter, the general intransigence in Parliament.

But all of this came a cropper in Himachal, where the BJP's central leaders were in full control. What we have now is a version of the second possibility that leaves the central leadership looking vulnerable while making the BJP's victory in Gujarat look like a personal mandate for Modi.

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