The BJP has set itself a target of 360 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Which is a two-thirds majority. Is that Mission Impossible?
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a political scientist once observed, is always in election mode. Looking ahead to the general elections of 2019, BJP president Amit Shah has already set an ambitious target of 360 seats, at a meeting of senior party leaders in August. But dissonance on a variety of fronts — the sharp rise in fuel prices, the deepening agrarian crisis, lack of job creation, fallout of shifts in economic policy and the perceived negligence of state governments on the law and order front — has cast a shadow over “Mission 360”.
Shah’s stated gameplan is to focus on winnable seats and mitigate anti-incumbency in BJP-ruled states. The unstated strategy involves dealing with the recent red-flagging of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s performance by none other than the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and leveraging the continuing dominance of regional forces in the south and east. Bold strategic moves on both these fronts are expected in the next 18 months, aimed not merely at retaining the current tally of 338 for the NDA, but improving on it.
Prima facie, it’s a tough challenge. In 2014, the BJP won more than 90 per cent of the seats it contested in the HIndi belt and the west. It will be difficult to achieve this once more. Also, given the anti-incumbency factor, can the BJP repeat its 100 per cent score in Gujarat (26 seats), Rajasthan (25), Delhi (7), Uttarakhand (5), Himachal Pradesh (4) and Goa (2)? Likewise, can it pull off another round of spectacular victories in Uttar Pradesh (71 of 80), Madhya Pradesh (27 of 29), Chhattisgarh (10 of 11) and Jharkhand (12 of 14)? The scope for improvement in Karnataka (17 of 28), Assam (7 of 14) and Haryana (7 of 10) is also limited.
Coming to the states where it has significant alliance partners, the two biggest — Maharashtra and Bihar — don’t offer much chance of improvement. In Maharashtra, the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance holds 41 of 48 seats. In Bihar, the BJP-Lok Janshakti Party alliance has 28 of 40 seats. Given that the BJP will have to accommodate the JD(U) as well in 2019, it will be contesting fewer seats.
Again, in Andhra, the Telugu Desam-BJP alliance netted 17 of 25 seats. In Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP-Peoples Democratic Party alliance won all six seats (three each). Punjab is the only alliance state which offers wiggle room, where the BJP-Shiromani Akali Dal combine won six of 13 seats. The death of its Gurdaspur MP, Vinod Khanna, has reduced that tally to five. The by-election next month will indicate which way the wind is blowing in the northern state.
A senior political analyst associated with the BJP admitted that, as of now, it stood to lose 40-60 seats from its current tally. If so, the BJP will need to break new ground: in West Bengal (where it currently has two of 42 seats), Odisha (one of 20), Tamil Nadu (one of 39), Kerala (nil) and Telangana (one of 17).
The geographical spread of the BJP will necessitate strong pre-electoral alliances.
The BJP’s biggest advantage remains the charismatic Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has established a direct connect with “the people”. Even Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, speaking, last month, at the University of Berkeley, California, admitted that the PM was an exceptional communicator. Take his radio show, Mann ki Baat (What’s on my mind). Bypassing the conventional news media, the programme recalls Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” (the former US president mobilised public support for his policies through radio from 1933 to 1944). The PM’s folksy language, homespun wisdom, ground-level narrative and chatty tone resonates with listeners. He shares doubts and fears, keeps the discourse away from politics, never talks down to the audience, answers letters and celebrates little-known achievers in far-flung areas. All India Radio estimates a listenership of 27.1 crore.
His social media outreach is equally impressive. In 2015, his #SelfieWithDaughter initiative on Twitter trended worldwide and established the PM as a campaigner for gender parity. In recent times, however, he has attracted severe censure for failing to “unfollow” fanatics on Twitter after they posted vicious posthumous invective against leftist activist-journalist Gauri Lankesh, gunned down in Bengaluru on 5 September. These very same fanatics have, in the past, denigrated Mahatma Gandhi.
The BJP’s other big asset is Shah himself. The BJP president’s legendary election management skills were successfully deployed in the Uttar Pradesh assembly polls earlier this year and preparations for 2019 are already in top gear. He has undertaken a series of express tours across the country to assess preparedness. With military precision, some 120 critical constituencies have been specifically assigned to election in-charges (prabharis). The prabhari will focus his energies on delivering three to five seats and has been ordered to visit each at least twice a month. In addition, some 15,000 full-time volunteers or “vistaraks” have been recruited. These carefully selected workers are already in situ, visiting constituents family by family. Nor will cosy arrangements at the local level between individuals of rival parties be tolerated, as has been the unstated norm. The message is clear: every seat counts.
The mechanics of electoral management apart, the party will showcase the government’s most successful programmes, such as the Jan Dhan Yojana. According to government figures, over 30 crore such accounts have been opened, mainly in rural or peri-urban areas, with a collective balance of more than Rs 66,200 crore. This has enabled direct benefit transfer (DBT) of subsidies, which the government claims has saved Rs 50,000 crore over three years, by plugging leakages.
Another big initiative was the Ujala Yojana, a zero-subsidy scheme which resulted in the exponential growth of the LED industry and led to a drastic fall in the price of energy-saving appliances. According to government figures, some 26 crore LED bulbs and 1.2 crore fans have been distributed under the scheme. On the farm front, neem coating of urea has not only brought down consumption, but prevented illegal diversion of the highly subsidised fertiliser to industry. A little-known but successful project is the Government e-Marketplace (GEM), which simplifies procurement of goods and services (worth an estimated Rs 4 lakh crore) by the central government and curbs corruption by eliminating discretion and promoting transparency.
Digital technology has been leveraged in other ways as well. The online reservation system (ORS) and the e-hospital initiative have made access to healthcare at government hospitals much easier. The digitisation of nominations for the national Padma awards, along with a focus — for the first time in the history of the awards — on ground-level achievers, has made the process of selection less metro-centric and subject to nepotism. The Smart India Hackathon encouraged thousands of youngsters in engineering institutes to apply their skills to pointing out and resolving technical hitches in government delivery systems.
The PM has never been chary of staking his prestige on his pet programmes. His #GiveItUp campaign, which adjured the well-off to surrender their LPG subsidy so that it could free up funds for BPL (below poverty line) consumers, met with enthusiastic response. In tandem, he launched the Ujjwala Yojana, which provides cooking gas connections in rural areas. Government figures indicate that some 3 crore connections have been released in 704 districts so far.
The jury is still out on a number of other schemes, which are targeted at various sections: the rejigged crop insurance and soil health card schemes for farmers, the venture capital fund for Dalit entrepreneurs, the India Development Fund for non-resident Indians and the unique ID card for the disabled.
While a number of the above projects were initiated under the UPA government, the fact is that they did not take off until the NDA came to power. Direct benefit transfer of cooking gas subsidy, for example, was launched in 2013 as a pilot project but took off only under the Modi government. Similarly, the United Progressive Alliance initiated neem coating of urea, but capped it at 35 per cent, which really did not help plug the leakages.
Participatory governance is encouraged through the MyGov portal, where citizens post their suggestions and complaints, some of which have been reflected in policy making. Likewise, the Indian Railways launched an effective grievance redressal system, whereby consumers could ask for expeditious help by tweeting to the handles of railways ministers or senior officials. This kind of citizen-government interface is a first in India.
The PM has been particularly active on foreign policy, working towards building a global consensus on Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Vijai Chauthaiwale, head of the BJP’s foreign affairs cell, emphasises the strengthening of bilateral ties with countries — including the US and Russia — across the globe, as well as leveraging the civilisational connect between India and the Buddhist world. India is also working towards a participatory development model as a counterpoint to China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.
The overall picture is one of a government constantly on the move, experimenting with strategies and tactics aimed at improving public delivery systems. Given the status quoist nature of bureaucracy, which is pathologically averse to risk taking, this has involved inculcating a whole new culture of governance. That is a gamble in itself, as changing the entrenched mindset is a herculean task which cannot be accomplished overnight.
On the flip side, the moves towards a less-cash economy have been widely criticised. The launch of the United Payments Interface in 2016 did not make the pain of demonetisation any less acute. The fallout on the farm sector as well as small and micro enterprises was severe. Similarly, the introduction of the goods and services tax (GST) has adversely impacted small businesses.
Significantly, these moves have been widely discussed and condemned within the sangh parivar. In a recent closed-door meeting of the RSS at Vrindavan, frontal organisations like the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) severely criticised the government’s economic policies. The farmers’ agitations in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh, and Sikar in Rajasthan, have highlighted the distress in the agrarian sector.
The anti-corruption drive has evoked mixed reactions. While the vast majority was willing to buy the argument that demonetisation was aimed at curbing black money, the fact is also that it impacted the “clean” cash economy — a point that the RSS has highlighted in camera. Demonetisation’s success in containing black money has been widely questioned. Again, the complex system of taxation introduced by GST has left many small entrepreneurs floundering as they seek to comprehend and comply with shifting regulations. Things have not been helped by the lacunae in the GST software that is struggling to handle millions of tax claims and submissions. And while no major scams have erupted, complaints about unprecedented levels of corruption in regulatory agencies like the Income Tax Department and the Enforcement Directorate are rampant.
On the law and order front, state governments have failed miserably in checking vigilantism in the form of gau rakshaks. The brutal murder of Pehlu Khan, a cattle dealer, remains an ineradicable blot on the BJP’s Rajasthan government — particularly now that all the people named by Khan in his dying statement have been let off.
Similarly, the spectacularly poor handling of the Ram Rahim case by the Haryana government cost 38 lives and threw the godman-political nexus into stark relief. The High Court of Punjab and Haryana pulled up the state government for its wilful ineptitude in allowing huge crowds to gather in support of the godman at the doorstep of the very court which sentenced him to jail in a rape case.
As a result of the setbacks on the economic front, the very real fear that the BJP may be losing its vote base has been raised within the sangh parivar. Traders have been hit by GST, farmers are crushed by debt and low prices of agricultural produce, youth are unable to find jobs. People have started questioning the government’s direction. The BKS has gone so far as to say that the Modi government has failed farmers and the BMS has called for a rally in Delhi on 17 November to highlight workers’ grievances. While the BJP is acquiring new voters among the have-nots — Dalits and lower OBCs in particular, there is no denying that at least part of the public discourse has turned against it, even among those who voted for BJP.
Significantly, creative humour on social media, once directed at Rahul Gandhi, is now lampooning the government. Sample: “What is the BJP symbol? The Lootus.” The scenario is beginning to resemble that of the “India Shining” campaign in 2004, when a popular prime minister presided over a failing government.
Then, as now, the Opposition was in shambles, particularly after the split in anti-BJP forces in both Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The crucial difference is that the Congress was not as weak as it is now and had an able leadership at the helm. Sonia Gandhi and her advisers put together a credible coalition to challenge the BJP. Today, the Congress has lost the south; its success in 2004 and 2009 was based largely on undivided Andhra Pradesh. Also, Rahul Gandhi is not seen as a capable leader by his own party, much less the Opposition as a whole. Whether tall regional leaders such as Sharad Pawar, Mayawati, Mamata Bannerjee, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Naveen Patnaik will accept his leadership is questionable, although not impossible. For the moment, however, the question of “Narendra Modi vs Who?” is still open, to the advantage of the BJP.
In 2019, as in 2004, alliances will be important. Although the BJP broke the numbers jinx in 2014 by getting the first simple majority in Parliament (282 of 543 seats) after 30 years, the election was a contest of pre-electoral alliances — the BJP-led NDA and the Congress-led UPA. Both formations featured strong regional players who came on board — and this is significant — before the elections, on the basis of seat-sharing arrangements.
The BJP’s steady growth since 1989 can be attributed only partly to mobilisation on ideological lines. Leveraging of strategic alliances has played a critical role in the party’s trajectory. In 2014, it had 10 allies as opposed to six in 2009. Indeed, its loss in 2004 can be viewed in the light of the fact that the Congress had better alliances. Alliances work by aggregating votes at the constituency level, so that more seats are won, even though some may have to be ceded to allies.
Explaining the overall strategy for the south, general secretary B Murlidhar Rao observes that the BJP will leverage its position as the dominant national party, emphasising its pluralism and comfort with social, ethnic and linguistic diversity. While the space vacated by the Congress naturally offers the BJP an opportunity, regional sub-nationalism demands local-level alliances. In this respect, Tamil Nadu, post-J Jayalalithaa, is critical. The BJP seems inclined to forge an alliance with a united All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, perhaps on the premise that the late leader’s vote base will accrue to anti-DMK forces. This could prove a do-or-die decision, as 39 seats are up for grabs.
In Kerala, the RSS has been active for decades. BJP needs to build on that. The party’s success in Assam in 2016 was built, after all, on the groundwork of a steady stream of pracharaks. However, West Bengal seems unassailable at the moment. Odisha is the only state that seems to offer fertile ground for growth.
Overall, Indian politics has yet to transition from coalitions to a one-party hegemony. While a two-thirds majority in Parliament is hardly a “virgin peak” — it has been scaled five times in 16 general elections, the prevailing scenario seems to call for smart regional alliances. At the same time, it must be emphasised that PM Modi has repeatedly confounded analysts, who had dubbed 2014 a “Mission Impossible” for the BJP. From that perspective, “Mission 360” may not be as unreasonable as it sounds.