A Post-Bihar Blueprint For BJP
Debacles have great lessons to teach and the BJP must learn from the Bihar debacle. Here is a suggested strategic roadmap for the party—product, process and structure.
At first glance, the subject of this piece might elicit a disdainful groan, “not another one on the BJP’s Bihar fiasco”. There has been a surfeit of analysis on this subject, some well-informed, some well-intentioned, while others frankly disingenuous. Nevertheless, we need to take a look at some of the longer-term subterranean lessons from the Bihar elections, as they serve as very useful pointers to what might transpire in the next “real test for Modi”, the UP elections in 2017, and then of course, the mother of all battles, the 2019 LS election.
First, a look at the 2014 mandate, and really all mandates that Indian voters give nowadays, and what drives them. Present in different proportions in each voter, there are three factors that impact the mandate:
1. Aspirational voter
This vote cuts across classes, castes, regions, and religions; it is cast by an Indian who aspires for a better life than the one he or she is living at present. Not only does that rickshaw puller on the streets of Patna have aspirations, but so do the Adanis-Ambanis. The mistake made by many analysts was in concluding that the entire 2014 mandate was a vote for only development. This is not true, although it was a disproportionately high component. The primary test for this voter is whether the party will deliver the possibility of a better life for him.
2. Identity voter
Whether one likes it or not, identity plays a very important role in deciding who one votes for, not just caste and religion, but also women, youth, farmers, salaried class, traders, industrialists, etc. All these groups have a “clannish” streak, and a part of them tend to think and vote collectively. A significant vote in 2014 was for some version of whatever identity one felt a part of. One votes for the party where one sees the greatest presence of one’s group in terms of visibility. The primary test for this voter is whether the party has enough people who belong to the group I identify with.
3. Transactional voter
This is the most fickle voter, normally the young neo-convert, neo-right voter, and is purely driven by the clear and present “transactional benefit” offered by the party/ leader. In the next round of elections, irrespective of whether they are central, state or local ones, a completely different set of transactional benefits could win the vote. There is no sense of loyalty (or even reward) for the old transactions in the last election, irrespective of whether they were delivered upon or not. The primary test for this voter is whether the party promises to do the few specific things that I want done, to win my vote for this election.
So, while the aspirational voter is convinced that the 2014 mandate was for only development, and Modi should not do anything else, the identity voter believes it was for “his” identified group to get the benefits of the power that his vote has given. The transactional voter, expects that the transactions that he voted for are delivered. If not, then he strikes that party off his list. If it gets delivered, he treats the transaction as having been completed, and is not obligated to vote again for the same party. The vote next time round would be freshly evaluated for the set of transactions on offer at that time.
There is a lovely line in the Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas – “Jaki rahi bhavana jaisi, prabhu murat dekhi tin taisi.” It roughly translates as – “A person’s attitude towards something determines how one sees it.” Each of the three types of voters described above, viewed the 2014 mandate solely from their own perspective, and believes that any actions for the other sets of voters are illegitimate. This is why the aspirational voters get so frustrated when something is done for the identity voter, and vice versa.
I believe that a successful political party has to deliver a customized message to each of these three types of voters, and in trying to be too clever by half, the BJP failed each of them in the Bihar elections. Some of the mistakes made by the BJP in the Bihar elections are as follows:
Aggressive, sarcasm-laden, vituperative rhetoric works only and only against an opponent who is an incumbent and has lost credibility in the eyes of the voters. It obviously worked against UPA2. It did not work against Nitish (he was still credible), or Lalu (he was not an incumbent), or Kejriwal (not an incumbent and regained credibility by apologizing and displaying false modesty). Hints for the future are, it might work against Akhilesh in 2017, but will not work against Mamata or Chandy. It will definitely not work in 2019! Selecting the message and its tonality are critical for every election, and varies from one to another.
In as much as one might enjoy the semantics and optics of the mathematics vs. chemistry debate, in Indian elections (and education also, I guess), Maths trumps Chemistry each and every time. If NCP and Congress had fought together in Maharashtra, there is no way a lone-warrior BJP would have won the Assembly elections in 2014, Modi or no Modi. If you know that Maths is not in your favour (and clearly in Bihar it wasn’t), be very very careful about the message and the tone, and get it spot on, so that you attract additional votes, and not push them away.
India’s elections, post May 2014, have irreversibly become quasi-Presidential in nature, and Modi himself is to be credited (or blamed) for this. The transactional voters, particularly, want a face for the CM candidate that they can hold accountable later. The reason Khattar, Fadnavis, and Raghubar Das will continue to struggle for some time (being good, honest and effective CMs notwithstanding) is that the people (and the bureaucrats, and their colleagues) know that they voted for Modi, and not them. They will take years to do what Vasundara and Shivraj can do in days, as the people clearly voted for them. Anandben’s problem is exactly the same. Not going into an election with a pre-declared CM face is now a cardinal sin. The BJP is shying away from this based on the Delhi experience, where the mistake was not the fact that they had a face, but the person itself, the late declaration, and more importantly, the lack of a process to select the candidate. I will address this issue in detail in the remediation section.
4. No Manifesto
The primary document for a transactional voter is the declared manifesto. It is a fallacy to believe that voters do not read or care about the manifesto. A “vision” statement is lazy politics. The preparation of the manifesto should start six months before an election is due (Hint: start preparing the Assam manifesto now!).
What is lost on the BJP is that Delhi was supposed to be the warning, and they were supposed to win Bihar. Unfortunately, Bihar has now become the dire warning, and the party should hopefully learn from this and learn in time for UP. They do not have the luxury of UP also being a “lesson”, as that would be fatal to their ambitions for 2019. It is OK to lose an election, but do not lose the lesson, as or else, you will lose again!
The point related to the need for better media management has been reiterated by one and all, and most recently (and brilliantly) by Seetha in the Swarajya article “You’ve Lost The Media Plot, Mr Modi; Time To Get It Back”. My piece looks beyond the obvious media management point, which of course is of the highest priority. The BJP needs to seriously consider the following specific steps and put detailed processes around each of these. The basic idea has been captured in the points below:
Selecting the right candidate for a constituency is an inexact science and quite often, parties get it horribly wrong. Not that they are ill-intentioned; they simply do not have a well-defined process for it. Let me propose a process:
- Set up a candidate selection committee for each constituency (assembly or parliamentary) consisting of all past candidates of the party from within that and all adjoining constituencies, and the district level office-bearers (could typically consist of around 30-35 people).
- Selection Committee to finalize a list of three potential candidates for that constituency who could be considered by the party for the ticket, through a secret ballot.
- Party’s State President and the campaign committee to review, prioritize and rank the three candidates, as per their opinion (no changes / additions allowed).
- Central Parliamentary Board to select the final candidate, based on their internal deliberations, from within the prioritized set of three for each constituency (they can overrule and change candidates in not more than say 5% of the seats, and go outside the recommended list, but only on an exception basis).
As one can see, the candidate nominated through the above process will not only carry much greater acceptability amongst the workers within that constituency, but also eliminate (or at least minimize) dissidence and control the scourge of rebel candidates.
Wrong candidate selection is an under-appreciated and often ignored cause of defeat. Most voters ignored bad candidates in the Modi wave of 2014, but the fallout of this is that the party is seen to have a shallow talent pool for ministerial posts.
The party needs to take a strategic call that it will not enter any state assembly contest without a pre-declared CM candidate. This means that even in Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala, it needs to declare a candidate, even though it doesn’t have a chance of winning the election. This is to send out a message that the party is serious about that state. The “high command”-selected candidates are struggling to get acceptability, and hence an inclusive process is required. The process could be as follows:
- State Executive to elect the CM candidate through a secret ballot based on certain criteria (like number of years in the party, having won an election at any level in that state in the past, etc).
- Parliamentary Board to accept the elected candidate from the state (but based on some conditionalities – see next section).
Joint responsibility and accountability
The campaign for a state election has to be completely owned and managed by a committee consisting of the CM candidate, the State President, the Organizing Secretary, the senior-most LS MP from that state, and the State-in-Charge from the party. The face of the election must be the declared CM candidate and not the central leadership. Some of the conditionalities to this responsibility are as follows:
- All states of the Union to be divided into “must-win” (e.g. Gujarat, Maharashtra, MP), and “growth” (e.g. Kerala, Assam, Bengal, NE states).
- If the party loses an election in a “must-win” state, then Party President, Organizing Secretary, and the State-in-Charge, must resign from their posts, and the CM candidate will not be eligible for the following two election cycles. (In a growth state this condition can be relaxed).
- If the party loses an election in a “must-win” state, then it must declare a Shadow CM candidate (selection to be done by the same process as described above, but not the losing CM candidate).
No institution can function with the concept of “collective responsibility” and no consequence. The same process must be followed in the Centre for the Parliamentary elections, i.e. must have a pre-declared PM candidate (to be elected by the National Executive through a secret ballot), a Shadow PM (not the losing PM candidate) if the Party is out of power, and the National President and the Organizing Secretary must resign after losing an election. Without responsibility and accountability, no lessons ever get learnt.
The Margdarshak Mandal has become a bit of a joke, as it seems it was created more to accommodate the “seniors” and get them out of the Parliamentary Board, than for any other higher purpose. It is a good idea, implemented badly, and the intentions were not the most honest. Given the respect that “elders” still command in India (despite the recent rebellion), not setting it right and atrophying this advisory body is not only bad optics but also bad politics.
The Mandal should be converted into an annual performance review and advisory body for the party, leveraging on the experience of these elders, and getting feedback and suggestions. The mandate of the Mandal should be to review the performance, based on individual presentations to be made to them, for the following functionaries:
- All MPs of the party (LS and RS)
- All Ministers of the Union Government
- All Party CMs and Shadow CMs.
- All Cabinet Ministers of State Governments (where the party is in power)
- All Party State Presidents
- All Party State-in-charges
A report on each of the above functionaries would be sent to the Party President, and the Parliamentary Board would take this into account when considering these people for additional responsibilities. The Margdarshak Mandal should also present a report to the Party on its activities during a National Executive meeting.
The objective behind this suggestion is not just to find some productive work for the elders in the Margdarshak Mandal, but also to put in place an accountability in each party functionary (which is seriously lacking).
A similar mechanism (State Margsarshak Mandal) needs to be created in each state where the party has been in power for long, to review the performance of the MLAs, Ministers, etc. Anti-incumbency, when it builds up against a candidate, can be fatal to the overall results in an election.
While some of these points are not directly related to the fallout of the Bihar election, these are long-term corrective actions that the party needs to take to strengthen its sinews as it battles impossible odds. The left liberal ecosystem is fighting a last-ditch battle, and a weakened party with a lack of institutional processes will not live up to the expectations of its supporters.
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