3-0 To Congress: The Lessons BJP Should And Should Not Be Drawing From Yesterday’s Defeat 

3-0 To Congress: The Lessons BJP Should And Should Not Be Drawing From Yesterday’s Defeat Congress president Rahul Gandhi with party leaders during a press conference after the party’s win in the assembly elections on 11 December 2018 in New Delhi. (Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via GettyImages) 
Snapshot
  • To decipher each election loss, the BJP needs an extraordinary combination of confidence and humility on the part of the leadership and a feedback mechanism on part of the organisation.

The 2018 assembly election results in five states, where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost three states, came as a bitter disappointment for many of the loyal supporters of the party. The Congress supporters, on the other hand, used to losses in a one-on-one contest with the BJP, were understandably ecstatic for an achievement they could finally show in their party president Rahul Gandhi’s column.

As these polls were touted as semi-finals to the 2019 general elections, many people from either side of the aisle have taken the results as a firm sign that the Narendra Modi magic is on the wane and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is unlikely to get a second term.

While these states, which usually go to polls ahead of the general elections, have thrown up mixed bellwether predictions (in 2003, all three, and 2008, two out of three voted for the party that went on to lose the subsequent general elections) in the past, and while the margins for defeats, except in Chhattisgarh, have been much narrower for the BJP than their margins of victory in 2013, alarm bells still must have rung out in the BJP headquarters.

Some observations follow.

To start with, the chatter in cultural right social media circles that these elections were lost due to BJP’s apathy towards its ‘core’ voters is worrisome.

First, it is too soon to make any kind of root cause analysis for the loss, which means everyone is flying by the seat of their pants. If anything, the anecdotal evidence suggests that the party is doing well electorally in states with developmental focus (Maharashtra), while it actually lost the Gorakhpur by-elections, a seat due to it being held by the cultural right’s mascot Yogi Adityanath should qualify as ground zero for cultural renaissance.

However, what is more worrisome is every electoral loss for BJP is seen as an opportunity by these ‘core’ proponents to increase their noise. As most of them have healthy social media following as well as reasonable platform at events like lit-fests/conclaves etc, this theory can get traction and that in turn can harm the party’s election strategies as it is likely to be based on faulty input.

To a certain extent, interviews like the one Piyush Goyal gave to Rajiv Malhotra and the interview of Dr Satyapal Singh to Swarajya provided certain legitimacy and enhanced visibility to a few boutique causes.

There is a large section of BJP supporters, often mocked by the ‘core’ group as ‘andhbhakts’ and ‘toadies’ that has stood with the party due to its focus on development and antyoday. If the ‘core’ advocates are allowed to hijack the narrative, this development minded base might feel abandoned and eventually begin to drift away. As the numerical damage is likely to be much larger in case this group is lost, the party would do well to maintain distance from the ‘core’ causes unless sufficient evidence of public support exists (like it does in case of Ram temple).

Similarly, I think the top brass would do well using Yogi Adityanath as a campaigner outside the state much more sparingly than they are at the moment. First of all, Adityanath has a lot of problems in his own state to contend with. Also, as R Jagannathan has pointed out here, his impact on the cadre seems much more than the electorate itself and therefore sending him to talk to voters outside Uttar Pradesh might not be the optimum use of his talents.

The other factor that should raise a red flag, and this has been recurring since Gujarat polls last year, is the inefficiency of votes gained. The narrow margins in vote shares between Congress and BJP (in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan) are cold comfort since BJP’s net vote share dipped substantially, and also it means Congress received votes in a more efficient manner considering the first past the post system.

In 2014 and in the UP assembly election, BJP had done this vote distribution very well. Is it something that has sort of fallen off the radar or something that can no longer be done? I am really not sure. But it is certainly something worth thinking over.

External strategy-wise, while many people even sympathetic to BJP, feel these wins are a vindication of Congress’s faith in their president and consequently, attacking him constantly was a bad strategy for BJP, I would advise treading carefully before drawing these broad inferences. Is there an uptick in Rahul Gandhi’s popularity, one that could be measured with something other than election results of states with three terms of anti-incumbency? Or is this success a case of a stopped clock being right twice in a day?

The fact is, last year in Gujarat and this year in Karnataka, Congress did lose momentum when the narrative turned into a clash of titans between Modi and Rahul Gandhi. Did Congress ecosystem play it smart this time and kept the election focused on local issues including anti-incumbency? It certainly felt that way to me. I still feel, in a fight for choosing the leader of the country, BJP would reap dividends focusing on the difference in ability, track-record and personal character of the two leaders and one can only hope one loss doesn’t cower the party into abandoning what has worked well for them.

In 2019, a large section of first-time voters, people in their teens and early twenties, will cast their votes. World over, younger people tend to be influenced by the popular culture and as left holds sway over it, these voters tend to lean left at least in their first few elections.

The fact that Congress has youth in its ranks in the form of Rahul Gandhi himself along with leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot will make them feel good about this. Can the BJP counter this by using young leaders like Devendra Fadanavis and Himanta Biswa Sarma more in their campaign? How will the party counter the cultural onslaught by left through their stand-up comedians and Bollywood?

Unfortunately, on this count, the cultural right has been a big let-down and while the reason for their failures can be many, and BJP may have to shoulder some of the blame, the fact remains, when it comes to authors, actors and entertainers, the left nurtures and uses them far more effectively than the right. Countering this effectively will require some deft message manoeuvring on the part of BJP president Amit Shah and his team.

Two relatively less noticed outcomes of this result cycle are worth pondering over from strategy viewpoint too. One was the decimation of Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Telangana and the other is Congress’s loss in Mizoram that marks their exit from the north eastern states.

The TDP debacle must be seen in the context of how allying with Congress might harm a regional party. This loss not only dealt a blow to Chandrababu Naidu’s ambition to play pivotal role in the anti Modi alliance, but it actually might end up letting Congress an entry into Andhra Pradesh where it had been completely marginalised.

Will this cannibalising of sorts play on the minds of regional satraps like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati come pre-poll alliance ahead of 2019? Can this be used by BJP’s messaging machine to make Congress a dangerous ally to join hands with? These are interesting questions that are likely to get answered over the next few months.

Similarly, while the Mizoram election was completely ignored among other high profile ones, the fact that Congress has completely lost its footing in the North East region means the party is still struggling to maintain their once national footprint. This region represents 25 seats in the LS and a good performance here will give a greater wiggle-room in the Hindi heartland where the NDA has suffered setbacks.

In today’s fractured polity, elections are a complex and often bewildering manifestations of complex adaptive systems with cause and effects often linked in remote and nearly incomprehensible manners. Each loss needs to be deciphered without either panicking or obstinately doubling down. This needs an extraordinary combination of confidence and humility on the part of the leadership and a working feedback mechanism on part of the organisation. BJP supporters will be hoping that both the above are in working order for their party.

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