From its 2014 levels of dominance, the BJP’s strength has waned over the years with Congress’ Rahul Gandhi pushing the ruling party hard on several issues.
The future doesn’t have to be disappointing for the BJP – but it needs to do these four things urgently in the run-up to the 2019 general election.
Swarajya’s editorial director, R Jagannathan, makes an astute observation. “If one were to look back at Modi’s career from his days as Gujarat chief minister to 2014, one fact stands out: he has reinvented himself every five years,” he writes.
From the infamous “Hum paanch, hamare pachees (We five, our 25)” dig in 2002 to campaigning on fulfilling the promise of 24x7 power supply in rural Gujarat in 2007 to presenting himself as a secular (‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’) leader with a grand vision for a “New India” (100 smart cities, Make in India, Digital India, bullet trains, small government), who comes with pro-business credentials in 2012 and 2014 to transforming himself into a messiah for the ‘Dalit, peedit, shoshit, vanchit, adivasi’ after the opposition’s “Suit-boot ki sarkar” jibe in 2015, Modi has worn and discarded many hats.
It’s important for a politician to constantly reinvent himself, especially in India, where politicians tend to stay in public life for decades. Atal Bihari Vajpayee entered Parliament in 1957 and remained active till 2007. That’s 50 years. Lal Krishna Advani is going strong at the age of 91. Parkash Singh Badal, who was Punjab’s chief minister till last year, had first held this post in 1970 when Bangladesh was still East Pakistan. And no one should be surprised if he is looking to serve another term. Sharad Pawar is still the top Maratha leader. He was first elected to the Maharashtra Assembly in the same year as when Indira Gandhi became prime minister. Rahul Gandhi has seen more seasons as a young leader than many first-time voters in 2019 would have in total.
Reinventing yourself may not have been as crucial in the last century as it is today because, due to rapid growth, we are effectively getting a radically new nation every 10 years. Modi understands this better than anyone else. Even his harshest critics would testify to his unmatched political instincts.
The populist post-2015 Modi was in no mood to reinvent himself that soon after the general election. He had everything going for him. Demonetisation delivered the biggest electoral prize of Uttar Pradesh in 2017 and how. He got 17 crore votes in 2014. And the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s calculation was that since it has delivered some tangible benefit to over 22 crore people directly in some form – most of them who weren’t even the party’s core voters – the 2019 election was all but sealed.
It’s no wonder that Modi wasn’t talking about 2019 but 2022 – the year for ushering in a “New India” to coincide with India’s seventy-fifth anniversary of independence. He would have shifted gears only by then to position himself for the 2024 battle.
One hopes that the recent drubbing in assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan has shaken such self-assured hubris that was inflicting the party high command. Modi needs a course correction. But changing horses mid-race is not the smart thing to do. He only needs to tweak his strategy. He is still the favourite. Addressing a few disgruntled constituencies would do. An overhaul is not required. Here’s what he should do.
First, set up a national campaign team of professionals under your direct supervision. According to party insiders, Amit Shah doesn’t want to have a Prashant Kishore’s Citizens for Accountable Governance-style parallel operation this time when he is the party president. But this is not a matter of choice as it is of necessity. The party and the Prime Minister’s campaign can be run separately, like in 2014, with the latter dedicated to having initiatives around brand Modi. Even if the campaign is to be integrated, the Modi-Shah duo must make sure that there is razor-sharp focus on setting the strategy, framing the message, and generating creative content aimed at winning your disgruntled voters back.
Once this is set, everyone from the Prime Minister to panna pramukh must stick to it, come high or hell water. Currently, everyone is going off on a tangent. One wonders what purpose does Arun Jaitley want to serve by talking about inheritance tax just three months ahead of the election? Why does it take four days for the government to clarify that it has no plans to set an upper-age limit for Union Public Service Commission aspirants suggested by NITI Aayog?
Then, one minister is talking about a population control bill. Some are busy assigning this or that caste to Hanuman. This free-for-all campaign should be stopped immediately. There can’t be a bigger sin for a politician to be off-message and BJP netas are committing harakiri on a daily basis.
Second, the party should work on addressing the concerns of various groups starting with their core vote bank. The government had started making all the right noises on the goods and services tax (GST). While paring down the 28 per cent slab is a welcome move, the more vexing issue is the complexity of paperwork. In addition, Modi should pre-empt the Congress, which seems to be in the process of promising the moon to the traders in the form of a GST 2.0.
It’s not possible to make radical changes before the election, but if Modi announces a reform road map for the next two years, it should be enough to win back traders. The other big constituency that Modi needs to address is the youth and, in particular, first-time voters.
In 2013, Modi kick-started his national campaign from New Delhi’s top college, Shri Ram College of Commerce. But after becoming prime minister, they seemed to be missing from his worldview. On Make In India, Digital India, Startup India, Stand up India, minimum government, bringing back black money, jobs, etc, Modi doesn’t have much to show for in comparison to the hype some of these initiatives have generated.
On top of that, millions of students studying for the board exams and government entrance exams such as the Staff Selection Commission have had to witness state incompetency in conducting exams. The number of advertised posts have been cut drastically. Modi needs to start talking to the youth again. He must paint a picture of an India they can relate to. He can’t afford to let them sit home in 2019 or opt for NOTA or “None of the Above”.
Modi also needs to give something to the lakhs of core Hindu party cadres to feel enthused about. It’s these foot soldiers who ensure a turnout on election day and they can make a decisive difference.
And then there are farmers. Though not traditionally a part of the BJP’s support base, discontent in this constituency also needs to be quelled. If not to win hearts, they must at least be appeased so they don’t vote en masse against the party. The narrative of rural distress, which – make no mistake – has a basis in reality, is also having a negative impact on new voters the BJP has worked hard to get on its side by way of schemes such as Jan Dhan, Ujjwala, Awas, etc.
The government is contemplating a Telangana-like farm input support scheme, where each landowner gets direct cash transfer of Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,000 per acre twice a year. This will be more than enough to not only quell the discontent but bring the farmers firmly on to Modi’s side. The alternative that the Congress is promising – farm loan waivers – is an idea which costs a lot and doesn’t do much for the farmer ultimately. Anything less than a big-bang announcement from the government will continue to sour the mood and worsen the situation.
Third, the Prime Minister needs to start communicating more. Not necessarily to the media, but to the people – and especially to the youth and first-time voters. Not explaining himself and his policies has been his biggest weakness. He has shrouded himself in secrecy and allowed Rahul Gandhi to rise, at least on social media.
This bubble can be pricked, though, if the Prime Minister starts taking Gandhi on. He is making the same mistake the Congress made while dealing with him. The party kept demonising him while the Gandhis thought Modi was too small to be worthy of their mention. The BJP loves to ridicule Rahul Gandhi, but the Prime Minister is not willing to take him on outside of the political rallies, perhaps because he doesn’t consider him worth his time. This doesn’t mean he should let his opponent set the agenda and walk all over him with the force of propaganda and fake news.
A large part of Modi’s communication strategy in the next three months should be to engage directly with the youth, farmers, and traders in small gatherings. Setting aside politics, he should talk to them openly. Admit to shortcomings and commit to correct the mistakes over time. Address as many town hall meetings with these sections as the number of rallies he is planning. And no, video conferencing isn’t as effective.
Forth, the party in general and Modi in particular must think about how to reinvent the BJP’s Hindutva strategy for the twenty-first century. Not doing so will mean ceding space to electoral Hindus like Gandhi, who believe that they can shed their party’s anti-Hindutva image through temple runs because that’s what the BJP does. Within the party, not having a proper road map has led to all sorts of elements pushing their own version of Hindutva, creating more controversy but generating little quality debate.
The BJP makes a lot of noise over the cow, but there is no clear strategy on how to create a viable economic system around cows. Some roads and cities have been renamed, but there is no policy to do so for all areas that need such exercise. This approach would end the matter then and there instead of stoking a controversy every few months, again creating much noise but achieving little.
If you are against public displays of religiosity, why issue such orders only in one city instead of passing a state-wide order? Why focus only on the Ram temple while ignoring hundreds of other such sites where temples were destroyed and mosques erected?
The BJP must define what Hindutva means to it and what it means in terms of policy decisions when it is in power. The record is currently stuck at Ram temple, a uniform civil code, and Article 370. It has got a shot at power twice and wasted more than 10 years of political capital with nothing to show for it. The party must present an alternative, coherent road map soon.
In the short term, the only simple mantra to follow is: stop alienating people with nonsense. Lose no votes. Is it so difficult?
If the BJP can ace these four issues quickly and intelligently, there is no reason why it can’t win 282 seats again.