In 2024 Election, The BJP Came Up Against The Limits Of “Labharthi” Vote

Venu Gopal Narayanan

Jun 27, 2024, 05:57 PM | Updated Jul 02, 2024, 08:34 AM IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi
  • It is possible the BJP banked too strongly on the labharthi vote — beneficiaries of the numerous welfare schemes and the direct transfer system — and instilled too few new expectations in voters.
  • Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) failed to secure a simple majority on its own in the general election earlier this month, the media space has been flooded with a plethora of responses.

    The spectrum has ranged widely, from doleful despondency to gleeful crowing, via gratuitous advice, blinkered thinking, opinionated commentary, and sweeping statements.

    The crowing brigade is quite naturally led by the Congress party, whose own poor showing has been craftily spun into some sort of moral victory.

    Fair enough, let them have their moment. But if one’s repeated inability to secure anything near a popular mandate is treated as a measure of electoral success, merely because the other side slipped a bit, it is risibly reminiscent of an enduring, one-sided sporting rivalry.

    Although ice hockey is extremely popular in Norway, the national team has never been an international powerhouse, nor has it ever won an international championship trophy (their best performance was fourth place in 1951). Instead, as their self-deprecatory joke goes, the Norwegians are resigned to watching their neighbour and rival, Sweden, win trophy after trophy, and console themselves by saying, ‘It is less important that Norway wins, and more important that Sweden loses’.

    For the Congress, this old Viking joke is not just the new delusion into which they have cocooned themselves but an irony-free metaphor for their actual political reality as well. The 99 Lok Sabha seats they won in 2024 are not going to magically grow to 272 the next time around, especially if the party continues to practise its patented brand of politics.

    In fact, it is the provincial opposition parties who should be crowing the loudest; it is they who stopped the BJP in its tracks, and, lest we forget, helped the Congress win in well over a third of those 99 seats. Without them, the Congress would still be stuck at around 50 seats.

    Yet, others set off, like physicists searching for a unified field theory, in pursuit of that one, overarching, definitive reason for such truly unanticipated electoral outcomes.

    It is a fruitless task because an event of such great magnitude and diversity cannot be attributed to a single factor. To try and do so would be both reductionist and absurdly misleading. For example, the reason for the BJP’s setback in Maharashtra cannot be the reason for its stupendous success in Odisha.

    Similarly, perhaps too much is being made of an artificially generated video that said the BJP would end reservations if its coalition won more than 400 seats. Many believe, most earnestly, that this video spooked beneficiary communities into shifting their votes from the BJP to the opposition en masse.

    While artificial intelligence (AI) is admittedly the new menace of this digital age, the thesis doesn’t pass the logic test because if the video were indeed the reason why the BJP did relatively poorly in Uttar Pradesh, why did it sweep neighbouring Madhya Pradesh so majestically?

    Rather, we should infer that this search for the monocausal is a coping mechanism to explain away the dejecting results and just leave them be. Besides, they may be right to some extent in some regions.

    But it has now been over three weeks since the results were declared, and commentary is no substitute for analysis. The chatter has to stop. Someone has to stand up, admit that ‘Brand Modi’ did lose some of its sheen in important states like Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh (especially the latter), and then commence the arduous task of understanding why that happened.

    After all, if the BJP had held to form in just Uttar Pradesh alone, it would have crossed the halfway mark on its own.

    One possibility is that an astute social coalition stitched together for the 2014 general election with remarkable success was continued largely unchanged through the elections of 2019 and 2024, and thus became worn over time. Stasis is mutually exclusive to the political process.

    In 2014, it was bespoke electoral tailoring by a master political couturier. Every seam, every flap, shouted ‘class’. It was haute couture, the likes of which, frankly, India hadn’t seen before, and it worked brilliantly in countering the identity politics of the day. But wear the same vestment too often, or launder it too frequently, and it inevitably frays.

    Or was it that the BJP banked too strongly on the labharthi vote — beneficiaries of the numerous welfare schemes and the direct transfer system? If yes, it was a folly, as well as a lesson for the future: gratitude does not bring in the vote, only expectations do.

    The opposition may have instinctively sensed a simmering of that truism better than the BJP could, on account of its incipient Marxian underpinnings. This is why the BJP failed to pick the popular pulse in key areas, and also possibly why the opposition’s social coalitions worked in many seats. A case in point is their unexpected victory in Faizabad (Ayodhya).

    In that sense, we may infer that the limits of labharthi have been reached. While that is, by infinite irony, actually a measure of excellent administrative delivery of welfare, it also means that the BJP will now have to devise fresh policies and strategies to instill new expectations in more voters.

    People want more. They will always want more. Their yearning for earnings will never cease. It is human nature. Thus, a good starting point could possibly be an internal admission that a political party is not an FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) brand.

    Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.

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