2019 is more difficult for the BJP than 2004, but it is not 2004.
The BJP will bat on a much stronger wicket, with more self-confidence than 2004, thanks to Modi and Shah.
What about 2019? – When Prime Minister Narendra Modi took his oath to office on 26 May 2014, this was the very first question that a lot of his vocal supporters asked. Here was a brilliant, hard-fought historic victory to celebrate. Instead, the quintessential human emotions of fear and greed took over almost immediately among the supporters.
This was not a surprise. The vocal online Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters fall in two categories. First, there are the old bloggers and internet forum residents from the Vajpayee-Advani-Shourie school, who have been waging online battles to shape a centre-of-right social and economic discourse. Second, there are supporters who voted for Atal Behari Vajpayee or grew up in his era, switched off from politics after he lost, and found their voice again when social media became politically weaponised earlier this decade.
Both these supporter sets have one thing in common – the ghost of 2004.
The Vajpayee government was a classic textbook centre-of-right government, undoing Nehruvian socialism in bits and pieces. This government also worked on creating significant infrastructure assets, which still remain the template to follow for other governments. Vajpayee was a tall leader, acceptable to most sections of society, and was a shoo-in for another term in 2004. The “India Shining” campaign convinced the BJP supporters – especially of the second variety – that we had turned a corner and the BJP was here to stay. It didn’t. The Vajpayee government was voted out, and what followed was a decade of ultra-socialist, deracinating, soul-sapping decay.
Narendra Modi’s dream march to Delhi was so grand and comprehensive that the supporters’s first instinct was to preserve the dream forever rather than revel in it. The fear psychosis of losing the 2019 Lok Sabha election gripped the supporters as soon as Modi stood up in the Rashtrapati Bhavan to say “Mai, Narendra Damodardas Modi…” Eighteen months before the D-day, this frenzy is at the peak – what about 2019?
Momentum is critical to Indian politics, where a party on the upswing can continue to build a positive feedback loop. Winning local bodies and states can always help a party nationally – especially so in the age of constant media and social media exposure. Additionally, Indian elections are a mix of governance narrative, high-pitched emotions, near-term factors and influences, and polling-day mobilisation, each of these areas playing their role in driving the end result.
Analysis of each of these factors shows that 2019 is no 2004; the political lexicon has significantly changed between then and now. The causes for the 2004 loss – and there is a long list – are not in play in 2019.
Winning is a habit. This applies to cricket as much as politics. Ravi Shastri has told his listeners about the importance of winning consistently in cricket. Amit Shah has been doing this for politics.
For Shah, the approach to state politics has been very different from that of his predecessors. In 2014, going into that year’s general election, Rahul Gandhi had mocked the BJP as a four-state party. Today, the tables have turned. The BJP and its allies now control 19 states with 14 BJP chief ministers. The party governs 68 per cent of the population. Congress, on the other hand, has been reduced to governing Punjab, Karnataka, Meghalaya, Mizoram and the Union Territory of Puducherry. The party will be defending Karnataka, Meghalaya and Mizoram in 2018.
The obsession with which the BJP has taken up the ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ project is a complete contrast to the Vajpayee term. At that time, the BJP was largely a north-Indian party, relying on allies elsewhere in the country.
The BJP had an uninspiring stint in Uttar Pradesh, where it lost power to friend-turned-foe Mayawati in 2002. The Vajpayee era was also seen as the Brahmin-Bania era of the BJP. Kalyan Singh, an OBC (other backward classes) leader, spent time outside the BJP between 1999 and 2004. Getting its caste arithmetic and social appeal wrong in the largest Indian state was politically criminal. The Lok Sabha results were a shocker – the party won only 10 seats of the potential 80.
Delhi, the hub of all media narratives, was lost to Sheila Dixit in 1998 after one BJP term, which dominated the 2004 Lok Sabha election too. In Gujarat, the party could convert only half the seats, most popularly explained as an after-effect of the 2002 riots. In marginal states like Haryana, Jharkhand and Himachal Pradesh, the party again performed poorly.
In two other large states, Bihar and Maharashtra, the BJP had poor state-level strategies. In the 2000 state election in Bihar, the BJP was the second-largest party behind Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal. That opportunity was not used to build a state cadre. It won only five of the 40 seats in the 2004 Lok Sabha election. In Maharashtra, the BJP-Shiv Sena combine were within striking distance of forming a government after the 1999 election. Instead, they decided not to work together and gave an opening to the Congress. The BJP could have become more entrenched in the state in 1999 itself, but chose to play second fiddle to Shiv Sena. Consequently, it only won 13 seats out of 48 in the 2004 Lok Sabha.
The alliance strategies were either completely missing or were disasters where they were implemented. The BJP had nothing to show in (then united) Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Only in Odisha, the party salvaged a few seats through the Biju Janata Dal alliance.
The only gains came from the states which had polled in 2003. In Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the party retained its primacy four months after the assembly elections. Karnataka was the only south-Indian state where the BJP won a large share of seats.
All in all, the party reaped no state-level dividends of being in power at the centre. It could neither further the organisation nor add new states to its kitty.
On the contrary, the BJP has the strongest vote-catchers in the country. The persona and the cult of Modi are not very different from that of Indira Gandhi, and the duo would outshine every other leader on personal popularity in independent India. Modi will make the 2019 election about himself in a significant way – it will be a referendum on him, and by all accounts he continues to be extremely popular even in states where the BJP is not strong. Additionally, the party now has big vote-catchers regionally in Yogi Adityanath, Devendra Fadnavis, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, B S Yeddyurappa and Vasundhara Raje. And then there are a host of central leaders and new-generation ministers who can influence proceedings in their states.
Vajpayee, to the contrary, was over-reliant on the oratory of Lal Krishna Advani and the planning of Pramod Mahajan. His other satraps did not have a big mass base. And he himself was not young enough to cover the length and breadth of the country to seek votes.
If the BJP does well in the 2018 state polls, it could be governing every single state in India, wherever it has some base. This is of course the best-case scenario, assuming it wins Karnataka and retains Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Congress is not down and out in any of the four states, and in fact will have an upper hand in Karnataka and Rajasthan as things stand today. A lot will depend on the Karnataka result in April-May, as it is the last big state for Congress. This is also the last source of its funding, and if it loses Karnataka, the chances of a December wipe-out in the north will increase.
Congress will fight a battle for relevance in 2018. And BJP will be four strikes away from its dream of “Congress-mukt Bharat”. To paraphrase Ravi Shastri – something’s got to give. Either way, BJP will enter 2019 with greater control than Congress.
The Vajpayee government was the classic trickle down government. He invested in roads in urban and rural India. There was divestment of public sector units. The simplification of laws across a wide range of areas like power, pensions and fiscal management kicked in. Each of them stood the country in good stead over the next few years. But what difference did it make to a voter in the next voter cycle was neither designed, nor messaged. This was left to the market forces of trickle-down effect as behooved a Shourie-Yashwant-Jaswant government. The trickle-down did of course kick-in, but it was a couple of years too late! Manmohan Singh made the most of it. The most popular 2004 debacle theory is that the India Shining campaign was too loud, too early, and too aloof.
Modi’s government approach and the campaign that will come out of it differ in four fundamental ways.
Firstly, he has used a combination of big and small policy measures as opposed to only the big ones in Vajpayee times. There’s a goods and services tax (GST), but there’s also no interviews for lower level government jobs. He talks about both equally passionately.
Secondly, Modi has created parallel delivery structures, where root cause solutions were not possible. Since black money was a problem, he is promoting a digital economy. Since healthcare delivery is bad, he appeals for a Swachh Bharat. In India, root cause solutions are politically unpalatable and take time to be effective. Modi is obviating or minimising the problems for the future, rather than historic clean up focus.
Thirdly, Modi is working on scale when it comes to areas of visible change. Be it promoting electric vehicles via central tenders or card payments by waiving off merchant discount rates on small-value transactions, his style is to create talking points which touch most citizens quickly. This makes for better political stories where such ideas work – of course not all ideas will work.
Fourthly, Modi has maintained a last mile focus. His changes across rural electrification, enhancing LPG net, increasing financial inclusion, and affordable homes, have a here and now feel as opposed to the legislation driven reform approach in the Vajpayee times.
A typical Vajpayee narrative was – ‘we built roads, which provide market access, passage to better education and healthcare, and safety. India is shining’. A Modi narrative – and he will have many to talk about – will say ‘here’s your pakka house with a toilet, gas cylinder to cook and power to charge your mobile, with data access right in your village’. Whether or not Modi’s approach works in 2019 is a different question. But he will talk about tangible, benefits-delivered-today view in the 2019 campaign.
High Pitched Emotions
When PM Modi spoke about Pakistan links to the Gujarat polls or the shamshan-kabristan dichotomy in the Uttar Pradesh polls, the conventional, templatised media discourse termed it a sign of desperation. The commentators make the same mistake every election – Modi is just expanding the Overton window of Indian political discourse. He has no Vajpayee-era hesitancy in calling out controversial topics which have high local impact when weighed against larger national interpretation of his words.
On the 2004 loss theory, the 2002 Gujarat riots kept the urban voters away and there was general discomfort in the national discourse talking about controversial topics. The voters apparently preferred to brush things under the carpet of ignorance rather than tackling the problem head on.
In Modi’s era, there are expanded boundaries of what’s acceptable as a public statement. He assures full neutrality of governance, but is not apologetic about his religion, beliefs and words.
In keeping with the times, Vajpayee did not call out the Pervez Musharraf bluff at Agra or underplayed the Godhra train burning, which started the Gujarat riots. In keeping with the times, Rahul Gandhi became a janeudhari Brahmin in Gujarat, visited 27 temples impacting 87 assembly elections and even won 47 of these seats. If Modi pushes the envelope further, there may well be a bipartisan consensus on the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya before 2019!
The 2004 campaign was a mild one – no difficult topics were raised by the BJP. The opposition of course had no such pretence and guilt-tripped the government on all kinds of real and imagined shortcomings. In 2019, the campaign will be harsher. Media will complain about polarisation, opposition will play the caste card, and the loud chattering classes will worry about the campaign language. This will however be the new normal.
Near Term Stimuli
The famous Bollywood director Manmohan Desai is often attributed with variants of this quote – ‘a movie needs to have an item every 8 minutes to keep audience engaged’. By item, Desai meant anything substantial – a great song, an impactful dialogue or a plot twist.
Modi understands this need to keep his voters engaged. His interventions have a prime-time focus, because what’s being done needs to be seen and heard, and its scale appreciated. He also does not shy away from taking unconventional decisions as is amply demonstrated by his Lahore visit, the surgical strikes in Pakistan and Myanmar, demonetisation, and strong arm tactics in rooting out the Kashmir militants.
The Vajpayee government was dealing with significantly negative events all through 2002. Gujarat riots, losses in Operation Parakram, and droughts in many parts of the country had already sapped a lot of government energy. To top it, there were administrative problems. Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha – two key ministers in the Vajpayee government – swapped their portfolios in 2002, which led to a refocus of both the external affairs strategy as well as the economy. In 2003, the year before the election, Vajpayee spent significant time trying to normalise relations with Pakistan. At a time when the economy had started to recover, the government was looking outwards. Also the governance energy – and Vajpayee government was in the traditional Delhi mould of doing things sequentially – was spent on fundamentally important but apolitical legislation like the FRBM Act and the Electricity Act in 2003 – both of which required heavy lobbying with the states.
Modi conversely spent all his energies in the first year resetting the foreign policy framework and recalibrating expectations. He will spend all of 2018 with domestic policies and politics. And will perhaps bring in his items for 2018. Income tax relief for salaried class, agriculture supply chain deregulation, universal basic income, foreign policy wins, political opponents tackled head on with legal options, and Ram Mandir – the list of possibilities is long. Only Modi knows what’s in store, but it is safe to assume that 2018 will not be a plain year.
Polling Day Mobilisation
Get out the vote (GOTV) is a popular theme for political parties in many countries. When the British Labour Party leader Ian Mikardo gave rise to the reading method of GOTV in 1945, Modi and BJP president Amit Shah were not yet bon. Yet the Mikardo sheets – list of all supporters pinned on large central displays in party offices – now have their own equivalent in Shah’s panna pramukh strategy in India. In Mikardo’s era, specific parts of these lists called Shuttleworth, were handed over to the GOTV volunteers, who would ensure that all potential supporters definitely voted. Shah has exactly the same role for the panna pramukhs.
Author Prashant Jha in his book How The BJP Wins calls this single-minded focus on election battles a product of boundless, unlimited ambition of Modi and Shah. Jha quotes a BJP leader in his book saying “Atalji and Advaniji grew up at a time of Congress hegemony. They were always reconciled to the territorial limits of the BJP. Both Modi and Shah are different. They are ruthlessly expansionist, in terms of both territorial limits and social base”.
This relentless pursuit of election wins from panchayat to Parliament is very different from the BJP of 2004. In that era, electoral strategists looked at a macro picture, with broad brushstrokes of messaging being used in campaigns. In 2019, the BJP campaign will be hyper-local, just like the 2014 campaign. Different issues will be raised in each state, possibly differentiated even by constituencies.
The party of course remains heavily dependent on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) volunteers for the election-day voter mobilisation. But under Shah, the party also has developed a structure and a method to this process. RSS can still make or mar the D-Day, but the coordination between the parent and the offspring has been assiduous under Modi and Shah. The two organisations have not been at cross-purpose barring stray incidents, and this convergence of interest will be crucial for 2019.
A popular 2004 loss theory is that the RSS was upset with the relatively soft-line Vajpayee and did not deploy its full strength to canvas and mobilise voters. The chances of such an event repeating in 2019 will be significantly lesser.
A significant asset which the BJP has built since Modi was anointed as the putative prime ministerial candidate in 2013 is its large volunteer network across the country. The BJP supporters – mostly salaried individuals across states, age, gender and castes – are passionate political followers. They sometimes quibble and complain on Twitter, but they are mostly aligned with the singular ambition of seeing 2019 through. Despite the 2019 FOMO, which shows up regularly on social media, these volunteer networks will be a big strength for the party.
Several of these networks are already mobilising to campaign for Modi. One such initiative is currently planned by a Twitter user Piyush Kulshreshtha (@ThinkersPad), where he and his team is organising a social media meet up in Ayodhya on 24 and 25 February. He has already got more than 500 registrations for this event. People are willing to spend their own money and travel the length and breadth of India to reach Ayodhya to kick-off the #Modi2019 campaign.
Congress and other opposition routinely dismiss this social media command of the BJP as a paid effort. In fact, most of the online supporters of the party end up spending own money and time for their passion. This is a classic marketing example of an entrenched brand unable to understand the dynamics of how ‘earned media’ works. Congress has definitely improved its own and paid media game, but it is nowhere close to the BJP when it comes to attracting salaried citizens craving for an electoral win.
As 2019 approaches, these networks will galvanise further and will be a big asset for the campaign. Vajpayee missed this on-ground network in 2004. In fact, most of the salaried supporters may not even have voted in 2004, assuming a win was certain.
Despite so many positives, a Modi win is not necessarily guaranteed. There can be both systemic as well as extraneous reasons. A bad monsoon in 2018, a limited confrontation with an angry post-Doklam China, or an oil shock – all of which are possible – have huge potential downsides for the BJP. A completely united opposition like the one which contested against Indira Gandhi in 1977 can potentially dent the BJP prospects in two-cornered fight. If the BJP fails to open new states like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Odisha and Kerala, it will face a downward pressure on its 2014 tally.
And finally, there are the social factors which may make life difficult for the party. In a battle fought amidst caste wars in Gujarat, the party actually increased its vote share while losing 17 seats from its 2012 tally. Similar agitations can easily be orchestrated in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana – states where the dominant landed castes usually do not or only partially back the BJP. Congress has nothing to lose and it will throw kitchen-sink at the 2019 election. It can quite easily create clones of Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mevani from its semi-successful Gujarat experiment, fuelling widespread caste unrest. Unfortunately for the political commentators and talking heads in media, scorched earth policies do not destroy the fabric of Indian democracy, only a BJP upsurge does!
2019 is more difficult for the BJP than 2004 but it is not 2004. BJP will bat on a much stronger wicket, with more self confidence than 2004, thanks to Modi and Shah. They have learnt from history and are personally far more invested in a repeat win than Vajpayee and his team was. 2004 was a battle of a strong Congress against a Congress-like fledgling BJP. 2019 will be about an organic, strong, new-mould BJP versus a strong collective anti-BJP ecosystem led by a weak Congress.
If, however, the BJP does win, Modi and Shah can rest assured that the first question their committed supporters will ask will be – What about 2024?