Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Home Minister Amit Shah. (Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)
Snapshot
  • BJP is getting more votes than it ever has, but seats are barely increasing — often going down.

    The poor vote to seat conversion ratios across the board must worry the party.

November 2013. The ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the Centre is already in shambles. Narendra Modi’s star is undoubtedly rising. But in order to rally voters around him for a final push, he needs a knockout punch. Something spectacular to put the Congress on the mat and break its spirit.

The Congress ecosystem, though on the defensive, is sowing all sorts of doubts. Can the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win with Modi as the mascot outside of Gujarat? Will the nation ‘accept’ Modi?

These questions may sound unreal now, but they were very much around in late 2013. To neutralise them, the BJP needed to put up a show so convincing in the three Hindi heartland states (Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh) that the Congress ecosystem could not spin its way out of it.

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At the time, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh were already in the bag. But Chhattisgarh was not. The assembly is tiny. Raman Singh is a popular Chief Minister, but he is battling two-term incumbency. On top of that, the Congress is riding a huge sympathy wave after a Naxalite attack wiped out much of their state leadership in the summer.

In the first phase, 18 of the 90 assembly seats have already voted, 12 of them in Bastar. The saying goes that who wins Bastar rules over Chhattisgarh. The BJP must have known they were losing Bastar. And there were just seven days to go for the second and final phase of polls.

It is at this moment that BJP does something remarkable. Modi and Raman Singh fan out across the rest of the state, doing tiny rallies wherever possible (the population of Chhattisgarh is not high enough to support the kind of ‘massive’ rallies that we associate Modi with).

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In the course of five days, they turn the old saying on its head. The opposition has focused so much on winning Bastar that they have left the gate open in the remaining 65 plus seats mostly in central Chhattisgarh — most of all, in seats where the Congress is incumbent. Modi and Raman Singh focus on these seats, targeting local anti-incumbency against sitting Congress MLAs.

On counting day on 8 December 2013, the BJP is sweeping Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. But Chhattisgarh is a heart stopping contest with Congress seemingly ahead. Around 4 pm, one Congress inclined channel (guess who?) even stops its Chhattisgarh ticker because nobody knows what is happening any more. By 6:30 pm, the story is clear. The BJP has won 49 seats, as many as 10 more than the Congress’ 39 seats. The vote share gap? Less than 0.5 per cent.

Ask the BJP how important it was to snatch a win in Chhattisgarh in 2013. The stunning 3-0 scoreline, along with Congress’ wipeout in Delhi, sent the UPA packing even before the general election campaign started.

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There is a reason I went into so much vivid detail. Because it shows that in politics, the art of winning small is as important as the art of winning big.

Now consider what happened in Jharkhand yesterday (23 December). With 33.5 per cent, the BJP got even more votes than Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and Congress put together. But it ended up with just 25 seats out of 81. It won most of its seats with big margins, but lost almost every marginal seat.

This has been happening a lot. In Haryana in October, the BJP’s vote share was 9 per cent more than the Congress. A near double digit lead in vote share usually translates to a landslide. But the BJP did not even get a majority. It won 40 seats to the Congress 31.

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In Rajasthan last year, the Congress vote share was just 0.5 per cent more than the BJP. But the Congress won 99 seats and coasted to form a government, while BJP lagged far behind with just 73.

In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP actually won more votes than Congress, but got five less seats. Another state was lost to Congress.

In Gujarat, the BJP had an 8 per cent vote share lead, touching 50 per cent of the vote, but barely got a majority.

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In Karnataka, it was the same story, with BJP getting 104 seats, just short of the majority mark of 112. The Janata Dal Secular or JD(S) came in and formed the government with just 35 seats.

The poor vote to seat conversion ratios across the board must worry the BJP. The party is getting more votes than it ever has, but seats are barely increasing — often going down.

It is now the Congress that has perfected the art of surviving in the cracks.

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In politics, even playing dead can be a strategy. The party now offers to lie low and play second fiddle to anything that moves.

When BJP wins, it wins big — with 303 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP is able to do stunning things. In one election cycle, it takes Assam and the entire North East. The BJP enters Bengal, casually kicks aside the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI-M and Congress and becomes the main challenger to Trinamool.

The decades-old CPI-M government in Tripura is busted as BJP jumps in vote share from 2 per cent to 43 per cent. But the same BJP is unable to edge past the JMM and Congress in Jharkhand.

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How could this happen? It has to be failure of targeted messaging on the ground — some kind of micro level loss of narrative. It means that in tough contest seats, the party is unable to identify swing voters, tell them what they need to hear and get them to booths on voting day.

This indicates organisational weakness creeping in, maybe even an inability to focus on hyperlocal issues. There are always 1 per cent of voters who might be voting for something so simple as laying 100 metres of pucca road in their locality.

Some voters might just choose to rotate governments instinctively, by habit. Is the BJP failing to reach that 1-2 per cent sliver of voters in time?

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Perhaps, in one of life’s great ironies, the many ‘Modi waves’ have taken a toll on the mindset of BJP leaders, workers and supporters. The BJP contested 150 seats or so in Maharashtra and won 105. No party in Maharashtra has won 100 seats since 1990 (other than BJP itself, which got 122 in 2014).

But when the results came in, you could feel the gloom in BJP ranks. No wave?

Meanwhile, the Congress seemed elated. They had hit double digits.

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The sense of ‘loss’ in Maharashtra showed in the days after the verdict — even with an outright win. The Shiv Sena made most of the opportunity, and the Congress made it to power, even with a fourth place finish.

The many Modi waves seem to have primed the party, its workers and supporters to think only in terms of 2/3rd majorities or more. Winning so big that the other side can’t even get the post of the leader of the opposition. This simply cannot happen every time.

This is no longer funny and has become a serious problem. You can’t set the bar so high that you set yourself up for disappointment.

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Everyone knew that BJP was facing a tough battle in Jharkhand. The sense of being under pressure was supposed to bring out the best in the party’s spirit.

To fight to the last for every vote and every seat. Instead, did the lack of a wave cause the party to feel less enthused about the election?

Perhaps some BJP leaning voters were left sitting at home. Remember that just 1 per cent or so could have made a huge difference. The BJP could have crossed 30 seats. That might have been enough to form a government with All Jharkhand Students Union or AJSU, some independents and breakaways from Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik).

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This problem needs to be solved immediately. In its first term, Modi sarkar had one lucky advantage. The ‘incumbency cycles’ in many small states were actually in its favour: places such as Uttarakhand or Himachal Pradesh.

Additionally, it was going to be on the attack in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Assam and so many other places. All the way up to Karnataka, four years into Modi’s term.

This was important not just psychologically, but also logistically. Without its own state governments, the welfare schemes of the central government would never have been implemented.

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With the prominent exception of Bengal, the BJP enjoys no such luxury this time. Not until the very end of this second term, when we get to the familiar trio of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

We can expect that the attitude of non-BJP state governments will be one of total non-cooperation, even outright unconstitutional. Some are questioning the sovereignty of the Indian state in matters of citizenship law. At least one chief minister, who may or may not be of unsound mind, has called for the United Nations to intervene and hold a referendum.

With the BJP needing to be constantly on the defensive in this term, there are two valuable lessons. The first is that the party has to go back to the art of winning small. Of negotiating tricky situations with voters and winning tactical battles of narrative in every locality and street corner.

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The second is to remember that power is forever fickle. And that now is always the best time to implement the party’s agenda, both cultural and economic.

This article was first published on Dynastycrooks, and has been republished here with permission.

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