by Vembu Mar 3, 2013 06:52 IST
The proceedings at the BJP's national council meeting on Saturday - where Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was virtually anointed the party's 'General' for the 2014 election - signal that the party's senior leadership has learnt at least one key lesson from the defeat in the 2009 parliamentary elections. That lesson relates to the importance of projecting a leader who has the capacity to fire up its hardcore support base.
Modi spoke not one word at the meeting - that will be remedied on Sunday, when he addresses the council - but his was the name that virtually every leader invoked the most. And each such incantation of Modinama, with the tantalising suggestion of his imminent ascension as Prime Minister, drew thunderous ovation and spirited sloganeering from the party's supporters.
Clearly, BJP leaders sense that in Modi, they have a mascot who can energise the party's support base in a way that few others can. In fact, it appears that in this case, the senior party leadership has been under pressure from the cadres to embrace his candidacy more forcefully in the face of opposition from alliance partners like Nitish Kumar; the leaders are, in that sense, being 'led' by the followers.
Even so, the all-but-formal naming of Modi as the party's candidate for Prime Ministership suggests that the party is looking to exorcise the ghost of its failing on that front in 2009, which contributed to its defeat in parliamentary elections that year.
In the run-up to the 2009 election, the BJP had fallen into the error of believing that the patchy record of the Left-supported UPA government over the previous five years would be enough in itself to propel the BJP to power. It did not even formally name a Prime Ministerial candidate, although the smoke signals suggested it would be LK Advani, the old warhorse of the party's Ram temple campaign who had had to yield to AB Vajpayee in the late 1990s because the party needed a more moderate face than Advani's to head a coalition.
By 2009, Advani himself had moderated his political stance somewhat, but in his case, it worked against him, as did his advanced age (even though Indian parliamentary democracy is not unused to having octogenarians at the top). Worse, the BJP in 2009 was seized by policy schizophrenia, which compelled it to forsake some of its key achievements during its record in government from 1999 to 2004, from economic reforms to the shaping of a strategic partnership with the US.
In 2009, therefore, the party's core supporters were less than enthused, and particularly after the UPA government showed a bit of political verve in signing the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement in the face of opposition from the Left, the BJP lost political ground in even the urban constituencies, which it had come to believe were its for the taking. More inexplicably, for a party that trumpets itself as being tougher on terrorism (than the Congress), the BJP was unable to leverage the sense of insecurity among urban voters following the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai.
Party leaders today reckon that their projection of Modi as their candidate, so early in the election cycle, will bury the ghosts of the past, particularly since they see him as a winning ticket, someone who can help expand the party's support base to newer geographies beyond the BJP's traditional areas of strength.
And in coining the slogan 'Sushasan sankalp, BJP vikalp', with its emphasis on good governance, the party is looking to ride on the coat-tails of Modi, whose record on that front in Gujarat over the past decade has been acknowledged by all but the most diehard opponents of Modi. In fact, so perverse have the arguments of these 'deniers' become that the case is now being made that Modi should be kept out of possible Prime Ministership even at the cost of suffering poor governance for the next few years!
Such visceral opposition to Modi, and such an unabashed alibi for poor governance, will only serve to fire up the BJP's support base even further - and perhaps even persuade those at the centre who have no appetite for yet more of the UPA's record of abysmal record of poor governance and monumental corruption of recent years.
Yet, the BJP too is at risk of falling into a 'Modinama trap' if it falls into the error of assuming that invocation of his name (and in glowing terms) will be enough to secure it victory in 2014. To reach out to constituencies beyond its hardcore support base, the BJP will need to go beyond counting on the anti-cumbency factor that works against the UPA and in favour of the BJP. And although the identification of ''good governance" as its campaign theme, and its showcasing of the record of its Chief Ministers in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Goa, work to the BJP's advantage, it is at risk of overlooking the basics of formulating an alternative vision.
Indicatively, the party's economic resolution, outlined on Saturday (here), has come in for criticism from even confirmed supporters of the BJP for its failure to articulate a coherent alternative economic vision that mirrors the record of its most successful Chief Ministers. If anything, it seeks to pander to populist economic instincts, which - more than anything else - of the sort that underlies the UPA government's poor record of economic management in recent years. Ironically, the BJP's embrace of populism comes at just about the same time as the UPA government appears to have learnt the lessons from the folly of its ways.
It's possible to argue that the fine print of policymaking counts for little in the larger scheme of thing when it comes to elections. Yet, it's just as true that in 2009, the BJP was wrong-footed by the UPA on a foreign policy issue - the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement - which is typically not known to influence voting behaviour. That failing lost it substantial support in the urban constituencies.
For sure, the projection of Modi gives the BJP a head-start in the campaign for 2014, and has the capacity to coalesce the campaign themes around the promise of good governance. But going by the proceedings at the national council meeting on Saturday, it is fair to say that an excessive reliance on Modi-mania - at the expense of attention to details of policy articulation - is not without risks for the BJP.
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