Why the BJP needs a Plan B beyond Narendra Modi

It is common wisdom that the next election is for the BJP and regional parties to lose. While the regional parties are playing their cards right (look how Mulayam Singh and Nitish Kumar are playing his cards), the BJP is sparing no effort to prove this piece of wisdom wrong.

So confused and so contradictory does the party sound — it opposes the diesel price hike even though oil price deregulation was the NDA’s reform — that it risks messing up its own chances. It is possible to defend the BJP saying it is seeking to play the “aam aadmi” card, but this is simply not going to happen. It cannot beat the Congress at the latter’s game.

The BJP is going wrong in two areas: one is leadership, and the other relates to understanding its political branding strengths and weaknesses.

In leadership, it has no Plan B to Narendra Modi. It has no plan on what to do if Modi falters in anyway, for whatever reason.

In political branding, the BJP does not seem to understand what it can realistically claim as its own strengths before the electorate, and what it cannot.

In leadership, BJP has no Plan B to Narendra Modi. It has no plan on what to do if Modi falters in anyway, for whatever reason. PTI

The two issues are inter-related. The BJP needs a leader who can encapsulate its core brand appeal without losing out on its appeal to constituencies outside its base.

Before we come to Modi, let’s consider the political branding issue first. The primary law of brand positioning, as expounded by the original masters, Al Ries and Jack Trout, is that a brand can own only a narrow set of values (or positions) in the customer’s mind.

In the case of the Congress, the words it own are “secular” and “aam aadmi.” One may legitimately ask whether the Congress is really secular when Babri happened during its watch and the party has actually done little for the minorities beyond run a protection racket for them, but branding is about what people believe about the party, not what it actually is.

This is why the BJP can practice secularism, but it cannot own this positioning.

The main reason for this is human beings are suckers for first impressions. Once they believe something good or bad about someone, they rarely change it. This is why the Congress owns the words “aam aadmi” or “secular” in brand positioning.

The Congress also does not own the word “reforms” — even though major reforms happened during the Congress regime of the early 1990s. Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram “own” these words, and the Congress has been able to use their branding to good effect during UPA-1 and UPA-2 (in the last few weeks at least) for tactical benefits.

The fact is all political parties need to own a core positioning, and a tactical one to reach out to a wider constituency. The Congress wants to own the “aam aadmi” brand but also the “reforms” one to woo businessmen and foreign investors when it needs them. This is why Manmohan Singh has been given brief freedom to wear this reformist hat for now. But the Congress is not about to trade its “aam aadmi” Gandhi cap for the “reformist” hat. It can do so only at its peril.

As for the BJP, its core branding involves the following: Hindutva. On the negative side, it will also have the “communal” tag following it wherever it goes. It could also stake a claim to the following positioning terms which are not in contradiction to the Hindutva tag — “pro-business”, “urban middle class”, “upper caste”, etc. The last three terms are really about being “pro-reform”, or pro-growth, or being economically right-wing. In contrast, the Congress’ calling card is “redistributive justice”, and possibly “rural poor”.

Put another way, the BJP occupies the same space in India that the Republican Party does in the US — with its right-wing policies and substantial neo-con, born-again, Christian vote base — but does not seem to know how to engage its constituencies meaningfully.

Add all these positioning terms and the name that pops up to embody all these values is really Narendra Modi. This is the hard logic for his candidacy for PM.

Before we come to his chances, one more point needs to be made. If the ordinary voter thinks BJP is about Hindutva, reforms, growth and urban issues, it stands to reason that these are the core constituencies it has to appeal to first to secure its base vote.

If this is the case, the party should be pushing for urban issues like affordable housing, transport, jobs, inflation, and corruption. It is doing some of these, but its understanding of this base falls short of potential.

This means it needs a leader who can woo this base first, and then appeal to marginal elements outside to secure a win. This is what Atal Behari Vajpayee managed — he was the “mukhauta” (mask) that allowed the BJP to secure its core and appeal to the non-core “secular” groups.

For the Congress, Manmohan Singh is the “mukhauta” — the reformer who can rope in the markets, businessmen and urban voters when the party needs them.

The problem for the BJP is this: Modi is not a PM candidate as yet, given the intervening Gujarat elections. Moreover, he is not a “mukhauta” who can win over allies who seek minority votes after an election. He is the man who will strengthen the core, but may stop short of attracting the others.

While everybody assumes that Modi will win in Gujarat, there are two big imponderables ahead this time.

One, unlike 2007, the Congress is taking Modi on through economic populism, not Hindutva. The last time, Sonia Gandhi squandered the party’s chances by references to “maut ka saudagar”, and Modi feasted on this opportunity to fire up the Hindutva vote base. This time the Congress is playing it smart, by tossing up populist ideas like free housing for the poor, etc. Modi will find populism difficult to overcome since it will be posited against his pro-business image.

Two, thanks to larger dissensions within the BJP (the Keshubhai Patel revolt, etc), Modi has to make a stronger pitch among non-Patels to get his seats. This is why he is spending more time in the tribal areas — where the Congress gets a larger share.

Of the three possibilities — defeat, marginal victory, and a thumping win like 2007 — only defeat seems unlikely. Modi’s future, though, depends on a big win, since a marginal win will tie him down to Gujarat for some more time.

If Narendra Modi is Plan A for BJP after the Gujarat elections, the party needs to be clear that getting more seats under Modi is not the same as winning the 2014 elections. PTI

If Narendra Modi is Plan A for BJP after the Gujarat elections, the party needs to be clear that getting more seats under Modi is not the same as winning the 2014 elections. He can be the party’s long-term winner, if the idea is not to win and form a government in 2014, but to build a solid base for 2016, or 2019, depending on what kind of government comes to power in 2014.

For Modi to lead the BJP to a win in 2014, he will need 200 seats — something that is not quite in prospect right now. Without 200, he won’t attract allies — consider what Nitish Kumar is considering even now.

This means BJP needs Plan B for 2014. It means a leader who can be projected for 2014 if Modi falters.

The BJP should be grooming a potential leader who serves as an alternative to Narendra Modi no matter what Gujarat throws up.

Who could this be? Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley could be acceptable candidates to both allies and the party in the short run, but neither of them has an electoral base. They will be handicapped in taking good decisions that need wider popular support. In short, they will be no better than Manmohan Singh in terms of being able to push through reforms with allies or even within the party. But both are clear possibilities and they should be given the chance to build an image in the run-up to 2014.

For stronger leaders from the regional stables, the party could look at Shivraj Chauhan of Madhya Pradesh, but he has a state election coming up and will be preoccupied. So will Raman Singh of Chhattisgarh and Vasundhara Raje of Rajasthan.

That leaves an interesting prospect: Sushil Modi, the Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar. It would be an interesting choice for Plan B, since it might checkmate Nitish Kumar. As someone who has been in alliance with Sushil Modi for more than seven years, Kumar may not like the prospect of his deputy becoming a national figure. But he cannot quite oppose him as a “communal” candidate. Moreover, how can he oppose a Bihari for the top job, and the possibility of getting special status for Bihar.

To win in 2014, the BJP needs to get its political message and branding right and also develop a “mukhauta” who can reach out to allies. It must have a Plan B to Narendra Modi.