As BJP’s two-day national executive meeting came to an end, we were left with a glimpse into the broad contours of its 2019 campaign. Elections are a complex process in India’s rambunctious, representative democracy. General elections are even more so. Diverse people in a federation of states are asked to choose one candidate who will ostensibly provide the country with a better future by fixing its roads, drainage systems, eradicating poverty, generating employment, strengthening the armed forces and everything in between.
The near impossibility of this complex task makes it imperative for political parties to indulge in reductionism. Election campaigns boil down to which party can offer the more compelling narrative. This isn’t to say, of course, that elections are won or lost on the strength of campaigning alone. There are a hundred other equally important factors at play. Some of these factors are controllable, some are not. Yet, campaigning provides the parties a chance to stitch together a ‘story’, on the strength of which they seek votes.
This ‘story’ is not a monolithic narrative. For instance, the BJP looks to make every election — be it Assembly or general polls — a presidential contest. It does so because it believes that the prime minister is the tallest leader in the country, who towers over the rest of his peers. The BJP therefore, wants to make every election a ‘Modi vs X-Y-Z’ contest to capitalise on his popularity which, according to the party, remains unwavering.
The Opposition, it seems, agrees with the BJP’s assessment. It obviously denies Modi’s charisma in public but tacitly accepts that the prime minister may emerge victorious when pitted against rivals. Therefore, different parties and even competing regional and ideological forces are trying to put aside their differences, join hands, and paper over their cracks in favour of an amorphous amalgamation called the ‘mahagathbandhan’, or the grand alliance.
Just as the BJP wants to turn every election into a presidential contest (not to speak of the general elections), the grand alliance seeks to break down even the Lok Sabha polls into 543 small, localised contests where ultra-local issues, caste-community equations and strength of the candidate will decide the winner, not Modi’s perceived success or failures.
Accordingly, an Opposition heavyweight such as Mamata Banerjee proposed the ‘one vs one’ formula, where every BJP contestant across India will be forced to face a combined Opposition candidate based on a complex seat-sharing arrangement. The Congress, for instance, is insisting that the priority before the Opposition is to first remove the Modi government. The question of premiership will be kept in abeyance until after the polls.
It was interesting to see how the BJP is trying to counter this Opposition strategy. It obviously understands that 2019 will be a completely different ball game. BJP is now exposed to anti-incumbency headwinds including escalating fuel prices, unemployment grievances, some amount of macro-economic instability and falling numbers in crucial north Indian states where it maximised gains in 2014. Consequently, it may not be easy for Modi to weave another narrative of hope.
From the sound bites that were generated from the recently concluded BJP national executive meeting in New Delhi, a few things become clearer about its campaign strategy:
A new narrative of hope
It is decidedly difficult to reclaim the narrative of hope five years after gaining power, but BJP can’t be faulted for not trying. The strategy seems to be to set 2022 as the deadline for meeting various targets. This achieves several purposes. It gives the Modi government some space and time before the electorate to implement its development agenda. This sort of positioning presents candidates, party workers and supporters with a goal, provides them with a psychological boost and conversely demoralises the Opposition who are forced to think of 2019 as a battle already lost. This is a conscious shift in discourse.
“This government has vision, passion and imagination, and the works of this government can be seen. By 2022, India will be free of terrorism, casteism, communalism and nobody will be homeless,” BJP leader and Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar was quoted as saying after the meeting on Sunday.
BJP may try to portray Lok Sabha polls as the battle between a resurgent India led by Modi, and disparate forces that are desperate to pull him down. In these terms, a defeat for Modi becomes a “defeat for people”. So, BJP’s political resolution says “the Opposition was running a ‘Modi roko abhiyaan’ (Stop-Modi campaign) while the government was committed to a “New India”.
Dismantling the Opposition strategy
This is obvious, but it's instructive to see how the BJP went about the task. The party, doubtless, feels threatened by the Opposition formulation that can, at least theoretically, dent its chances of retaining power. According to Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad (who narrated to reporters Modi’s comments made during the closed-door meeting), Modi saw “the compulsion” of Opposition to forge an alliance against BJP as the biggest measure of BJP’s success. “Today, Opposition unity (mahagathbandhan) is being talked about, but parties who do not see eye to eye (or cannot tolerate each other) are trying to come together. Mahagathbandhan is clueless about leadership, unclear strategy and nurtures corrupt intent.”
Modi also dismissed Congress leadership as a “liability”, not only to coalition partners of the Opposition, but also to some of Congress’ own leaders and went on to reportedly say: “If they question us on our work, we are willing to fight. Then the comparison that will come up will be of 48 years of a family’s rule versus 48 months of our performance. We will then ask whom that family worked for, with what consideration and purpose.”
In invoking of the role of a responsible Opposition, Modi sought to take the high moral ground. “The prime ministe said that we are ready to fight on policies, but we do not know how to fight with lies,” said Prasad. “In a democracy, the Opposition should exist… their questions and way of seeking accountability used to be a strength of democracy… but the problem is that those who were a failure in government have also failed as Opposition. They never raised genuine issues,” Prasad said, quoting the prime minister’s speech.
By highlighting the fissures within Opposition ranks, demolishing its political agenda and dismissing Congress’ role as the leader of the motley grouping, Modi through his speech gave a fair indication of BJP’s likely strategy to counter the grand alliance.
A binary of ‘nation-makers’ vs ‘nation-breakers’
BJP president Amit Shah was scathing in his criticism of the Congress and other Opposition parties for backing 'Maoist sympathisers'. In so doing, he was setting the terms of political debate that could be between BJP, a party that seeks to “make a New India”, and Congress-led Opposition, that “support breaking-India” forces.
“In the context of Naxals, those who have been held, face serious charges like conspiring to purchase arms, helping Naxals, plotting to kill the prime minister. But the Opposition is shamelessly standing by the side of those working against the nation,” Shah was quoted as saying. He also reportedly praised Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis for “cracking down” on urban Maoist sympathisers.
This is an important political plank for BJP. It fits smugly into its “nationalist party” image and pushes Congress to the far-left corner from where the grand old party may find it difficult to reclaim the centrist space. BJP reckons that Maoist terror— which former prime minister Manmohan Singh described as the single biggest threat to India’s internal security—is a non-negotiable position for political parties and any tilt towards that violent ideology will be punished at the electoral hustings.
Accordingly, the BJP’s political resolution says: “We have had a record four years of riot-free India. Maoism, once a threat in about 160 districts in the country, is today contained to just 20 districts. Soon, we are going to have a Maoist insurgency-free India. Urban Maoism too is being curbed with an iron hand.”
Amid these broad contours, BJP will also focus on its core organisational strength. Modi talked about a simple aim: ensuring BJP’s win in every booth. “The booth is our chowki… I come from Gujarat. We haven’t been defeated in 31 years. This is because we don’t have the arrogance of power. We don’t see it as a way of sitting on the chair. We see it as a medium of change, an instrument to work for people and empower them,” he was quoted as saying.
Shah similarly “asked party workers to go to villages covered under 'Gram Swaraj' (village empowerment) scheme of the government and celebrate Diwali with residents” and plans to “showcase its organisational prowess in the 2019 polls by asking functionaries to go to the masses with details of the government's works.”
A week is a long time in politics. It is obvious that these strategies will undergo fine-tuning or recalibration. However, the broad outline of India’s most formidable election machinery is visible. Exercises such as the national executive meet are important for BJP because not only does it provide a directional guidance, it also ensures discipline within the ranks.
Updated Date: Sep 11, 2018 07:42 AM