Elections 2017 will be tests for BJP's 'top down' campaign strategy, Modi's strength

Five states, including the most populous Uttar Pradesh (UP), are slated to go for polls in February and March 2017. BJP is continuing with its policy of not announcing CM candidates. The fact is that given the umbrella coalition of castes (Forwards, OBCs and some Dalit segments) and the limited list of candidates who can appeal to all groups, Amit Shah has little choice. Instead, the focus will be on using demonetisation-related incentives, development and Modi to win the election.

Traditionally, the party focused on a ‘bottom up’ approach where RSS cadre worked to mobilise support for the BJP. It was extremely important as media penetration and literacy was quite low. In late 1970s, erstwhile Jan Sangh along with the RSS and associated parivar units mobilised grass root workers and built a strong foundation for the party. The Ram Janmabhoomi fuelled strong bonds with the party both at the local and national level, leading to its success in states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Gujarat in the 1990s. Top leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Advani, Modi, SS Chouhan, Ram Singh etc have all risen up the ranks.

To expand its base nationally in the south and north east, the party has adopted ‘middle up’ approach in states like Karnataka and Assam. In this approach, strong local leadership (Yeddyurappa and Sonowal) and caste combinations along with a less aggressive RSS were used to drive the campaign. The rapid increase of media and literacy due to the economic boom in the last decade led to the full ‘top down’ approach best seen in the 2014 elections which was made into a clash of personalities — Modi vs Rahul.

In ‘top down’ campaign approach, central leadership designs campaign strategy, finalises ticket distribution and alliances with regional parties. Big rallies of Modi are organised to draw bumper crowds. Then, it is the local team’s responsibility to get in touch with people and convert them into votes. Posters, banners all include central leadership (Modi-Shah) pictures.

 Elections 2017 will be tests for BJPs top down campaign strategy, Modis strength

Representational image. AFP

This strategy has been increasingly successful given the high media penetration amongst voters. Unlike the past, there is no need to individually meet every voter. Depending on the state, an average of only 60% of the voters are met by any party worker, in Urban areas, this could be as low as 30%.

This modus operandi worked very well in state elections in 2014 just after Lok Sabha polls. In all the four states — Maharashtra, Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir and Jharkhand — BJP won and formed governments. Modi popularity was at peak during this time. All had extremely unpopular governments and the opposition was still recovering from the shock of May 2014.

In Maharashtra and Haryana, there was significant anti-incumbency against current governments. People wanted change. BJP was the only viable option available. People didn’t care about leadership. Jammu and Kashmir followed the trend of alternate governments every five years. In Jharkhand, people were fed up of corrupt and inefficient coalition of JMM-Congress and opted for stability.

Given the stupendous success in 2014 in national elections and four state elections after that, the Modi-Shah combine believe that a well-thought-through campaign run from the Centre with all the skill sets and experience available at one place can run a better campaign than leaving it to the State which may not have all the strategic thinking, the skill sets or the experience. These skill sets could be related to organising large events, social media, voter feedback, candidate selection, messaging or advertising. In each of these areas, the central BJP leadership has developed excellent teams with very high order skill sets or brought in people like Sunil Kanugulu who ran the excellent DMK campaign in Tamil Nadu.

The strategy did not work effectively in 2015 state elections where BJP was pitted against strong and popular local leaders particularly those who were not from the Congress party. In Bihar, Nitish didn’t suffer from any anti-incumbency and in-fact his popularity was higher than Modi (Net Likeability score as per CSDS survey).

In Delhi, there was significant displeasure with then Shiela Dikshit regime. It was a stage set for BJP-style top down campaign approach. However, there was a credible challenger – AAP – which had a local face and ran a directly opposite campaign style — door to door, public participation in selection of candidates, drafting of manifesto among other things. BJP’s top down strategy faltered against AAP’s bottom up strategy.

Learning from past mistakes, BJP did tweak its strategy in 2016 polls in Assam. It had extremely unpopular Congress regime which was incumbent for 15 years, on the other hand the BJP had done well in 2014 and had a strong CM candidate of its own. So reverting back to a local leadership supported by a centrally driven campaign (middle-up) bore fruits.

The weakness of a centrally driven campaign, specifically for heavily populated States like UP and Bihar is that tiny cultural nuances that are easily understood by locals are sometimes lost by people from outside the State, for example, Modi’s DNA remark on Nitish and his bid style package announcement for Bihar.

The strategy of centrally driven campaigns is similar in some ways to the strategy of the Congress party where key decisions about a state election are taken by the central leadership. However, unlike the Congress party where the central leadership is usually protected from state losses, the direct running of the campaign exposes the Modi-Shah combine to the vagaries of State election results.

Should they lose, it will be a big setback for PM. The anti-Modi forces in party and NDA will gain strength. RSS may force Modi to consult partners in key decision-making. Advani may get a new lease of life and try to push for Presidency with support of disgruntled NDA partners.

However, if the BJP wins UP, the upside benefits are also high. Modi becomes stronger in the party and will be able to create a larger than life image of himself. He will be able to get President of his choice elected. Bihar and Delhi will be forgotten as an aberration.

2017 will not only be a defining moment of Modi’s tenure but also his campaign style and strategy. It is to be seen whether this strategy would work in Uttar Pradesh and other states this year.

(This article has been co-authored by Amitabh Tiwari and Subhash Chandra. They are independent political consultants, authors of ‘Battle of Bihar’ and can be reached at @politicalbaaba and @schandra_100.)

Updated Date: Jan 18, 2017 13:11:14 IST