Win or lose, Modi-Shah duo need to learn from their mistakes in Delhi polls
Win or lose in 7 February's Delhi assembly elections, BJP needs to learn several important lessons from it. That a party which started out as a clear favourite is now huffing and puffing to prevent a puny, but wily, opponent from defeating it tells a story.
Editor's note: This copy was published one day ahead of the elections. We have decided to republish this piece in light of the recent exit poll predictions.
Win or lose in 7 February's Delhi assembly elections, Narendra Modi's BJP needs to learn several important lessons from it. That a party which started out as a clear favourite is now huffing and puffing to prevent a puny, but wily, opponent from defeating it tells a story. This late scare may still enable a last-minute swing that will save the BJP from ignominy. But that too tells its own story of hubris and over-confidence.
Amit Shah is not someone who can be accused of taking electoral battles lightly, as he has demonstrated even in Delhi by throwing his all into the fight, but the fact is he underestimated the challenge in Delhi.
It would be equally wrong to assume that Shah and Modi can make no mistakes. They have made several this time, and these need to be acknowledged and the right lessons learnt.
Mistake No 1: Of course, this is the obvious and repeatedly stated point that the BJP wasted a golden opportunity to clobber AAP after the thumping win in May. The Delhi election should have been held last June, when there was only BJP all around. When you defeat an enemy, you have to finish off the challenge, not give him time to recover and regroup.
Mistake No 2: Delhi is not any other state. A loss here will always cost the BJP a lot of embarrassment and remain a permanent distraction. Delhi is the most media-intense city in India, with both foreign and domestic media playing a huge role in shaping opinion and perceptions. Today, with half the opinion polls showing an Aam Aadmi Party win, the mere looks of a winner may be helping Arvind Kejriwal. Kejriwal seems to know how to wring more out of the Delhi media than BJP.
Mistake No 3: Both Modi and Shah have forgotten their own understanding of what brought them to power: the diminution of the impact of caste and religion and the rise of aspirational India, including the "neo middle class" - to use Modi's own phrase from the Gujarat elections. This neo middle class is all over Delhi, having migrated from the rest of India and doing jobs like cab driving, cooking, cleaning, hawking, etc, etc. Their needs are basic public services like water, power, and protection from low-level graft, among other things. Kejriwal appeals to this class as much as Modi. But in this election the former made a direct connect, while Modi has been a distant factor in their lives till the final two weeks.
Mistake No 4: The BJP misread its opponent's strength as weakness and its own weakness as strength. The BJP (wrongly) assumed that Kejriwal's 49-day misadventure as CM would count against him (in other words, it was counting on anti-incumbency); and, two, that its own local leadership was not important. In Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand the BJP won without any local leadership and expected Delhi to be the same. When it realised the mistake and brought in Kiran Bedi, it was rather late. Bedi was probably the right move at the wrong time, which gave neither her new party nor herself the time to learn to work with each other. This is probably what caused the BJP to drop precipitously in late January opinion polls from previous levels - though we can't prove this.
Mistake No 5: Mismanaging perceptions about Modi. Even though the Obama visit may not have been plotted purely to give BJP a lift close to the elections, the fact is it had an impact. Possibly negatively. Here, Modi himself made two big mistakes, both adding to negative perceptions. I don't think his efforts to claim an excessive chemistry with Obama was either warranted or went down too well with the public, especially his repeated efforts to call the US President "Barack". It is unlikely that Obama and Modi are bum-chums after just 2-3 official meetings. Diplomacy cannot be reduced to personal chemistry alone, even if that was true. In any case, the new generation is not likely to have stars in its eyes about a US president. Another mistake was Modi's designer "Rs 10 lakh" suit which had his own name embroidered on it. One can accept an individual's weakness for dressing well, but the class perceptions created between our "mufflerman" and that distant wearer of a Rs 10 lakh outfit would have been significant. One doubts the Sangh's foot soldiers, who are now expected to bring in the vote, would have been very happy about this either. Two self-goals by Modi.
Mistake No 6: Misjudging the impact of collapsing Congress. In 2013, the BJP was a nose ahead because the Congress got nearly a quarter of the vote. This time, if AAP wins, it will be because too much of the Congress's vote bank among minorities and the underclass has moved away. The anti-minority statements of some BJP MPs would anyway have ensured that the party loses whatever minority votes it had, but once the minority sentiment shifted to a "stop-BJP" vote, AAP would have gained enormously. With AAP stealing the Congress's "aam aadmi" pitch, the BJP clearly was on a sticky wicket.
Mistake No 7: An over-dependence on last minute tactical moves and booth management. In an issue-less election, Shah's tactics work, especially his effort to get party workers to reach out to every individual voter. But these things have to be done over and above the central message to the voter. In May 2014, the message was Modi and the promise of achche din. What is it now, when Kejriwal has already spread his message about addressing the aam aadmi's basic concerns? The BjP's final message seems to be Modi again and the need to align centre and state - the unstated assumption being that if Kejriwal is elected there will be strife. This implied threat that BJP cannot work with an AAP government is churlish, even if it may be true.
Mistake No 8: Failing to take advantage of favourable developments. The biggest development is the sharp fall in fuel prices - LPG, diesel and petrol. Everyone has noticed this, and the cabbies I spoke to in Delhi were very happy about it. But BJP almost let this plus point slip, and brought it into campaign rhetoric only towards the end. This was something it should have hammered in day in and day out - for it would have struck home.
Mistake No 9: Failing to realise that a complacent party cannot deliver the goods. The mere fact that the Delhi BJP leadership was trying to avoid an election even after the thumping Lok Sabha win should have told Amit Shah something. Its local leaders were keen to avoid a fight and were depending on the Modi magic to give them power. A sensible local leadership would have used the nine months between May 2014 and February 2015 to be visible to the electorate and countering Kejriwal at every street-corner. But the party was busy breaking itself up into camps on the assumption that it will win, and so the fight was really about who will be CM after the win. Shah scolded the Delhi leadership for not being battle-ready, but clearly he needs a new set of aggressive leaders in Delhi no matter how the results unfold on 10 February.
Mistake No 10: It is yet to happen, for it will depend on the outcome of the elections. Whether he wins or loses, Kejriwal will be a thorn in the BJP's side. In power, he will start acting to undermine the three BJP-run municipal corporations and pitch himself against the centre and the Sangh. Outside power, he will be running an agitational programme on the street against the Delhi government.
The biggest mistake the BJP may make is to think that after 10 February, if it wins, it is home and dry. Actually, that will be the beginning of its many challenges. A triumphant Kejriwal will be a problem; a wounded Kejriwal will be as dangerous. Kejriwal is an astute power player. He should never be underestimated. He is a megalomaniac posing as a humble leader. It works for him.
A BJP win does not mean all mistakes should be forgotten. That would be the biggest mistake Modi and Shah can make.
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