It has an alternative narrative on hand, but the Congress is merely reacting rather than strategizing
M Manisha | December 9, 2017
As the first phase of the Gujarat elections is on, one question that political pundits and common people alike are asking is: who is likely to win? Indeed, these elections are vital for the BJP, not just because it is the home state of prime minister Narendra Modi, or because it is a precursor to the 2019 elections, but because Gujarat, after Uttar Pradesh, puts to test the efficacy of the BJP’s new electoral strategy.
The 2014 Lok Sabha elections were contested on the plank of Vikas or development and created unprecedented euphoria and expectations, especially amongst the young and the middle class. The aspirational middle class expected more jobs, better infrastructural facilities and more growth opportunities. This expectation was fanned by the media (read social media) and was effectively utilised by the BJP’s electoral strategists to make it the central plank of the party’s campaign. It also won some support and acceptability for the BJP from section of the liberal intelligentsia and the business community who are otherwise averse to BJP’s saffron agenda. The fact that the Congress did not have much to offer either in terms of leadership or in terms of alternative policies and programmes worked in favour of the BJP. Nearly 47% percent of the youth and 43% of urban population voted for the BJP.
However, managing the expectations of a young, restless and volatile population is not an easy task, and it weighed heavily on the Modi government. Modi’s initial campaigns including Swach Bharat Abhiyan and Make in India failed to enthuse people, largely on account of inadequate conceptualisation and effective implementation. Demonetisation and goods and services tax (GST) were both launched with the expectation that they would give the government something to show in its report card. But the demonetisation bid failed to achieve its desired results in terms of both flushing out black money and introducing the era of digital economy. Almost 99 percent of the demonetised currency came back to banks quelling all arguments that it would extinguish black money out of the system. The hardship caused to the common man and setback to the economy only added to the negative costs of the move. Similarly, in the four months since its launch, GST has led to increased prices and greater taxes, especially for the small traders and consumers, prompting the centre and state to announce a number of sops in an attempt to quell the disaffection. Survey figures indicate that voters, especially in Gujarat, are unhappy with GST.
In view of this, the BJP developed two new electoral strategies, both of which are in the state of being tested. The first strategy is to augment the BJP’s strength and cushion it against any anti-incumbency and electoral dissatisfaction that it may face by entering into coalition with other likeminded parties. A glimpse of this was seen in Patna, where the BJP dislodged the RJD-JD(U) alliance and supported Nitish Kumar in forming the government. Similar forays into Tamil Nadu cannot be ruled out.
A second and a more important strategy of the party is to shift the electoral agenda from development to religion/regional pride. The dexterity of the party in changing the course of the narrative was evident during demonetisation, when the goals shifted from flushing out black money to curbing terrorism and then to digital economy is now fully established.
Following Modi’s two-day visit to Gujarat previous week, where he addressed a number of rallies, the BJP was quick to rake up the issue of Rahul Gandhi’s religion. Whether by accident or by design, much of the media debate after Modi’s visit to Gujarat centred on the appeasement politics of the Congress. BJP spokespersons were quick to point out that the Congress has a history of denying the majority community its due. Further, the Congress leadership is always apologetic and coy about its cultural origins. Equally, despite trying to appease the minority, the Congress has done precious little for them. The Congress which was building a campaign around the failure of the Gujarat model of development and riding high on the wave of its alliance with Hardik Patel, the Patidar leader, found itself in its weaker quadrant. It was the case of heads you lose, tails I win.
The BJP’s electoral arithmetic in Gujarat, as was the case in the UP elections, has completely discounted the Muslims who constitute nearly 10 percent of Gujarat’s population. The marginalisation of Muslims in the political landscape of Gujarat especially since 2002 is an inescapable reality. In the 182-member assembly, in 2012 two Muslims were elected as MLAs, down from five in 2007 and three in 2002 and going by their population percentage, Muslims should have had at least 16 MLAs. In the upcoming elections the BJP has fielded only one Muslim candidate. The standard response to this systematic disenfranchisement has been that the Hindu-Muslim situation in Gujarat has been to argue that in the last 15 years, there have been no communal riots in the state. This is to suggest that peace has meant that both the Hindus and the Muslims have prospered in the state.
Despite this, the politics of patronage pulls an ever larger number of Muslims to the BJP. According to a newspaper report there was a “queue” of Muslims for a BJP ticket to contest elections. Mehboob Ali Chisti, the BJP minority morcha chief, was quoted in the newspaper report as saying that “during recent parliamentary board meetings, Muslim community leaders have demanded the Jamalpur-Khadia, Vejalpur, Vagra, Wankaner, Bhuj and Abdassa seats”. And this is because 350 Muslims have secured seats for the BJP in local body polls in urban areas in 2015. As a Muslim spokesperson pointed out, the Congress has become the B team of the BJP in Gujarat.
The run-up to the assembly election once again throws up the shortcoming of the party in setting its own narrative. The Congress which has its brightest chance in Gujarat this time, when the BJP faces strong anti-incumbency, has on the contrary adopted a soft Hindutva stand. In the last few months, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has consciously and laboriously tried to portray himself as a person who believes in the Hindu faith. He has visited numerous Hindu temples and pilgrimage places, trying to reverse the party’s pro-minority perception.
Modi’s focus on Gujarati identity also indicates the manner in which the BJP is strategising to encash the politics of patronage. In his recent rally Modi's message was clear that this time their ‘vada pradhan’ (prime minister) is sitting in Delhi and if another of their own sits in Gandhinagar, then the development of Gujarat will happen even faster. Modi appealed to the Gujarati pride and if anecdotal reports are to be believed, he has not been unsuccessful either.
This must, however, not be construed to mean that the BJP has given up on the “development” agenda. Their electoral strategists are wise enough to understand that subjective emotions are only secondary to material needs. However, should the need arise they may be raked up for immediate gains, especially if results on the material front fall short.
It goes without saying that the outcome of the Gujarat assembly elections has a decisive role to play in the electoral scene of the country and it will determine the direction of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections as well. If the BJP manages to win, the party will have a plan ready and tested to be put to use should its development initiatives fail to produce conducive results. The problem is: the Congress still seems to be frantically searching for any concrete plan yet.
Manisha is associate professor, Department of Political Science, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai.
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