MANISH DUBEY | 3 MAY, 2019
Brand Narendra Modi May Not Be Enough For the BJP
After four phases
Four of the seven rounds of polling are over, votes for over two-thirds of the Lok Sabha seats have been cast and while the final outcome will be known only on May 23 2019, it is clear that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has several things going for it.
That the party had an enviable war chest and could depend on television channels to unscrupulously amplify its narrative was known for a while. The timing of the Pulwama terror attack and the Balakot air strikes and an Election Commission that has not been swift enough in exercising its authority in the face of repeated in the face of repeated and blatant code violations are further working to the BJP’s advantage.
More than anything else however it is Brand Modi, though not as strong as it was in 2014, that is shoring the BJP’s cause. Despite the disappointments with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government and anger against local BJP candidates, a not insignificant section of the BJP’s 2014 voters and first-time voters appear inclined to repose their trust in Modi. This is in the belief that Modi, having scrubbed clean the slate in his first stint as prime minister, will rewrite India’s fortunes this time round, and that Modi’s hands need strengthening for this even if it amounts to endorsing an unpopular BJP candidate.
That its candidates have, at some level, ceased to matter, and the contest in several seats in the cow belt, western India, Odisha and West Bengal (WB) has effectively translated into one between Modi and local opposition candidates plays to the BJP’s preferred scenario.
If the prospect of a non-NDA government remains alive despite all this, it is mainly because the BJP may not have succeeded in making every contest one between Modi and local candidates - and because Brand Modi, even in places where it is in the fray, may not be sufficient to take on local challengers everywhere.
In Uttar Pradesh (UP), gathbandhan candidates are benefiting from a consolidation of partners’ core votes, prompted, among other things, by the disgruntlement with the BJP’s favoring, real or perceived, of certain caste groups. If ground reports are to believed, Modi power is struggling to overcome such consolidation and the unpopularity of several BJP candidates and the Adityanath-led state government is not helping. Things could play out similarly for the NDA in Bihar, though with lesser damage to it than in UP given the fledgling state of some of the Bihar gathbandhan constituents, the absence of Lalu Prasad Yadav from the campaign and the weight that Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) brings to the NDA.
Admittedly, the gains the BJP registers in Odisha and WB will owe much to Modi factor but these gains are likely to be modest, not what the BJP is hoping for and certainly not enough to make up for the losses it faces elsewhere. Despite the anti-incumbency that has crept in, the dominant regional parties in these states are too entrenched and their leaders enjoy a level of acceptability that the Modi factor alone may not be able to counter. In banking almost exclusively on Brand Modi then, the BJP might have missed a trick in these states.
In so far as the states where the BJP and the Congress are in direct contest are concerned, the Congress has little of the kind of stable and formidable caste coalitions or organization muscle that is impeding the BJP elsewhere, and it is pretty much left to local candidates and the party leadership to lift the party’s fortunes. It is also in these states where the long shadow of proxy candidate Modi is most in evidence and countering anti-incumbency.
Amidst these circumstances, the best that the Congress can do at this stage is to channel its energies on identified winnable/ tight-contest seats/ candidates and mount an aggressive (more aggressively than now) counter to the BJP. Giant strides may not be possible with this approach but it could still shave off the BJP’s returns by a margin that makes difficult the NDA’s return to power. The overall encouraging results from the recent assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and emerging evidence of high turnout in tribal-dominated seats (where the NDA’s stance on the Forest Rights Act and related issues have disappointed) should give the GOP the confidence to pull this off.
Lesson learning in the middle of an election is unusual. So, if and when it happens, the opposition will discover that the antidote to challenging the Modi persona lies in two time-tested things, organizational strengthening and mobilizations that place the disaffected and marginalized at the core. Interestingly, the same lesson could hold for the BJP too when it looks at key states that slipped away despite the Modi factor at work.