Representational image. | Image Courtesy: PIB
Till a few months ago, nobody would have believed that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) election campaign led by Narendra Modi will decompose so rapidly. The ruling party’s election strategy was defined – at least publicly –as telling the people about the ‘stupendous’ achievements of the Modi government. His schemes were supposed to have benefitted 22 crore people and the BJP carried out a series of campaigns to approach every single beneficiary household through lighting a diya (lamp) at their doorstep.
In an interaction through videoconferencing with BJP activists, a woman activist asked Modi how they were supposed to remember all the achievements, there were so many! Modi simpered and then wisely advised that perhaps they could remember the schemes classified alphabetically – A for Ayushman Bharat, B for Beti Bachao, etc. Those were heady days, full of innocence and joy, just a few months ago. That was the first or ‘vikas’ phase of campaign.
Today, all of that looks like another era. The BJP campaign has gone through a series of moulting and finally transformed itself into tattered, reactive, abusive rants. And the country has been watching this collapse: according to a recent report, Modi got 722 hours of TV time on news channels, compared with 252 hours for Rahul Gandhi (Congress president), 123 hours to Amit Shah (BJP president) and 84 hours to Mayawati (Bahujan Samaj Party leader).
The Balakot Gambit
After the initial weeks of vikas-type of warming up campaign, came the Pulwama terror attack on February 14, followed by the Balakot air strikes on February 26. Within days, if not hours, the whole campaign was reinvented. Whether it was because the BJP top brass had realised that wooing people on the basis of schemes is not working or whether they naturally gravitated towards the anti-Pakistan brand of ‘nationalism’ nobody knows, at least as of now. As the Prime Minister himself has boasted, it was he himself who advised the top defence officials to undertake the strikes on that cloudy dawn. So perhaps, he saw the potential for an election campaign narrative in the whole thing – who knows? Whatever the thinking, it was a turning point in the campaign.
One analysis has shown that till April 30, Modi had addressed 87 public meetings and in every single one, the central theme was the Balakot ‘achievement’. Initially, there were passing references to schemes and, of course, the mandatory criticism of the Congress record. But it was all about how he and his government has been decisive and tough, how India has penetrated into Pakistan territory and punched at the enemy “inside their own home”, how the Pulwama martyrs have been avenged, and so on.
The alacrity with which this narrative was adopted by the BJP, and the scale at which it was used, leaves no doubt that it was serving multiple objectives. It completely bypassed any account of the Modi government’s performance on a slew of issues like unemployment, economic slowdown, farmers’ incomes, workers’ wages, dalit atrocities, women’s safety, adivasi land rights, demonetisation and destruction of MSMEs (medium, small and micro enterprises) because of GST (goods and services tax).
It also created the ground for a Hindutva narrative which was languishing after the Ram Mandir fiasco. Remember: the RSS and its affiliates had made a concerted attempt to reignite the Mandir issue since October last year only for the whole thing to fizzle out. So much so that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had to officially ‘withdraw’ the movement temporarily in February this year. Balakot provided the opening for a fresh round of Muslim antagonism to be fanned, albeit behind the façade of ‘nationalism’ and ‘national security’.
But there was another shock awaiting the triumphalist BJP. As time passed, it started dawning on the strategists that the Balakot narrative had started turning stale. It was not cutting much ice. The multiple phase election, which was hammered out to suit precisely their own strategy, was actually showing that rhetoric on airy-fairy concoctions doesn’t have a long shelf life. Reality has a way of thrusting its ugly face into the most divine of story-telling exercises.
Here, the seven-phase polling process of Uttar Pradesh needs to be mentioned for it has played a big role in destroying BJP’s campaign strategy. By the time the second and third phase polling had taken place, in the third week of April, it was clear that UP was slipping away. Despite the nationalism rhetoric, despite an incendiary satrap at the helm, despite holding the highest number of rallies by both Modi and Shah, this largest state with 80 MPs was definitely slipping away. BJP was losing UP, and with it, Delhi.
What’s the Campaign Today?
And so, suddenly, the master strategists of BJP and their slogan-smiths and social media experts were flummoxed. What to do now? With that another turning point was reached. The campaign descended into chaos, and only the daily reaction to events, the desperate scrabbling for discrediting rivals, especially the Congress, and the tethering of all outpourings to some deeply embedded notions has remained.
As a result, we see Modi every day reacting to what Rahul Gandhi or some other Congress leader says the previous day. Sometimes it is Congress leader Sam Pitroda’s callous remark on the anti-Sikh riots, sometimes it is the Alwar gang rape case, sometimes it is West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s histrionics, some time it is Modi’s backward caste origin, and so on. Every day, a new issue, that is also a non-issue. Perhaps, Modi and his strategists are just seeing news channels and taking notes so that the leader can have grist for his mill the next day.
Another, feature that has emerged in much sharper focus is the open and repeated appeal of Modi himself, and all his leaders lower down, to vote for Modi. “When you press the button on the lotus symbol – remember, the vote is going to Narendra Modi,” he declares repeatedly. This is not megalomania: he and his strategists know that this is the only way they have any hope of convincing voters. The people are so fed up of the local MPs, and Shah has foisted so many unknown faces based on his data analytics, that BJP can only depend on Modi. He, of course, is only too happy to say all this without batting an eyelid.
Bengal, of course, is a big focus, with eight seats polling in the penultimate phase and another nine in the last phase. Modi has addressed 13 rallies in six phases (33 seats) in Bengal. Only UP has seen more of Modi (21 rallies) till now although polling has been held for 67 seats. This is, of course, the last scrap of the original strategy – called ‘Look East’ by the media. This was based on the assumption that more seats need to be squeezed out of the 63 seats in Bengal and Odisha out of which BJP had won only three in 2014.
But the inflammatory content of the BJP campaign in Bengal has taken many by surprise. They have put their eggs in one basket – (Muslim) infiltrators from Bangladesh and Mamata Banerjee’s connivance with this. The National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Bill were, of course, the main planks for pushing this agenda but as time passed, the BJP’s Bengal campaign quickly took to its primeval hue of Hindutva, with melodramatic slogans of Jai Shri Ram as a challenge to Didi, and inflamed portrayal of discrimination against Hindus.
Only a few days are left for campaigning as the last polling day (May 19) approaches and so, the sum total of BJP’s election strategy/campaign should well become a case study of how a losing party loses it.