There are 10 cards that the BJP can play to ensure Narendra Modi continues as India’s Prime Minister. Charisma, Congress, Coalition, Cutting, Candidates...
As you may have seen in my previous commentary, BJP needs to win 230+ seats in the next election to ensure Narendra Modi can continue as Prime Minister, with support from the NDA allies. Less than 230 seats could ensure an internal power struggle given that
(a) Narendra Modi may need to take moral responsibility for a poor performance, and
(b) there will be a need for many more regional parties who may have their own pre-conditions for support.
My belief is that BJP is tending towards 215-225 seats, which means there is a need for a series of co-ordinated actions to push the party towards the magical 272+ majority mark. So, what can the BJP do?
There are 10 cards that the BJP can play to ensure Narendra Modi continues as India’s Prime Minister after the next elections.
1. Charisma Card
Narendra Modi remains the only game in town in terms of national political leaders. Every aspiring challenger has been systematically dismantled – inside and outside the BJP. The Prime Minister has a cult-like following amongst his supporters. The big factor to bank on: “Who is the alternative? If not Modi, who? If not BJP, who?” Even state elections are fought on the PM’s name. The cycle of history has turned back to the 1970s and Indira Gandhi. So, there will be more of the individual and less of everything else. While there is disappointment, it has not yet reached anger proportion where people change. The key question is: is the charisma good enough to bring out many voters who had switched to the BJP in 2014, or will they stay at home? The focus will be on specific selectorates – especially rural women and first-time voters.
2. Congress Card
Elections are a game of choice – voters have to pick from the options available. For most voters in India, that choice remains between the BJP and Congress. So, all that the BJP has to do to look good is to remind people of how bad the Congress has been for India. So, expect the attacks on the Congress to keep increasing, which of course is the right thing to do. What may be put in the background is the BJP’s own record of delivering prosperity since it came to power.
3. Corruption Card
Hand in hand with targeting the Congress is the perception created by the BJP government in the past few years that they are fighting a war on corruption. Of course, in India, corruption never goes away – it is just made invisible since it becomes centralised, rather than distributed. (How else do the political parties fund their campaign? Each national party will need Rs 10-15,000 crore for the next Lok Sabha election. Where do you think that money is coming from?) The BJP will push harder on this plank – jailing a few prominent politicians or business people for corruption could embellish their track record which has taken a perception hit with some of the recent developments.
Locking up pre-poll alliances is important. Every seat won by an allied party is a seat that does not go to the opposition – thus ensuring a +2 advantage. No one knows this better than the BJP from its 2004 experience. While Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, JDU in Bihar, TDP in Andhra and Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab (along with some smaller parties) will all most likely continue support, that may not be good enough for giving the perception before the election that the BJP is the only winner in the next election.
While it makes a lot of sense from the BJP perspective to lock-in pre-poll alliances in the few states it is not very strong in, if the regional parties think the BJP is unlikely to get a majority on its own, then they may want to wait it out until after the election. Depending on the BJP’s tally and the number of parties that it will need to form a government, they will be in much superior negotiation position, especially for parties from some of the larger states.
5. Cutting Card
A little-known fact about elections is the importance of vote cutters and tacit local coalitions. Every election has candidates and parties who are well compensated for the only job they have to do – divide the vote so that the preferred party’s candidate’s threshold for winning becomes lower. This is a fact of life in the first-past-the-post nature of Indian elections. In the most recent Gujarat assembly elections, parties like NCP and BSP did that very well and helped push the BJP candidates over the winning line in a few seats.
This becomes important in the context of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, with its 80 seats. BJP won 71 seats with 2 additional seats going to an ally. To ensure minimum downside, it means that the BJP needs to prevent consolidation of the anti-BJP vote – ideally a 3-way or 4-way fight. Mayawati’s BSP thus holds the key in UP. She will not ally with the BJP directly and may not win too many seats on her own, but by putting up strong candidates in all the constituencies, she will definitely make it easier for the BJP to win many more seats.
6. Candidates Card
A standard technique is to win over or buy out likely winning candidates in specific seats from other parties. No politician likes to stay out of power for a long time. Given that the BJP’s principal national challenger is the Congress, BJP will make all efforts to splinter the Congress at the state-level by acquiring Congress candidates in seats the BJP thinks it is unlikely to win. After all, there is not much ideologically different in the two parties now – command, control and coercion are the central pillars of their governing philosophies. But Congress candidates tend to be local entrepreneurs – if they sense the Congress is likely to do well, they will not desert.Another technique used to battle anti-incumbency in an election is to change many of the sitting representatives. This helps direct the anger to the helpless local candidates. BJP will probably do that in 2019 also – after all, most MPs owe their election to the Modi wave, and not to any great track record of their own. Easy come, easy go.
7. Class Card
This is the age-old technique of pitting the poor against the rich. Our movies did it in the past, and our politicians are masters at it. The message is, “The rich make their money through illegal means and so much be hit. Look, I am taxing and targeting them hard, and will now give that money to you.” This is similar to the demonetisation narrative on black money.
The BJP has shrewdly switched its primary base from the upper-class and middle-class section to the poor, who are larger in number, tend to vote and are more loyal. So, expect more rich-bashing. In this, of course, the middle-class is the one that is hurt the most. The BJP’s belief is perhaps that their support can be bought with a few sops just before the elections because politicians think that the middle class does not remember much except the most recent goodies they have got. And after all, so goes the belief, “What is their alternative? Who else will they vote for? The corrupt Congress?!” The middle class vote is for the BJP what the Muslim vote has been for the Congress – always taken for granted.
8. Cash Card
The National Health Scheme and Minimum Support Price announcements in the Budget along with state-level farm loan waivers are all steps in the direction of putting more money in the hands of the poor and farmers. Just don’t call them freebies – which of course is what they exactly are. Because the real structural reforms were not done in the first 6 months of the BJP government, Indians are not on the path to prosperity. So, their votes need to be purchased. There are other schemes like Mudra which have cash handouts linked with them. If all else fails, there is always the Jan Dhan Vapasi scheme that can be announced – Rs 5,000 into each of the 30 crore Jan Dhan accounts, taken from more taxes on – you guessed it – the rich, middle-class and businesses.
9. Community Card
The Hindu-Muslim divide exploitation and polarisation for votes is an old story. Congress played the M-card for many decades, starting with a +15% support base in the election. BJP realised that simply caste-level aggregation is not good enough to counter this; they need to polarise and unite larger numbers at a level above caste – the first of which is religion. The Ayodhya Ram Mandir verdict this way will give them the perfect opportunity for this. The BJP’s Triple Talaq focus is a step towards dividing the Muslim vote. There will probably be more efforts to get people to think not their caste but their religion as we get closer to the election and the voters get closer to the polling booth.
10. Country Card
Nothing unites a country’s people more than an external threat. That there could be an India-Pakistan limited edition border war, as used to be talked a lot until a year or so ago. This has changed because of China’s aggressive entry into the mix. China can do in India what Russia did in the US elections – meddling to get the outcome it desires. Doklam is just the first step. Pakistan in effect now has China’s kavach (protection), so it may be hard to whip up nationalistic sentiments via the border.***
So, these are the 10 cards the BJP can play. In my view, the most important “trump card” that can deliver BJP 230+ and ensure a second-term for Narendra Modi is what I had said in one of my previous commentaries – elections in the next 100 days before May 2018.
One question to ask: these 10 cards can help Narendra Modi continue as India’s Prime Minister, but will he become India’s First Prosperity Prime Minister?
In a companion commentary and video, I discuss the 10 cards Rahul Gandhi can play to replace Narendra Modi as India’s next Prime Minister.