Every election in India – big or small – has a context and messages. But there is much more than just the BJP’s rise and fall of the Congress and Left.
Every election in India – big or small – has a context and a message. BJP’s rise in the North-East is undoubtedly the key message of the election outcomes in Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland. But there is much more than just the BJP’s rise and fall of the Congress and Left. There are a set of messages voters have been sending to political parties over the past many years via elections. These messages don’t seem to be yet getting through to the political leadership. If these messages are not heard and acted upon, they have the potential to create big swings in the national elections.
The BJP leaders don’t seem to be getting the message the voters are sending them. Their deafness will lead to major shifts that they will not like. There are three major messages.
Message 1: “We want prosperity, not polarisation.”
Right from the 2014 elections, the people have wanted prosperity. The vote for BJP’s slogan of achhe din was just that. Voters find it hard to define what prosperity means, but they can feel and see it. The problem is that political parties are still behind the curve in addressing these needs because none of them really understands how to enable/create prosperity. Without first understanding why Indians continue to be poor, they cannot put them on the path to prosperity.
The growth of the Anti-prosperity machine
For the politicians in power, prosperity is about making the poor even more dependent on government services, rather than giving them the economic freedom to create their own prosperity. For this, a government has to take from the small producing class, and the result is the creation of an anti-prosperity machine. It was created by the Congress, and is now continues to be operated by the Central and state governments in power. Prosperity by welfare is simply not possible – at some point of time, governments run of other people’s money, as happened in the Soviet Union and more recently in Venezuela.
Crushing the Anti-prosperity machine
By reducing individual and economic freedom, by discriminating between different groups, by growing bad government and not investing in good government, by imposing tariffs on imports, by not reforming labour laws which could ramp up job creation, by messing with prices in various sectors and markets, every government in India has grown the anti-prosperity machine. Even as political parties and their leaders keep growing it, voters want this machine crushed. This chasm between expectation and reality will hurt existing political parties.
Message 2: “Our past loyalties do not guarantee future votes.”
We are starting to see large swings in vote shares which can lead to extreme results. In 2014, BJP’s national vote share grew rose sharply. In Tripura, the rise of the BJP was even more phenomenal. Equally big was the decimation of the Congress vote share. In recent by-polls in Rajasthan, BJP’s vote share saw a big swing away from it.
Economic performance matters
This is coming from a mix of unhappiness about the state of affairs or an expectation of positive change. Just like exams, every election is a new one, to be fought and won from scratch. And in this, it is economic performance matters more than anything else.
Voters may give one chance for new promises, but they will also be quite ruthless about ejection if those promises are not fulfilled. In this, there is perhaps a warning sign for the BJP as it controls the Centre and a majority of the states. There is no short cut to creating a prosperous India – it means economic freedom to individuals and businesses. On this count, the BJP has fallen woefully short.
Message 3: “We are open to considering political startups.”
In the desire for prosperity, if their existing political parties are not offering solutions, voters are willing to look beyond them. The BJP in Tripura was not the BJP of UP, MP or Rajasthan. It was a startup. It focused on a new target group (Christians and tribals), it made new alliances in the local context, it changed its message by dropping the unpalatable parts, and it used technology and a bottom-up ground organisation to take its message to the people. It thus took on a powerful incumbent who was looking jaded and had not changed, and it won.
Agile and innovative startup like Jio
Of course, most startups fail so there is no general formula for success. It is non-trivial to create a political startup. In that sense, BJP in Tripura was a like Reliance’s Jio – an agile startup, but with the backing of its powerful parent’s brand and resources. Jio disrupted the incumbents in the telecom sector driving many of them to bankruptcy. The BJP is doing the same to its opponents in many states.
BJP and most regionals were once startups; they all have now become incumbents. For the BJP to take on the regionals in the states that it doesn’t have power, it will need to reinvent itself as a startup. For the Congress and regionals to take on the BJP in the states where the BJP is in power, they will need to think entrepreneurially.
Political startups will need to be innovative, and not just try and replicate what the incumbents are doing – just like happens in the world of business. The action has already begun in Tamil Nadu with two new political startups launched by Rajinikanth and Kamal Hassan.**
The reality of India is that there is now not much difference in the economic policies between the Congress of the past and the BJP of today. (It could even be argued that in some states there is not much difference in the local leaders either as BJP welcomes defectors with open arms.) The failed policies of the past are still very much in place today. For incumbent political parties, it is not too late to understand that what prosperity needs is a foundation of liberty, non-discrimination, non-interference, limited government and decentralisation.
The Third Way
Taken together, these 3 messages point to an opening for the future: political startups with a message centred around prosperity and which can succeed in building a bottom-up organisation in a limited time could have a big impact on the next elections. To succeed, a political startup needs to articulate a third way – different from the Congress way and the BJP way.
Voters are still waiting to elect a leader who can destroy the anti-prosperity machine and become India’s First Prosperity Prime Minister.