Rajnath Singh’s selection as BJP president has been welcomed by party insiders since it has saved them the embarrassment of explaining Nitin Gadkari’s income-tax problems and other angularities. However, that the RSS and the politicians within the party could agree only on bringing back Singh, the previous party chief, would indicate the narrow spectrum of choices before them. Competing stakeholders within the BJP not only prevent the organic, bottom-up validation of a party leader but also ensure each major influence group exercises a veto. Rather than seek the highest common factor, the instinct is to move towards the lowest common denominator.
For all its internal democracy, this is a shortcoming the BJP has to address in the long run. It is not important how the party compares with the Congress; that is a separate debate. A robust and open system of elections will make the BJP stronger for its own sake.
Singh will be leading the BJP into a second successive Lok Sabha election. He would be keen to avoid the missteps of 2009, and operative conditions are indeed far removed. The UPA government faces intense public hostility, especially in urban India. Some of this is to be expected after a decade in power. Some of it is specific to the here and now and a consequence of the economy tanking.
Between 2003 and 2011, India’s GDP grew at about 8.5% an annum. This year, and as is likely in the next two years, growth will be in the 5.5-6% range. This has huge implications for jobs and opportunities, investment decisions and consumer and business confidence. The surge in food prices — admittedly not entirely a domestic issue — adds to the toxic mix.
To borrow an expression Rahul Gandhi used at the Congress’ Chintan Shivir in Jaipur, this has led to a loss of hope. Worried the future looks cloudier than it did three or four years ago, young voters are turning restive and angry. The reverse side of an unharnessed demographic dividend, after all, is a youth bulge. The crowds that came out in New Delhi and other cities to protest against the heinous rape of December 16 — or during the Anna Hazare protests of 2011 — were no doubt concerned about safety for women and corruption, but their presence on the streets also represented a larger, untapped disquiet.
By itself can this negative sentiment take the BJP to power? Recent opinion polls say that the Congress is losing ground and the BJP is inching ahead, but do not suggest any definitive and preordained victory. Rather, they point to a 1996-like election verdict, where the Congress slips and the BJP gains but not enough to authoritatively run a government. There is a difference — and these are random numbers — between a national party winning 155 and 185 Lok Sabha seats.
What will the Congress’ strategy be? It is attempting to expand its catchment area to the urban and small-town middle classes it had hitherto neglected. In a sense, it has borrowed from the ‘neo middle class’ idiom and appeal that the BJP used to spectacular affect in Gujarat. It is seeking a slice of the aspirational, hungry vote that is driving the energies of contemporary society.
Yet this vote is instinctually posited against a system of privileges and entitlements and established, ossified hierarchies. For Rahul Gandhi to reach out to it by presenting himself as an agent of change from within, and distinguishing himself from the failures of the UPA government, will be challenging. It is not impossible for a ruling party to sell itself as a transformative force — Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and the CPI(M) did that in West Bengal in 2006 — but it is nevertheless a steep climb.
Tactically, Rahul can aim to ensure that the BJP doesn’t win even if the Congress loses, and the leading Opposition party doesn’t get those 20 or 30 extra seats even if it finishes the single-largest party. For the BJP, this necessitates a realisation that it has to complement the anti-incumbency advantage with a counter-narrative of hope. As in the case of Rahul, this needs to be centred on an individual who will be face of its campaign and, by implication, its prime ministerial candidate.
Granted, the BJP has a limited geographical footprint. Even so, to maximise its seats in the states where it matters — and where it competes directly with the Congress in a bipolar, sometimes presidential contest — it cannot avoid putting up the leader there is a groundswell for. The alternative to Narendra Modi is no alternative at all.
Indian elections are often likened to the Mahabharata. It is worth noting that at Kurukshetra, Arjuna was the Pandava army’s foremost warrior but not its commander-in-chief. That role went to Dhrishtadyumna, Draupadi’s brother. The BJP has just found itself its Dhrishtadyumna for 2014. He needs to facilitate the path for Arjuna.
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.