BJP battles the projected hawa
In Indian elections, a big campaign tool to ensure victory is to project the inevitability of victory. If you can make enough people think you are winning, it helps you win – for then the floating voters decide not to ‘waste their vote’, and move to the side which has the perceived advantage. This was a key tactic used by Narendra Modi in the 2014 election.
And that is why BJP cannot quite understand how they are losing this battle in projecting the inevitability of victory. Both television channels and newspapers have done stories on the dip in the morale of the party, and the mood in Patna – among those who shape opinion – has shifted.
Over breakfast at Patna’s Panache Hotel near Gandhi Maidan, I spoke to BJP mid-level activists, who rejected this ‘spin’ and attributed it to Nitish Kumar’s publicity-machinery and the handiwork of journalists close to him. One whispered, “The corporate media is against us, because big businessmen are not getting the kind of space and access they wanted under Modiji. This is their revenge.” The accusations sounded eerily similar to the ones other parties made against BJP last year.
Party strategists claim that they are indeed behind the Grand Alliance after the first two phases – but the difference is of about 5-7 seats, not the 20-30 seats as is being projected. “They have a small lead, but we will make up for it in the next phase,” said a member of the BJP campaign team, who was travelling on the ground. He then went on to discuss specific seat-by-seat dynamics, rejected the argument that there is a broad forward-backward caste polarization, and insisted BJP has been able to make substantial inroads into backwards.
The perception battle will continue, and the party hopes to change the narrative after the third phase.
I was driving around Vaishali district, hoping to catch a Lalu Prasad rally in the evening, when we turned into a village and heard Tejaswi Yadav was in the vicinity. Tejaswi is Lalu’s younger son, a former cricketer, and is contesting his first election from Raghopur, a constituency both his father and mother have represented in the past. He is widely considered Lalu’s favorite to inherit the political legacy – but this may not be smooth given the ambitions of both his sister, Misa, and his elder brother, Tej Pratap.
We hopped across to the Dhabauli village in the Bidhupur prakhand of the constituency. Tejaswi was going from door-to-door to canvas support. Dressed in white kurta-pyajama, a gamcha around his neck, he was walking briskly, asking for ‘ashirward’, blessings, from the women and shaking hands with the men. He deployed the same campaign trope that the alliance had been using against BJP when he asked a villager, “Have you got 15 lakh in your bank account yet? Remember Modi had promised it. Did he deliver?”
Tejaswi sat for a few minutes in the courtyard of a house, and was forced into having a sweet. His host gave a quick speech to the crowd. “Laluji is a world leader. And it is your duty to make Tejaswi win without Laluji coming to this village even once. This is about his izzat.”
Tejaswi told me while this was his first contest, he had campaigned several times in the past. He was confident and felt the elections had turned in their favour. “The RSS chief’s reservation remarks really changed the game. Backwards have come together. The BJP is making one last attempt in the third phase because there are many urban centres, but I think we will win even there.” As we walked together into a Dalit quarter, he added, “BJP thinks that like 2014, people would once again vote for Modi from different castes. But it won’t happen.”
In Bihar, caste and development both matter. To posit one against the other is not analytically useful, for often they are also linked. But without using the binary, I could not but resist asking Tejaswi how caste was influencing the elections. “It is everywhere. In US, isn’t it about whites and blacks? Caste has been the way our society has been organized for centuries, and it will be the key for a very long time to come. It matters.”
Was I talking to the next deputy chief minister of Bihar? Tejaswi brushed aside the question and said this was not the time to talk about it. As he headed out to his next stop on the trail, I rushed back to the car, hoping to catch Lalu’s rally – my original motive for coming to Vaishali. The public meeting was over. We had missed the father, while covering the son.
The perils of reporting
Samastipur has already voted. But I thought it may be useful to do a ‘post-poll’ reporting journey. A little before the main district town is a turn towards Harepur village. It was a Muslim settlement. A group of women were sitting in a courtyard, and laughed when I asked them who they had voted for. “Why should we tell you?”
A man, wearing a white lungi, was more open. He said he – and most people in the village – had voted for ‘teer chaap’, Nitish Kumar’s party symbol. Why? “Because he has done vikaas.” What vikaas? “He has made roads.” Had they voted for vikaas or because they did not want to vote BJP because of their religion? “Because of vikaas,” he insisted.
I felt guilty for asking the somewhat rude question on religion. He had not taken offence. But it was not something we journalists would ask each other, or members of our own class. We took liberties and talked down to people, by asking them to open up about their deeply personal, constitutionally protected, choices; their reasons for making those choices; and tested our assumptions on them. It is the only way to know how society is thinking, but many of us, in the business of hunting for information, pushed it too far sometimes. A lesson on the campaign trail - I need to figure out a better way to ask people about their political preferences.