To paraphrase Harold Wilson, two years is a long time in politics. Add six months, and you find yourself half-way into a government’s term, that inflection point when everything starts getting coloured by the fear of losing power at the next general elections. Those milestones – two years and half-term -- loom for the Bharatiya Janata Party; chances are that it will look back moodily at what has gone by with a view to extracting a few lessons for the Great Examination of 2019.
By the time year-end comes along, bringing with it the mid-point, the BJP would probably have lost at least 6 out of 11 state elections; four of its wins were in 2014 in the afterglow of its Lok Sabha triumph. The only depth left to plumb after Bihar (big, important and Hindi heartland) and Delhi (small, important and under the Centre’s nose) would be Uttar Pradesh next year, where Mayawati lies in wait. Despite the Prime Minister’s resilient personal popularity, the Modi wave would have long faded. The party’s strategy for the second half could well be built on these pillars:
Sell the economy, and security: It’s fairly obvious that to even attempt turning the tide, success with the economy is the single biggest factor. There was enough populism in the Budget to suggest a shift in focus to the rural poor, who are at the sharp end of any economic distress; they, and the middle class, are unlikely to buy excuses about a global slowdown. As long as oil stays benign and inflation under control, you would expect the Reserve Bank of India’s accommodative rate policy to continue. Taken with the Pay Commission order and slew of infrastructure projects, in the best case that means a surge in spending, a creation of jobs and a halt to the farmer suicides that have scarred large tracts of India. Some analyst polls peg the Sensex at 28,000 by year-end, up nearly 25% from early May 2014, when the Modi run-up hadn’t begun. Its relative outperformance compared to other markets could be a selling point.
The other story the BJP could sell – a mildly Goebbelsian one that merges hope and fear – is internal security. So far there has been no significant terror strike on civilian targets in the country under its watch, even if this could be because the focus of Islamist terror has moved elsewhere. Do people feel safer? The answer depends on who you ask, but the vast majority probably do.
Be seen to plan for the big variables: A third successive deficient monsoon – though there are hopes this will not happen -- could prove fatal, both to the farmers and the BJP’s electoral prospects. Expect people to judge the BJP on how it manages a worsened drought. It has gained hugely from global crude prices – down two-thirds since May 2014 – but a slowdown in buyer markets has hit our merchandise exports to the extent that they have shrunk for 15 months in a row. So the known unknowns have grown, and there may be a few unknown unknowns lurking there; it pays to build a buffer and to exploit any positives to the hilt, like raising excise tax on fuels.
Realise nationalism is quite saleable, after all: If not overdone, this could replace Mandir, black money, and to some extent even Congress-mukt as a leitmotif. It is a fairly durable idea that anyone can be bullied into being on the right side of. It also accentuates the idea of the “other”, always central to the Hindu right’s way of operating. Very few middle-class Indians would have a problem with large flags fluttering in campuses across the country, especially after the Srinagar NIT shenanigans; the views of a few students may excite intellectuals for a few days but count for little in the overall scheme of things. Nationalism, however obnoxiously framed, is acceptable to many more people than madcap notions of intrinsic Hindu superiority or evolved ideas like internationalism. The jury’s still out on beef, but chances are that it’s a trump card that the more cynical election planners will pull out from time to time. At most times, if you like, nationalism is the new beef, and a popular cut.
Keep harping on Congress-mukt Bharat: As long as the Grand Old Party doesn’t undergo a massive revamp and isn’t energised by real leadership, it will remain an easy target for pot shots; the familiar refrain about what it did not do in 60 years in power will be heard often and contrasted with the flurry of activity under the NDA government. The party of India’s independence needs reinvention, and that’s difficult to see happening.
Deliver on what you promised: There’s little news of the Naga accord, the catchiest promise around black money was just an election jumla and the heartburn around One Rank, One Pension has been considerable. There’s plenty of ground to cover on the Make in India front. If it’s capable of doing so, the Opposition could paint the government as a glib-talking non-performer. The NDA will need a couple of major, demonstrable successes on commitments it has made.
Relax. Bad news, in modest doses, is harmless: As long as the news doesn’t have a direct impact on voters, the BJP can sight tight and wait for it to blow over. The news cycle moves on relentlessly – does anyone remember the travails of Vasundhara Raje and Sushma Swaraj from last year despite fire and brimstone raining down and the nation needing to know? Unless the Opposition shows preternatural determination keeping the focus on issues – and there’s no indication it will -- you can get away with the odd bad hair day. This is different from UPA2, which tended to get skewered for days on end by TV channels.
Realise that a lack of grace catches up with you: The BJP showed boorishness in its dealings with the Opposition after it came to power, and its leadership displayed the same tactics internally. It has paid for the first with the difficulty it faces getting even the most non-controversial legislation through; internal strife has yet to rear its head, but when the knives come out, they would have been sharper for the wait. It can still remedy things with a more conciliatory approach, but no one, as they say, is holding their breath.
Outward’s good, now look inward: Narendra Modi has shown surefootedness on his many trips abroad; this is a positive to the extent foreign policy objectives are met; electorally, he is preaching to the converted NRIs, who can’t vote. It may be time, again, to bring the same charisma and results to his local market.