Modi must retain his anti-establishment image for BJP to recover

  • Swapan Dasgupta
  • Updated: Feb 12, 2015 01:10 IST

An election should be viewed in two ways: as a statistical exercise and as an aggregation of socio-political emotions. Shell shocked by the sheer scale of its defeat in the Delhi Assembly election, the leadership of the BJP has drawn a measure of solace from the fact that its 2013 vote share remained broadly intact. Consequently, it has attributed the AAP avalanche to the mass transfer of votes by erstwhile Congress and BSP supporters.

In statistical terms the BJP assessment isn’t wrong. At the same time, it is a partial view. The BJP has also got to address two other sets of questions.

First, if erstwhile Congress and BSP supporters felt orphaned, why did the vote transfer benefit AAP alone? The BJP was not even a nominal beneficiary of the Congress and BSP collapse. More tellingly, the BJP lost some 14% of the additional popular vote it secured in the 2014 general election when it won all the seven Lok Sabha seats in Delhi. Although Assembly elections invariably witness some slippage, the BJP succeeded in wiping out all its gains from the NAMO surge of 2014. Why did this happen despite the aggressive over-reliance on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image?

Cold statistics, it is clear, can only quantify trends; it cannot explain them. For a more rounded understanding it is necessary to fall back on the political context and the human emotions that propel individuals and communities to vote one way and not another.

To my mind, the most significant change that has happened in the past 10 months has been the transformation of the Modi image from that of a crusader against a decrepit and venal establishment to the leading light of a new but aloof establishment. The political effect of this was particularly marked in Delhi where the real opposition wasn’t a discredited Congress but a populist crusader who was at pains to stress his ‘muffler man’ ordinariness. In 2014, a vote for Modi was governed by a combination of anger and expectation; in February 2015, the Prime Minister was equated with a new ruling class. This shift may have been more discernible in Delhi because it is at the centre of political power. But the projection of a grim leader by a series of unimaginative hoardings coupled with the adverse publicity of his monogrammed pin stripes conveyed an impression that yesterday’s chaiwala-made-good had been co-opted into the Lutyens’ Delhi culture. The excitement and youthful impetuosity that characterised the 2014 BJP campaign was singularly missing in the Assembly election. Modi has always captured the public imagination when he combined performance with a streak of rebelliousness. This image now appears somewhat blunted.

This is not to suggest that the Prime Minister’s appeal has dissipated. The more credible post-poll surveys indicate that he retains the support of voters and that his personal endorsement far exceeds the identification with the BJP. This may be a reason why the AAP leadership has desisted from interpreting its resounding victory as an anti-Modi vote—quite unlike the commentariat that is anxious to paint the Delhi vote as Modi’s Stalingrad. However, the transition of the Prime Minister from a romantic rebel to a tall, global figure has been politically unrewarding in Delhi. In this election, Modi failed to transfer his personal goodwill to a jaded state BJP. The voters preferred the heady unfamiliar to tired stalwarts.

There are two inescapable conclusions: Modi must retain his anti-establishment image and must reshape the BJP in his own unalloyed image. In Delhi, the BJP failed to cut much ice with both the poor and the young voters. If this trend cuts across state boundaries, electoral disasters will be unavoidable. Both the Prime Minister and the BJP have no choice but to reconnect with these sections—not by embracing a variant of Congress populism but by blending performance with a sense of purpose.

In Gujarat, Modi was always mindful of the importance of making development participative. In the past 10 months, there appears to be an over-reliance on the bureaucracy and a disinclination to rock the boat. Some of this stemmed from the government’s Rajya Sabha shortfall. But that is not the whole story. The sense of urgency that should have defined the first year has yielded way to a disinclination to deviate too much from a Congress-determined course. An inordinate amount of time was, for example, wasted in showing generosity to babus who were clearly not fit for purpose and often harboured personal agendas. This show of magnanimity hasn’t generated goodwill. Instead, it has been viewed as commitment to the status quo—a very damaging impression for a leader elected to usher in achche din.

As of today, the Modi government hasn’t dislodged the old establishment from the power structure. It will undoubtedly try and use the Delhi verdict and sustained media pressure to blunt the reformist edge of the government, not least to retain its toehold in power. The Modi dispensation must not yield to this subterfuge. For its own sake, the Prime Minister has to use adversity to accelerate the creation of a class of ‘former people’. If the first year was spent in planning and familiarisation, the next four years must be marked by the relentless pursuit of reform and change. The larger appeal of Modi stemmed from his reputation as a decisive leader with a reformist agenda. Any delay and even a disinclination to take risks will, after a year in office, be seen as weakness.

After Delhi, the choices before Modi are unambiguous: he has to be ruthless in wielding his broom. He must act decisively, even angrily, against loonies, time-servers and dregs of the ancien regime. The bazaroos will growl but the caravan will move on.

(Swapan Dasgupta is a political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.)

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