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Past its blooming period

The BJP needs to rediscover the average middle class voter who isn’t swayed by shrill vocabulary or marketing hype. In an increasingly aspirational society, this voter is only concerned with his personal well-being and an assurance of future prosperity, writes Rajdeep Sardesai.

india Updated: May 29, 2009 00:05 IST

As a news anchor who lives in a television studio, and whose reporting days are rapidly becoming a fading memory, my one connection with the ‘real’ world is a morning walkers’ group in the neighbourhood park. The gathering includes senior citizens, service sector professionals and independent businessmen. Their viewpoints on most issues — be it POTA, uniform civil code, black money in Swiss banks, or even the Ram Mandir — are similar to a BJP manifesto. Yet, a majority of them voted for Sheila Dikshit in last year’s Delhi Assembly elections and Dr Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister this year. In their voting preferences lies the key to explaining perhaps the only nationwide trend of election 2009: The dominance of the Congress/UPA over the BJP/NDA across urban India.

As the comprehensive National Election Study done by Yogendra Yadav and his team has shown, the UPA has gained in votes and seats in urban constituencies. With the exception of Bangalore and Ahmedabad, the Congress and its allies have swept metropolitan India. The UPA won 34 of the 57 major urban constituencies, the NDA just 19. The UPA won an impressive 81 of the 144 semi-urban constituencies, the NDA only won 39. It’s not just the urban poor, the study shows that the UPA was 15 per cent points ahead of the NDA among urban middle class voters.

For the BJP, it’s these figures that must spark off introspection: Why has the BJP lost its appeal in its traditional bastion? After all, it was the rising clout of the new Indian middle class that was seen to have driven the BJP’s ascent to power in the 1990s. This class was the economic beneficiary of liberalisation and socially conditioned to seeing the minorities as hostile to national interest. The journalists, bureaucrats, professionals and even army officers, who embraced the BJP in the 1990s, were products of this period which saw the Congress being typecast as a corrupt, dynastical, pseudo-secular party, while the BJP was seen as a moral, democratic, nationalist alternative.

With Atal Behari Vajpayee as the mascot, the middle class was attracted by the idea of a soft Hindu identity that would correct the anomalies of the Nehruvian period. The appeal of this identity politics was not just witnessed in election results — the BJP emerged as the single largest party in three successive elections in the 1990s — it could be seen in television studios as well: Assertive voices that spoke out against the alleged ‘pampering’ of minorities, against foreign origins and which called for tougher anti-terror laws were applauded across audience-driven TV debates.

Those voices can still be heard, but their arguments seem to have lost their resonance. How long will we debate the Kandahar hijacking, or who was responsible for the Shahbano controversy or who gave biryani to terrorists in Kashmir? These questions were relevant at the time, but the priorities of a nation have shifted. The fact is that emotional issues matter much less now than ever before, that in a ‘normal’ election, the urban voter chooses present-day governance over past animosities. We are in an era of inclusive, ‘identity-plus’ politics, where winning elections is more about gaining new voters and not relying on narrow identities, be it caste or religion.

The BJP should have realised this last year itself when in the Assembly elections, after the 26/11 terror attack, the party did badly. Full-page ads warning of terrorism did little to sway an average Delhiite: when he wanted to be comforted, spreading fear wasn’t the way forward. Sheila Dikshit provided that comfort factor, the Delhi BJP leadership did not.

In a sense, what happened in Delhi has now been replicated across urban India. The BJP has acquired the image of being disruptionist where once it was seen to stand for effective law and order. Be it moral policing in Karnataka, Varun Gandhi’s hate speech, or the violence in Kandhamal, the BJP is burdened with the tag of flirting with irresponsible forces. When a Varun Gandhi spoke out against minorities, he energised the BJP’s core constituency, but ended up alienating the moderate centre, which was more concerned with the economic slowdown and job losses. Unfortunately, instead of distancing itself from Varun’s rhetoric, a section of the BJP almost justified it, leaving the undecided middle class voter confused about the party’s true intentions.

This confusion was also manifest in the BJP’s opposition to the the Indo-US nuclear deal last year. Here was an issue which logically should have been championed by the BJP as its own. After all, it was Vajpayee who had opened a window of opportunity with Washington. Yet, the BJP contrived to be seen as being on the same side as an ‘obstructionist’ Left, further alienating the middle class voter for whom the US is far from being the Great Satan. Moreover, the ethical core which the BJP once claimed made it a party with a difference is clearly gone. When a bureaucrat who is voted the most corrupt by her peers becomes a party member, when BJP MPs engage in passport rackets, when jailbirds are given party tickets, then the party loses the moral high ground. By putting ‘winnability’ ahead of idealism, the BJP leadership squandered the goodwill quotient. By contrast, Manmohan Singh was seen to epitomise a certain decency in public life, an ‘accidental politician’ who was untouched by the trappings of power.

Perhaps, the BJP needs to rediscover the average middle class voter who isn’t swayed by shrill vocabulary or marketing hype. In an increasingly aspirational society, this voter is only concerned with his personal well-being and an assurance of future prosperity. Which is why the Third Front and the prospect of a Mayawati in power frightened him. His voting choices are determined by a desire for stability, ethical behaviour, a violence-free society, rapid economic growth and a rising Sensex. He wants an enlightened political leadership that offers a mirror to the future, and is not imprisoned in the past.

In 2009, it’s the Congress troika of Manmohan-Sonia-Rahul and not the BJP which offered him this futuristic vision. Which is why a majority of the middle class voted for them.

Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN Network