Decoding BJP’s game plan to win battleground Bihar
Soon after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, following an initial internal survey, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) began getting a sense that there was a strong anti-incumbency sentiment building up against chief minister (CM) Nitish Kumar, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)’s CM face for the assembly polls. Subsequent surveys confirmed this impression, especially during the pandemic.
This is when the BJP realised that it had to find ways to counter the anti-incumbency without it affecting the alliance, while, at the same time, expanding its own strength. To achieve this, the party embarked on an extensive, multipronged strategy, according to four senior BJP leaders, three of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity.
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The main components of this strategy included focusing on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and highlighting the welfare schemes launched by the central government; firming up the organisational apparatus; ensuring outreach to those affected by the lockdown, imposed to curb the spread of the pandemic, especially migrant workers; carefully polarising the electorate depending on the nature of the constituency; and aggressively deploying leaders across the state to woo voters, both directly and virtually. And it is this strategy which led to the BJP emerging, for the first time, as the senior partner within the NDA.
Speaking about the inputs from internal surveys over the past year, a BJP state-level leader said, “There was strong dissent on ground over issues such as corruption at lower level governance, poor implementation of schemes, improper flood relief distribution and Covid-19 management. But, at the same time, the people expressed satisfaction over PM’s initiatives, schemes to help poor during pandemic,”
The party decided that its best strategy would be to highlight the PM’s commitment to serving the poor in general, and Bihar in particular, with his various schemes. The organisational apparatus was strengthened to convey the message.
According to a second BJP leader, the party had booth pramukhs at all the 67,000 booths; it appointed assembly seat in-charges and formed saptarishis at every booth. The saptarishis — which referred to a seven member committee at each both — were tasked to motivate some 4,70,000 committee members to spread the PM’s message to voters.
Once the organisation was strengthened, the focus shifted to the substance of the message. One, there was focus on relief. The second leader quoted above said, “In the regions where floods and Covid-19 had a major impact, party workers were asked to ensure that proper relief work was done and to act as a bridge between party and the government.”
Two, there was focus on central schemes and the schemes launched during pandemic for providing jobs to workers and help to poor. There was special focus on the PM Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan, meant to assist migrant workers. The first leader quoted above said, “The party took it people to assuage their hurt sentiments and negate the anti-incumbency.” Besides this, the various steps of the central government, from provision of free ration to expansion of welfare schemes, was repeatedly highlighted — as was the PM’s commitment to Bihar’s overall development. “Schemes such as the Ujwala Yojna, the Har Ghar Nal have had a positive outcome at the state level. The party chose to highlight their impact, especially on women who outnumber male voters,” said a third party functionary involved in the state’s campaign strategy.
But this, the party knew, needed to be supplemented by a formidable social coalition — where it focused on its own base, but also expanded its alliance. BJP general secretary and a key figure in the Bihar campaign, Bhupender Yadav, told HT in an interview that the social equation that is at play in Bihar made it necessary for the party to join forces with other outfits. “Along with the alliance partners, the JD(U), the HAM (S) and the VIP party we had a formidable social base. It was necessary to be part of a coalition that catered to a larger social base,” he said.
The process of ticket distribution itself was well thought out. Even as it was aiming to reinforce its acceptance across castes, the party was careful not to upset the upper caste vote bank, said a fourth leader familiar with the party’s thinking. The tickets were distributed among Kayasthas, Rajputs, Bhumihars and Brahmins but also the backward communities — both Yadavs as well as those from extreme backward classes.
And then it came to the final weeks of mobilisation on the ground. Canvassing at the booth level was bolstered with outreach though social media. All MPs were instructed to visit at least two panchayats everyday outside their own constituencies and organise meetings in small groups to avoid violating the protocol for social distancing.
“All leaders including the MPs were also instructed to hold at least one virtual rally every day,” said the third functionary quoted above. It was this mix of tactics which has now catapulted the BJP to a position of strength in Bihar.