Hubris at the hustings
Election 2004 showed what happens when arrogance overcomes a party.
Shortly after the election campaign began, I interviewed Dr Manmohan Singh. Was he dispirited? I asked. The Congress had gone into the campaign as the underdog. Many people regarded it as a virtual certainty that the BJP would get over 300 seats. And hundreds of crores of taxpayers’ money had been spent on telling us that India was Shining.
Dr Singh said that he did not share the general pessimism. First of all, he said, India was not shining. He quoted innumerable figures — which I only dimly registered — to illustrate his point. Secondly, he said, while there was some reason for the urban middle-class to cheer, this certainly did not extend to the rest of the country. Thirdly, even if you looked only at the urban middle-class, the truth was that they had done much better during the period he had been finance minister (1991-96) and yet, this had not helped the Congress to win the 1996 election. Fourthly, the BJP ignored social justice and Indians would never forgive that.
In the circumstances, he said, he couldn’t really understand what the BJP’s confidence was based on.
At the time, I thought he was mistaken. Certainly, everything he said went against the conventional wisdom of the day. I believed that the Congress would get 120 seats or so and that Atal Bihari Vajpayee was undefeatable. Even if the BJP did not get the 300-plus seats that Venkaiah Naidu was claiming were already in the bag, it seemed probable that it would remain in office.
But as the campaign went on, I began to get the sneaking feeling that Manmohan Singh was right and I was wrong. I don’t claim to understand economics so I couldn’t decide how well the economy was doing, but certainly on two crucial points, Dr Singh seemed to have got it right. The first was the rural-urban divide. There was something faintly obscene about the manner in which Chandrababu Naidu was being feted by the CII/FICCI lobby while farmers were committing suicide in his, largely bankrupt, state. It offended my sense of social justice and I suspected many well off people in Andhra were also worried by the disparities.
And as for the urban middle-class, the so-called bedrock of the BJP’s support base, I sensed, in both Bombay and Delhi, that the party’s disastrous election campaign was driving away urban voters. On April 11, I wrote that despite Vajpayee’s stature, the party was now in trouble: “With each passing day, the BJP is throwing away that advantage because of the ineptitude and foolishness with which it is running its election campaign… it is hard to repress the feeling that the campaign has lost its way.”
The weaknesses of the BJP’s campaign were the weaknesses of the BJP’s leadership, both the Big Two and the second rung, the so-called Young Jerks. Put simply, hubris had set in. After nearly six years in office, the BJP had become the establishment. Much of the media had been co-opted so virtually no criticism was heard or tolerated. A handful of BJP ministers appeared almost daily on TV channels to hold forth on the state of the world to respectful and deferential anchors. Those who were not good enough to get on to a proper channel didn’t have to worry. The government scrapped the profitable DD Metro Channel to introduce its own News Channel so that there could be jobs for the boys and slots for the netas. Even when the Congress complained about the bias of DD News, nobody paid any attention.
This had become the government of the 24-hour news channels.
The sheer smugness of the BJP leaders led them to lose contact with the people of India — even with the urban middle-class. Such was its arrogance that the BJP wanted to take credit for everything good that happened in India. The entire software boom, which had nothing to do with the BJP, was appropriated by the party. The fact that this was an Indian achievement, made possible by the hard work of all Indians, not a few netas who appeared regularly on TV, was forgotten. Finally, it got to the stage where even if India won a Test match, Pramod Mahajan’s chamchas wanted you to know that this was a victory for the Sangh parivar.
And yet, despite this greed for credit, there was no hiding the blood-stained underbelly of the BJP. The same people who talked of techno-superpower India connived and conspired with Narendra Modi during the Gujarat riots. You can believe, as I do, that Modi is morally a mass-murderer, or you can believe, as some others do, that the riots were not his fault.
But there is no way that anybody can defend the election campaign he fought, with its identification of all Indian Muslims with Pakistan and its socially divisive agenda. And yet, the same BJP leaders who spoke so well on the news channels hailed and feted Modi as a great leader. Even Vajpayee, to his eternal shame, backed down over sacking Modi and then delivered what was perhaps the most disgraceful speech of his career (on two kinds of Islam) in Goa as Muslims were being slaughtered on the streets of Gujarat.
When the BJP won Gujarat by a landslide it didn’t seem to matter. But of course, it did. Had Vajpayee sacked Modi, the BJP would still have won in Gujarat. But by backing him, he finished off any hope of attracting Muslims — essential if the BJP was to move to the mainstream — and left people like me with the feeling that no matter how moderate Vajpayee himself was, when it came to the crunch, it would be the RSS agenda that prevailed.
As for Vajpayee himself, one reason why the BJP campaign failed so miserably was that whoever conceived it did not understand the essence of Vajpayee’s appeal. He survived as prime minister for eight years because he chose to rule, not from the front, but from above. He hardly ever gave interviews, stuck to vague rhetoric in his speeches, and was notoriously uncommunicative during personal encounters. But, away from the public eye, he tirelessly pursued a modern and progressive agenda. Because he said so little, he hardly ever said anything wrong and people were free to assume that he shared whatever views they wanted him to hold. The key to the Vajpayee mystique was his image as the strong and silent man whom everyone could look up to.
It took the BJP’s campaign managers three weeks to damage an image built over decades. First of all, there were those annoying, intrusive phone calls. Vajpayee is not the sort of man you expect to get a phone call from. When he calls you in the manner of some call centre salesman trying to sell you a credit card, it damages his stature and dignity. Secondly, the whole American-style notion of phoning people on their mobiles may appeal to the fixers, pimps and tent-wallahs who ran the BJP campaign but most Indians found it deeply invasive and offensive.
Then, there were the interviews. By the end of the campaign, his personal staff were stopping passing strangers and offering them interviews (I’m the only man they refused to grant an interview to) with Vajpayee. The problem is: Vajpayee is a disaster at interviewers. His pauses are longer than most people’s sound-bites. And if he has anything to say, he doesn’t say it in an interview. With each interview, the BJP probably lost a few lakh votes.
Next, there was the foreign origin business. As an issue, it had played itself out in 1999. Anybody who thought that Sonia Gandhi was a foreigner and did not deserve to be PM was already against her. There were no new votes to be won. And yet, not only did the BJP flog the issue to death, even Vajpayee lowered himself to raising it again and again. It made no difference to the outcome. But it made him seem smaller.
And finally, there was the age factor. As much we all love and admire Vajpayee, he is nearly 80 in a country where the majority of the electorate is under 40. The BJP put him through a punishing schedule which drew attention to his age because the more tired he got, the more mistakes he made in speech after speech, at meeting after meeting. Rather than draw on his strengths, they exposed his weaknesses.
Given all this, the verdict is not that difficult to understand. The BJP said this was a presidential-style election. If it was, then the truth is that Vajpayee lost. And Sonia won.
But I see it less as a battle of personalities than an example of what happens when arrogance, hubris and smugness overcome a political party. And that, sadly, is what had happened to the BJP.