There may be some differences on policies, but Sangh leadership is clear that it wants Modi back.(PTI Photo)
There may be some differences on policies, but Sangh leadership is clear that it wants Modi back.(PTI Photo)

Lok Sabha elections 2019: From 2004 shock defeat, BJP picks lessons for 2019 election

The saffron party is conscious of its defeat 15 years ago and has drawn six key lessons from the loss.
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By Prashant Jha
UPDATED ON APR 03, 2019 08:44 AM IST

Many in the opposition believe, and a few within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fear, that the 2019 elections could end up resembling the 2004 elections.

Going into the 2004 general election, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was popular; the BJP’s publicity machine was in top gear; the opposition looked in tatters; all polls predicted a BJP return; and yet, the Congress emerged the single largest party, and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was born. The BJP was pushed out for a decade.

Fifteen years later, Modi is popular; the BJP’s machinery and organisation are formidable; the opposition starts with a disadvantage; yet, could India reject the incumbent? The outcome of the elections is, of course, unpredictable. But the BJP itself is acutely conscious of the 2004 experience. And it seems to have drawn six lessons from the experience for the current polls.

No complacency

The BJP believes that success at the end of 2003 in the state assembly elections of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Chhattisgarh had infused a sense of complacency in the party. In fact, the wins prompted the late Pramod Mahajan to advise Vajpayee to call early elections, a decision that the then PM took, but was not entirely comfortable with. The party, much before polling took place, was already confident that it had won because of Vajpayee’s popularity. It did not take Sonia Gandhi seriously as an opponent either.

Cut to the present. The setback in the state elections at the end of 2018 made the BJP cautious, and pushed it back to the drawing board. It took a series of steps — from the 10% reservation for economically weaker sections to farmer income support — to plug holes. It also recognised vulnerabilities, focused on alliances, stepped up its campaign, and deployed Modi on the ground weeks before the elections were formally announced. Party insiders say the leadership is optimistic about returning, but this time, there is no overconfidence.

Coordination with the RSS

There is a view that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was not enthused in 2004; the differences of the Sangh leadership with Vajpayee were known; and the Sangh cadres did not actively work for the return of the BJP. A top BJP leader, however, rebutted this perception and said, “It is not true that the Sangh did not work. But there were coordination issues.” In either case, what is clear is that the members of the ideological family — either because they felt the Vajpayee government did not deliver on the cultural agenda or was disappointed with its economic policies or felt it did not get enough space and voice in the dispensation — stayed a little aloof.

This time around, as reports by Smriti Kak Ramachandran in HT over the past six months have shown, there remains very close coordination between the government, party and the Sangh and its various affiliates. There may be some differences on policies, but the Sangh leadership is clear that it would like to see Modi return. The Sangh has never got the kind of access to state power that it has done over the past five years; individuals inspired by its worldview have exercised power at various levels; issues dear to it — from cow protection to a hard stance on Pakistan — have found policy sanction. Modi and Amit Shah have sought to accommodate their concerns on personnel appointments; and “saffron terror” cases are things of the past. Expect the Sangh to invest all its energy in 2019.

Keeping core voter motivated

The third lesson the BJP drew from the 2004 experience is keeping its core voter motivated. Leaders say that many traditional supporters just stayed home — either because they felt Vajpayee would return in any case, or were not enthused enough by the government’s performance.

This was a fear that many in the party had soon after the setbacks in state elections last year. Upper castes were reported to be unhappy, primarily because the government had restored the provisions of the Prevention of Atrocities Act.

They also pointed out that the BJP had done little for the construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya. Some had stayed home, some had exercised the NOTA option, particularly in MP.

The government, however, was quick to step in with its 10% reservation initiative to assuage the concerns of this constituency. Another core segment of supporters — small traders — were angry with the party for the disruption caused by both demonetisation and the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST). The government claims it has addressed some of their concerns by rationalising GST substantially.

But beyond the specific policy measures, the BJP thinks that the Balakot strikes will galvanise its base.

With a strong upsurge in nationalist sentiment, the party believes its core voters — middle class in urban centres; small traders from the Bania community; upper castes in the heartland — will come back.

Deepening social base

The 2004 campaign rested on the plank of ‘India Shining’. There is now a consensus that this was a fatally flawed slogan. It came across as insensitive to the poor and to the deprived in rural areas, and was based on only a tiny segment of the metropolitan elite. It also gave an easy opportunity to the opposition to categorise the BJP as insulated, pro rich and anti poor.

This fear — of being perceived as pro rich and catering only to the elite — has haunted the BJP ever since it took office in 2014. And that is why since Rahul Gandhi’s “suit boot ki Sarkar” barb, Modi has actively sought to reposition himself as a leader of the poor. By constantly emphasising the government’s work on rural housing, toilet construction, gas cylinders, electrification and health insurance, the BJP is sending out a message that it cares about the poor. Simultaneously, it has also worked to deepen its social base, and cultivate a large constituency of OBCs and Dalits.

The idea is to come across as a party that is sensitive to India’s social diversity (admittedly, this remains confined to the diversity within Hindu society, and does not cut across religions) and deprivation, rather than as an out-of-touch elitist outfit.


In 2004, the BJP lost key allies, even as the Congress was able to stitch together a range of allies. The DMK in Tamil Nadu; Rashtriya Janata Dal and Lok Janashakti Party in Bihar; the Telangana Rashtriya Samithi in Andhra Pradesh ended up adding great value to the Congress, even as the BJP lost some key allies. This had clear implications.

The UPA, post polls, had 218 seats, while the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was stuck with only 181 seats.

This time around, the BJP recognised that it must not repeat this mistake, and, if necessary, be as generous and accommodative to create an umbrella alliance of sorts.

So it cut down on its existing seats in Bihar to tie up with Janata Dal (United); shed past acrimony to rebuild bridges with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra on almost equal terms; constructed a grand alliance in Tamil Nadu under AIADMK to ensure that the opposition does not sweep the state; and reached out to smaller parties in the Northeast. Whether these alliances will pay dividends is to be seen, but the party’s motivation — of preventing the Congress from stitching a broad based alliance as it did in 2004 — is clear.

Southern strategy

In 2004, the south catapulted the Congress to power. Between Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, the UPA won 88 seats. (The Left Front, which eventually supported the UPA, won another 21 seats from these four southern states). And so between them, the pre-poll UPA and Left Front together had 109 out of 129 seats from the region.

In 2019, the BJP knows that this region continues to be its weakest point across the country. But it has devised a three-pronged strategy here. The first will involve maximising seats wherever the patty does have a presence — this will be most visible in Karnataka, where the party will invest most of its energy. The second is becoming a part of alliances, which has the arithmetic to challenge the UPA — this is visible in Tamil Nadu. And the most important element of this strategy is to ensure that even if it can’t win, ensure the defeat of the Congress and its allies. This has involved tacitly backing the TRS in Telangana and the YSRCP in Andhra Pradesh to minimise the Congress and N Chandrababu Naidu’s seats. The BJP hopes that even if it can’t do well in this region, it can prevent the 2004 kind of sweep by the UPA.

Elections are unpredictable and the BJP may well lose in 2019. But it will not be because of the mistakes it made in 2004. The lessons it has drawn mark an evolution.

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