Terms of Trade | What explains the BJP’s polarising campaign in these elections? - Hindustan Times

Terms of Trade | What explains the BJP’s polarising campaign in these elections?

May 10, 2024 08:30 AM IST

Whether the leadership succumbs to the temptation of using authoritarian tricks to push for dominance has been the central question in Indian democracy

More than half of the seats have already voted in this election cycle. By now the campaign rhetoric on both sides seems to have crystalised. This edition of the column will talk about the BJP’s campaign.

Thiruvananthapuram: BJP supporters wave the party flags during a roadshow ahead of the second phase of Lok Sabha elections, in Thiruvananthapuram, Wednesday, April 24, 2024. (PTI Photo) (PTI04_24_2024_000275B)(PTI) PREMIUM
Thiruvananthapuram: BJP supporters wave the party flags during a roadshow ahead of the second phase of Lok Sabha elections, in Thiruvananthapuram, Wednesday, April 24, 2024. (PTI Photo) (PTI04_24_2024_000275B)(PTI)

The BJP, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, has made 2024 the most Hindutva-heavy national election since 2014.

The 2014 elections were about exploiting anti-incumbency against the Congress-led UPA and the promise of a ‘Gujarat Model’ of development benefitting everybody materially.

Five years later, the 2019 elections were fought with the tailwinds of fiscal palliatives such as the PM-KISAN transfers; they were deployed after the BJP’s 2018 losses in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, and an aggressive national security pitch after India conducted airstrikes in Pakistan occupied Kashmir to ‘avenge’ the Pulwama terror attack.

The 2024 contest is very different

Memories of a Congress government are a distant past now, putting limits to the gains of even retrospective anti-incumbency. The interim budget did not offer any populist measures. In fact, it actually pushed the agenda of fiscal consolidation. The optics of the Ram Temple inauguration in January notwithstanding, the issue has been a fait accompli ever since the Supreme Court judgment. So, there is nothing in terms of extra-economic novelty as well. The conflict in the neighbourhood has shifted from the western border to the eastern border and the BJP knows better than selling jingoism against China.

With the ruthless yet grounded political beast that today’s BJP is, it is reasonable to assume that it did not do anything special for the elections because it did not see the need for it. There was good reason for the BJP to have such confidence.

It routed the Congress in the Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh assembly election cycle in December 2023. The Congress, which is still the largest opposition party in the country, has lost every state government in north India except Himachal Pradesh. In Himachal too, its government hangs in a precarious balance after a Rajya Sabha election fiasco.

In the last two years, the BJP has pulled off coup d'états against two opposition alliance governments in Maharashtra and Bihar which, taken together, send 88 MPs to the Lok Sabha. Not doing this would have made the BJP vulnerable to a near rout because of a very high degree of opposition unity. That threat has been nullified significantly if not completely.

Last but not least, Narendra Modi’s personal popularity is significantly higher than that of any other politician in the country today. This is exactly why he is the face of the BJP's campaign.

Almost every pre-poll survey gives a majority to the BJP, which only underlines the permanence of the ‘fourth party system’ in Indian politics with the BJP as the national political hegemon.

So why the polarising pitch in the elections?

There can be many answers to this question.

The first is the easiest one. Modi the campaigner is a very different political character from Modi the head of state. The latter is what we see between elections. The rooted politician that he is, Modi knows that what is music to the ears of the elite in sanitised spaces, and capital, both local and global, is not something which excites the BJP’s core base.

The former likes reforms, both fiscal and institutional. The later loves populism and schadenfreude. The former, at best, can provide the BJP with the material resources to win elections and intellectual justification for its policies. But it is absolutely insignificant in terms of numbers to substitute the latter’s utility when it comes to being boots on the ground during campaigning. The polarising pitch, in the simplest terms, is the commander-in-chief’s clarion call to the infantry. All the BJP’s political weaponry is useless if the foot soldiers do not show up.

The second is slightly more complicated and, ironical as it may sound, a by-product of the BJP’s own success. The fact that the BJP has consolidated more than half of total voters and almost two-thirds of Hindu voters in many Hindi-speaking states and Gujarat means that the centre of gravity of politics in these regions has shifted to an intra-party rather than an inter-party theatre. It will not be very outlandish to imagine that the BJP in these regions has to deal with an intense fight for representation and factional dominance within its ranks. The fact that there is no rebellion does not mean there is no discontent.

In an election which is anything but a battle for survival for the BJP, these competing factions see no urgency to bury their differences for the larger cause. Things would have been very different in 2019 in the aftermath of the 2018 losses in the three Hindi-speaking states when the BJP appeared vulnerable.

The fact that the BJP has struck alliances with regional parties which are low on credibility or caught in bitter factional feuds themselves; such as the JD (U) in Bihar, Shiv Sena and NCP in Maharashtra and perhaps even the JD (S) in Karnataka, is likely to have added to the problem.

The BJP’s own cadre is having to champion these alliances out of compulsion rather than conviction. It is delusional to think that they would be happy doing this. In some extreme cases, they would be happy to see some of these allies cut to size.

In purely electoral terms, this internal friction can lead to sporadic local-level setbacks even in states where the BJP is the dominant party by a large distance.

The third is essentially a political economy point. A lot of elections from the BJP’s 2017 and 2022 victories in Uttar Pradesh, 2019 Lok Sabha included, were attributed to the party’s superb weaponisation of welfare benefits. Many political commentators have rightly underlined the importance of things such as direct benefit transfers eradicating middlemen and the BJP’s organisational machinery reaching out to the beneficiaries with Modi as the mascot. But there is another way to look at the politics of welfare.

This cohort of beneficiaries has been getting something tangible from the Modi government before every major election. It began with toilets and LPG cylinders before the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections, continued with PM-KISAN transfers before the 2019 elections and culminated with extra ration under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojna in the aftermath of the pandemic. The last one was a big campaign point in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh elections.

This supply line, barring the reduction in LPG prices, has been largely dry after the 2022 elections in Uttar Pradesh. Has this welfare flow vacuum given an opportunity to the opposition to push in a narrative which talks up economic distress and better welfare promises and then exploits local-level factors to stage upset in some constituencies? Did the BJP err in pushing on the fiscal consolidation paddle in the interim budget? Would things be better for the BJP had it done something like a nominal revision in PM-KISAN payments? Modi could have talked it up in his campaigns.

To be sure, this is not to say that the BJP has nothing to talk about as far as the economy is concerned. It has done very well to preserve macroeconomic stability in what was an extremely turbulent global environment. But macroeconomic stability only becomes salient (in a punitive way) in politics when it has been lost and the economy pays its price.

Indian economy continues to grow at a healthy rate. But nobody including the BJP will argue that this growth has radically transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of poor voters. The traction for welfare measures across the spectrum underlines the economic precarity of a large number of people.

Modi himself has been selling a narrative of waiting till 2047 to realise these gains. The economic question the BJP faces is whether its political success is because of its market-friendly policies or despite them. If the results are even remotely worse than how the BJP did in 2019, then the verdict will be overwhelmingly in favour of the latter proposition.

What is the larger takeaway from these arguments?

Firstly, none of this should be inferred as BJP being at a real risk of losing power in the next term. It is very unlikely for hegemonic parties to lose power without large-scale political agitations which create an element of chaos. This is not the case right now. Some of the BJP’s losses in its strongholds could also be compensated from gains in regions such as Odisha and West Bengal where the BJP continues to be in the opposition despite its national hegemon status and can gain from anti-incumbency.

The certainty of coming back to power, however, does not mean a guarantee of significantly larger dominance for the BJP than what it had in 2014 and 2019. This is more on account of local, even internal, friction than any coherent ideological challenge to the BJP’s core politics. The BJP leadership’s ability, or lack of it, to overcome these challenges will determine their personal political capital in the post-election scenario in a big way because it will be crucial for their bargaining positions within and outside the BJP. This is the essence of the 2024 contest.

The third is perhaps the most important for the future of Indian democracy. The marriage of India’s socio-cultural and linguistic diversity with a parliamentary system of democracy means that it is perfectly plausible for a hegemonic political force to fall short of absolute dominance in elections as long as they are free and fair. Whether the leadership of the political hegemon is willing to live with hegemony sans dominance or succumbs to the temptation of using authoritarian tricks to push for its dominance has been the central question in the history of Indian democracy. As the new political hegemon, it is now the BJP’s turn to engage with this contradiction. The resolution of this question will go beyond the 2024 contest.

Roshan Kishore, HT's Data and Political Economy Editor, writes a weekly column on the state of the country's economy and its political fall out, and vice-versa

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