The first grim tidings came from the state to its south, with the bar graph of success dipping in height conspicuously. But the party pulled through in Gujarat, and it was left to Rajasthan to wear the taint of outright defeat, even if only in three bypolls. Chief minister Vasundhararaje, as she emerged to describe the drubbing as a “wake-up call” for the BJP, had an uncharacteristic air about her: sedate, shorn of that usual sense of pomp, deep in thought. With caveats, that perhaps describes the mood in the party nationally too, as it nears the home stretch to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. It was to be an unquestioned mandate, drawing on the limitless Modi cheque for the second time. But with just a year shy of Lok Sabha campaign time, the BJP finds itself a trifle apprehensive, in a way they had not anticipated.
With good reason. If the trend of diminishing returns seen in Gujarat/Rajasthan persists in the assembly polls later this year, it would not just be a marker of receding popularity but could itself create a negative momentum. The key problem for the BJP is this: the party is already at its peak in 12 big states (see graphic), with a whopping 284 out of a total 332 seats in its kitty or that of its NDA allies. It cannot climb further—if anything, the graph can only go south in most of the states. And if the erosion in its core zones is steep, making up for it in the potential buffer zones will be tough.
It’s clear that the BJP, having read the signals, is mindful of a certain disillusionment with governance issues that Modi’s personal charisma and appeal are barely balancing. That’s why it’s enlarging its strategic options, if not exactly rewriting its blueprint. So Modi’s clean image is still a key propaganda item—especially since the Indian public still hasn’t recovered from the UPA-era scam exhaustion. DeMo will still be marketed as a move towards probity—and GST, and now the elite bugbear LTCG, as essential reforms. Hindutva will be there, unfailingly, with Yogi Adityanath billed as a star campaigner. But beyond that usual script, there is now a new welfarist vocabulary—things like Modicare, being spoken of as a “game-changer”, and the Ujjwala scheme that’s already reached LPG connections to 3.2 crore women and is targeting 8 crore.
Party leaders are not letting slip any sign of nervousness but admit they may have to depend on allies for the final numbers. “Even if we lose some seats in the next elections, we will still form the government. The benchmark the BJP set in 2014 is very high. It’s possible that we may not get majority single-handedly,” concedes a party leader involved in number-crunching. The BJP had won 282 seats on its own in the 543-seat house, attaining a majority on its own. With allies, it stands at a formidable 336.
On one thing there’s no ambiguity. Modi remains the trumpcard, as was seen in the Gujarat campaign: he batted single-handedly and almost non-stop on a very dicey pitch and ensured a BJP victory against all odds. The Modi magic evidently endures, and seen against less solid assets, the overwhelming reliance on it is both visible and understandable. “The PM will remain our mascot; his clean image and work will win us a second term. He’s seen as a bold, decisive leader who enhanced India’s prestige in the world. Nobody can stop Modi from coming back in 2019,” predicts party general secretary Muralidhar Rao. If the incantatory tones are still heard, it’s because they still work like a charm.
The BJP has another asset: the Opposition. It’s fragmented, directionless and without a strong, salient focal point to gather all anti-Modi feelings. Rao pooh-poohs the possibility of a united Opposition fighting the BJP in 2019. “When India’s Opposition couldn’t unite to fight the British, it definitely won’t be able to take on a respected leader of the country like Modi,” he laughs.
Rajasthan Congress chief Sachin Pilot
But it will still take lots of seats—states that can be alternate catchment areas. What about the two states under Rao’s charge—Karnataka and Tamil Nadu? The party will win the Karnataka assembly polls and definitely improve its tally of 17 out of 28 Lok Sabha seats there in 2019, he insists. On Tamil Nadu, he promises only a “respectable presence” on its own. To be sure, it’s a fluid picture—with even superstar Rajnikanth in the mix—but whichever way it turns, the BJP can always go there shopping for allies.
Party vice-president and Rajya Sabha MP Vinay Sahasrabuddhe finds himself in one of the unenviable ‘maximum states’: he’s in-charge of Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP already has 26 of 29 Lok Sabha seats. No room to improve, plenty of room to fall. “If the party loses some seats, it’s bound to gain in other places. Whether the losses and gains match or not remains to be seen. Both government and party are working hard,” he says, almost philosophical in tone.
Soon after the BJP came to power in 2014, it started working on breaking new ground. Sahasrabuddhe was entrusted with a membership drive aimed at making the BJP the world’s largest party—the base now stands at over 13 crore. At that time, the aim was expansionist: to take the BJP’s footprint to non-traditional areas like the Northeast and what it calls the ‘Coromandel states’ i.e. the South plus Orissa and West Bengal. But now it’s working out differently, like an extra bank account it can draw from in crisis.
“The BJP’s tally in West Bengal is two out of 42. And Orissa is represented by a solitary BJP MP, in a total of 21. The party will gain in both states, which send 63 MPs to the Lok Sabha,” says a BJP general secretary. “In Bengal, the BJP is second, though a distant second, while the Left and Congress are nowhere in the picture. In Orissa too, we’ve gone to number two. Any vote against the ruling BJD will come to us. Adhyakshji (party chief Amit Shah) had the foresight to extend the party footprint. That’s how Assam was won and we took power in Manipur for the first time.” The BJP sees the often neglected Northeast as a fertile area. A party leader active there cites the region’s 25 Lok Sabha seats, of which at present the NDA has only 10.
But the real struggle will come in its old fortresses: holding on against a tide is always tougher than riding the crest of a wave. And there are a multiplicity of factors to manage, a combination of the local and the national. Take Rajasthan. Vasundhara had not allowed the BJP to name a sangathan mantri—or general secretary (organisation)—for the state for the major part of her tenure. It’s only five months ago that Shah finally installed his trusted lieutenant, Chandra Sekhar, there (he had worked closely with Shah during the UP assembly polls as in-charge of its western regions).
“The cadre here are quite demotivated. Chandra Sekhar didn’t have enough time to invigorate them before the bypolls,” admits a party senior. “But positive results should be visible in time for the assembly polls.” The not-so-veiled message to Raje has been to change her ways or make way for a change. “She has responded positively and is working on her style of functioning,” the leader adds. Avinash Rai Khanna, party vice-president and Rajasthan in-charge, has no time for despondency either. “Why are we forgetting BJP’s record win Dholpur last year? It wasn’t even our traditional seat. There’s no need to be pessimistic,” he says. The first focus is the assembly polls. “We have 160 out of 200 seats. It’s a challenge to retain the seats and we will,” says a determined Khanna.
Finally, there’s the infantry—the Hindutva footsoldiers of the larger parivar, the BJP’s biggest strength. A UP-based BJP leader, veteran of many wars, has this to say: “Our workers along with those of the RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and other sister organisations are spread all over the country, ears to the ground. They have the voters’ pulse. Our critics can call them the fringe element or whatever. They are the ones who know what’s happening, what people want. We know from them the wind is still blowing for what the BJP stands for.”
By Bhavna Vij-Aurora in New Delhi