By Swapan Dasgupta
There is a facile explanation that many of those who neither anticipated nor wished for a Congress victory in the general election may fall back on. It goes something like this: the Congress and UPA surge was contributed by its spectacular successes in Kerala, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu where its principal opponent was either the Left or another constituent of the ramshackle Third Front. The implication is that the NDA by and large held its ground.
Such an explanation would be an exercise in complete self-delusion. The harsh reality which should be obvious to all is that the Congress won the match quite conclusively. The formal numbers may suggest that the pre-poll UPA will need some outside help to cross the 272 barrier but this nominal under-achievement does not distract from the magnitude of the Congress’ achievement. There was a national swing to the Congress and India is posed for a stable government which, barring some intentional act of self-destruction, should last a full term.
The NDA has not merely fallen significantly below its own psephological expectations; it has been rejected by the electorate. Perhaps the rejection is not quite so categorical as that suffered by the Left and the partners of the Third Front (with the honourable exception of Naveen Patnaik). But this is really a debate about whether a 80 run defeat is worse than an innings defeat. After the 1991 election, The Economist had a report entitled, “The winner came second”, testifying to the BJP’s surge and its ability to dominate the agenda. This time there is not even pretence of a moral victory. The winner has taken it all.
In the coming days, debate in the BJP is certain to centre on the question: what went wrong? Such a debate is not only necessary but welcome. Unfortunately, past experience suggests that the discussions often veer in the direction of the peripherals. There will be hand-wringing over the “internal sabotage” in Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand; speculation over why Om Prakash Chauthala rather than Bhajan Lal was chosen as the coalition partner in Haryana; mutterings over whimsical choice of candidates in some seats of Uttar Pradesh; and the inevitable back-biting over the campaign in the mass media.
It is not that these concerns are unwarranted. However, presuming that everything had turned out perfectly, the BJP and NDA would, at best, have improved its tally only marginally by, say, 15 seats. It wouldn’t have made any material difference to the outcome. Voters, it must be remembered, aren’t automatically swayed by the same concerns as activists.
In undertaking a post-mortem, it is important to not lose sight of the big picture. The BJP and NDA lost because voters found the Congress a more appealing prospect. The question then arises: was because the Congress did something right and the BJP something wrong? Or was it because the BJP did more things wrong than the Congress?
To be fair, the Congress didn’t run a particularly inspiring campaign. It was wracked by confusion over allies, inconsistent messaging and the burden of an economic slowdown and nervousness over the country’s security. Against these, it had certain definite plus points. First, it is prudent to recognise that the “weak” versus “strong” debate helped the Prime Minister and enabled him to play on his image of innate decency. Secondly, the Rahul-Priyanka duo gave dynastic politics a fresh lease of life by focussing on wholesome youth power. This was contrasted to the media’s mischievous association of the BJP with hate speech.
There were two important constituencies the BJP failed to attract in this election: the middle classes and the youth. Both these segments were crucial in ensuring the party’s performance in 1998 and 1999.
It may be unfair to blame the projection of L.K. Advani as the reason for this failure. The so-called age factor was neutralised by the projection of Manmohan Singh by the Congress. And Advani brought a large measure of unity in the party. What was not neutralised was the overall image problem of the BJP—as a party that is backward-looking, too shrill and insufficiently attentive to contemporary concerns.
Arguably, such a regressive image of the party may be a consequence of media-generated “false consciousness”. But the fact remains that this perception has percolated down to a very large section of the population. And the BJP has done precious little to counter it.
In the wake of defeat, there is always a strong temptation to retreat into a back-to-the-basics shell. This is based on the foolish belief that people didn’t vote for a party because it wasn’t sufficiently pure. The belief is as ridiculous as the suggestion that the Soviet Union fell because it wasn’t adequately socialist!
The BJP’s problem is ideological but not in the way the votaries of identity politics see it. Its lapses stem from a non-application of mind to contemporary issues such as economic and strategic policy—witness its indifferent performance in Parliament for five years. Where themes of governance have been meaningfully addressed, the BJP has done well. But this has been at the state level. At the national level, image has come back to haunt the party—a problem compounded by leaders who believe it is more important to please activists rather than be responsive to ground realities.
After two consecutive election defeats, the BJP may be confronted by a problem of relevance. It has to either reinvent itself or suffer the ignominy of steady marginalisation. The loss of all seven seats in Delhi by huge margins is a pointer to the price the party has to pay for its refusal to keep pace with the realities of a new India.