Saturday, May 16, 2009

Congress won conclusively (May 17, 2009)

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.

Sunday Pioneer, May 17, 2009


sands said...

Here is my take on this unimaginable disaster is there was surely anti incumbency with price rise job loss and bomb blasts going off everywhere ...
1.In 3 key states namely maharastra,tamil nadu and amdhra pradesh there was this 3 rd angle namely raj thackeray ,chiranjeevi and vijaykanth without any doubt split the anti incumbency vote and helped congress and allies especially in TN where is high voter turnout which means there was considerable anger against Govt
Then of course key state where BJP lost was rajasthan where they were expected to lose but not so heavily
i am sorry this all due that one ,an whom the ELM loves ..lalit modi that idiot made rajasthan into mini casino which deserted even some of the committed voters away no wonder ELM loves him for that stupid IPL

Ashish Labh said...

BJP did badly because it was deserted by many of its core constituents - middle class and moderate Hindus.

Indian voters are influenced by current mood and largely do not grasp the gravity of the issues that face them and the nation (perhaps because these are never debated on a public platform among the contenders). As you rightly said, BJP has to reinvent itself and emerge as a strong alternative to the "clan" (we need it badly).

It has to elevate Hindu nationalism to a level where it is not used by unemployed and sexually frustrated goons on the street as an excuse to assault people. It has to redefine its approach to cultural nationalism and make it contemporary. The current definition is pathetic where its senior leaders themselves mistake medieval practices and regressive social practices as cultural heritage and abhor modern liberated outlook (somewhat akin to Muslim mullahs). It has to have a leadership that inspires confidence in people and sets an example in public life.

There is no need to be apologetic about Modi being the contender for the PM post as India deserves the best and unfortunately we have lived with compromises long enough

Vijay said...

The BJP needs to get over its existential crisis and decide if it's a party of the Right or a party of Hindu idiots.

The BJP has to escape from the stranglehold that the RSS has over it. Harping on about the Ram Mandir and Cow Slaughter does not get votes. Bijlee, Pani, Suraksha - That's what gets votes.

The BJP is so obsessed with pleasing Swayamsevaks and other Hindu activists it forgets that its constituency is all Indians everywhere.

The RSS needs to stop interfering and get on with running its shakhas and charitable organisations. Let the politicians on Ashoka Road get on with the job of government.

With Jaitley selfishly clinging to his safe position in the party and the likes of Murli Manohar and Rajnath in the fray it's not looking good.

Anonymous said...

Dear Swapanda - how do I post comments in you Usual suspect blog?

Anonymous said...

Re: Picking up the Pieces
Dear Swapanda
Thanks for summarising various opinions, and facilitating a debate in your blog. I want to express some views of my own regarding your conclusions (as I could not figure out how to post in your other blog, I am posting here):
I am strongly of the view that Hindutva is the soul of the party and without a focus on Hindutva the BJP risks becoming another Congress. However the problem I believe is with the kind of "Hindutva" being advocated by the BJP/RSS. There is a need for long term thinking and strategy.
The BJP/RSS must champion social reform:
I could not agree more. There is a need to redefine "Hindutva" and tie it with social reform movement(s) - the RSS (and the BJP) should try to bring with the "Hindu" fold the Dalits/SCs/STs and OBCs (thereby countering, to an extent, the influence of SP/BSP and other caste based parties). This is what RSS should focus on. The RSS should take on a role of a "Hindu missionary" movement and spearhead social reforms and reforms within Hinduism (and the BJP should take up the role of a "intellectual right-wing" movement).
This could be done my focusing on providing the marginal section of the Hindu population with access to education and, a philosophical base for unified Hinduism. However, the RSS (and the BJP) should be careful to avoid attacking other religions in order to do this (which I believe would be counter-productive).
Indian "conservative"/right-wing movement:
Religious rabble rousing, moral policing and jingoism is a bit passé. Therefore in order to distinguish itself from the Congress, BJP in the next five years should fashion a right wing intellectual movement focusing on conservative values (however not moral policing or extremism) such as working hard for a living, caring for our families, educating our children, and being good and responsible citizens; and create pan-Indian identity, which should be reflected in its politics. For such a movement to gain credibility it is important that the BJP distances itself from extremist elements (such as Ram Senas, Shiv Senas and Varun Gandhis et. al). I refer to your earlier post re: "An Indian Right" and I think it is imperative for BJP's survival that it takes on the mantel of the "intellectual right".
Such a movement would also need to question the interpretation of "secularism" as propagated by the centrist and left parties. "Secularism" is not special status to minorities, but equal status to all! (if the BJP were to argue this it needs to ensure that it attacks the caste system, puts forward alternatives to quotas etc and would require help from a "reformist" RSS). The RSS/BJP needs to promote equal opportunities for all citizens of India and not as a member of some religious, caste, linguistic, or vote bank group.

Anonymous said...

Re: Picking up the Pieces (contd…)
Leadership and future direction:
I understand that the above is easier said than done. In order to undertake such an exercise the party leadership (and its collective image) needs to undergo a change. Unfortunately, unlike the perceived "statesman" image of Vajpayee, Advani and Modi will always be associated with their controversial past. It would be better for BJP to perhaps project Arun Jaitley or someone like him, and line up some erudite GenNext leaders (I believe they should be below 40; articulate; clean; and educated in order to be acceptable as a leader of the "intellectual right"). I think Sushma Swaraj, Vasundhara Raje, Arun Shourie, Rajiv Pratap Rudy etc should be given more visibility. I agree that BJP will have to fight its battles alone, without the benefit of alliances (in fact some of the alliances have hurt BJP more than helped it). Therefore there is an urgent need to find an acceptable pan-Indian leader (or group of leaders) who can inspire the cadre and be acceptable to the general public.
BJP also needs to focus on UP (in addition to the other states you have identified). In the short term it might be good to identify some 250-300 seats and focus on them for the next 5 years. Identify leaders/candidates right now for the next election, and task those chosen of nurturing such constituencies, and then the BJP can go back to the electorates with a credible track record in the next election. In order to give credibility to its claim of being a party with the difference it needs to ensure that all its candidates are "clean". The party should try to co-opt various NGOs/SHG etc who are working on economic issues, and focus on policies and programmes to facilitate economic development in the villages. This will help the BJP to identify potential issues for the next election, fashion policies and take it to the people in the next general election.
BJP needs to move away from negative campaign (such as attack on Manmohan Singh – which did not go down well with lot of people) and focus on presenting alternatives to policies - perhaps create a shadow cabinet (and announce the names of its shadow ministers to the public) and sector/issue specific focus groups within the party should also be created. Such focus groups should be tasked with analysing the govt policies and programmes, expose shortcomings, propose improvements and alternatives, and suggest changes. Each of such groups should have a spokesperson who should be responsible for communicating to the media and general public BJP's position on issues relating to his/her focus group.
The BJP needs to formulate and publicise clear policies on (a) National Security; (b) Economy (including job creation, attracting investment, poverty eradication/income distribution, and fiscal responsibility); (c) Rural development (including primary education and health care); (d) infrastructure (including irrigation etc); (e) Corruption; and (f) Administrative reforms. A group of leaders from the BJP should take charge of one of each of these issues, and be responsible for preparing policies and communicating it to the electorate.
I would appreciate your opinion/views.