Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Nuts & Bolts Race

By Swapan Dasgupta

Opinion polls in India, quite understandably, have a very mixed record. Part of the unevenness stems from the cost factor: it is hideously expensive to conduct an opinion poll with a truly randomised and yet socially representative sample. Secondly, the conversion of votes into seats in a country that witnesses straight fights, three-cornered and four-cornered contests and the emergence of new parties is a nightmare exercise. When pollsters get their seat projections broadly right, it is due as much to skill as to luck.

Given the uncertainties of poll projections it is hardly surprising that the opinion polls on TV channels and publications are increasingly being treated as exercises in political entertainment. The possible losers believe the findings are motivated and the parties that should be smiling are uncertain as to whether the projections are real and correspond to anecdotal evidence or mere hype.

In the past few weeks, the opinion polls are beginning to suggest that the BJP-led National Democratic Front has broken the 200 seat barrier and is hovering around the 220-225 seat mark. The polls appear to be indicating that the anointment of Narendra Modi as the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate has paid off handsomely and that the BJP’s own tally will exceed its previous best of 181 seats in 1999. The quantum of the BJP’s surge may well be debated but there is no doubt about two trends: the rise of the BJP and the corresponding shrinkage of the Congress.

For the BJP the trends are very encouraging. But they also indicate that the party still has a lot of ground to cover before it can be certain that Modi will definitely move into the house of Race Course Road that will be vacated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in May this year.  The party has no doubt been able to consolidate itself in states such as Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Gujarat where it controls the state government. In addition, it has also managed to make considerable headway in states such as Bihar, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand where it is the principal opposition party. However, it still needs to cover a lot of ground in Uttar Pradesh , Assam and Maharashtra. Plus there is the threat from the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi and the National Capital Region, and the regional party challenge in Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and states such as West Bengal and Tamil Nadu where it must hunt for incremental support. Modi may be the frontrunner in an increasingly presidentialised race but he is by no means home and dry.

From the BJP’s point of view there are many things going for the BJP campaign. For the first time since the campaign of 1999, the committed party workers are enthused, even sensing a possible victory after nearly a decade in opposition at the Centre. In addition, the RSS which has a large body of committed volunteers at its disposal has thrown in its full weight behind the campaign—perhaps for the first time since the Ayodhya-centric campaign of 1991. More to the point, Modi has been able to attract a large number of otherwise unattached voters—mainly the youth—into the campaign. The huge attendance at Modi rallies all over the country, including in places like Imphal, Chennai and Kolkata where the BJP has very little footfall, suggests that these efforts are beginning to yield returns.

Ironically, what is pulling the BJP down and preventing the raw enthusiasm of Modi’s supporters from deriving full mileage is the BJP organisation itself. It is worth remembering that despite many victories (and defeats) in the state Assembly elections, the organisational apparatus of the BJP has been quite creaky since about 2000. In particular, the period after 2004 witnessed a prolonged crisis in the party over leadership and organisational dominance. Despite the appearance of seeming purposefulness the first tenure of Rajnath Singh and the three-year term of Nitin Gadkari were wasted years for the party. The party singularly failed in injecting new blood and new talent into the party and persisted with many functionaries who had either lost the will to be energetic or whose public image was less than wholesome. The last occasion when the BJP injected new blood into the party was during the Ayodhya agitation of 1990-93. Since then, the odd individual apart, there has been no real new blood in the party.

This organisational stagnation has resulted in the party often operating as rival factions, a phenomenon that has prevented it from being nimble-footed in its approach to changing situations.

Delhi is probably the most glaring example of this institutionalised paralysis. Recall the inordinate delay in announcing Harsh Vardhan as the chief ministerial candidate and the slowness in finding a replacement to the incumbent state president Vijay Goel. This incompetence has led to the BJP yielding political space to the AAP.  

Likewise, whereas the groundswell surge in UP in favour of BJP has been noticeable, it is significant that the party organisation remains divided into antagonistic factions. The tired and often discredited faces of yesteryear have suddenly smelt a last opportunity to become relevant once again, little realising that their very presence on the stage at Modi’s rallies puts off people. A similar situation prevails in Maharashtra where corruption is an additional complication.

Curiously, Modi who otherwise has an undeserved reputation for micro-managing has not devoted any personal attention to fixing the organisation. He has focussed almost entirely on his public rallies and in promoting groups that are supplementing the campaign from outside the formal party structure. But this approach may falter if the BJP list of candidates is dominated by individuals whose public image is at variance with the energetic change that Modi is promising.

The final phase of any election campaign is very important. It can determine whether the initial momentum can be translated into a winning margin through sheer momentum. A failure to do so results in slippage as traditional voting patterns are reasserted. For his own sake, Modi cannot afford to be detached from the nuts and bolts of a battle to make him Prime Minister. 

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