The BJP must draw the right lessons for 2019
Electoral setback has sparked a debate within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and its wider ecosystem of supporters. They take heart in the close contest in Madhya Pradesh, the credible performance in Rajasthan, and while surprised at the Chhattisgarh outcome, attribute it to local factors. Many within the party fold also believe that the 2019 election will be fought on a different template. At the same time, a process of introspection has already begun. Close defeats are still defeats. And for a party leadership obsessed with winning, this has come as a major setback, just months before the national elections.
The internal debate is broadly on the following lines. On the one hand are supporters and loyalists who argue that the BJP lost because it focused on development and welfare schemes, but ignored the ideological agenda of Hindutva. They critique the Modi government for not delivering on the Ram temple issue and believe that only an ordinance or an effort at legislation on the issue will showcase the government’s commitment. This will consolidate Hindus, make 2019 an emotive election, and drown class based and caste based considerations. On the other hand are those who believe the outcome actually reflects the limits of the Hindutva approach. To suggest that the BJP regime has not been committed enough to its ideological worldview is not true. From the obsession with cow protection, which has had dangerous consequences, to aggressive display of majoritarian political symbols, to the marginalisation of minorities in various spheres, the hardline has actually managed to push its script. Both Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath’s speeches reflect this. But while this keeps the base happy, it does not influence the floating, swing vote. Those voters are concerned with immediate livelihood issues. The BJP’s losses in urban centres indicates disillusionment of the middle class, young and trading communities. Its losses in rural areas shows the anger of farmers. Its setback in the tribal belts shows that marginalised communities, who were getting attracted to the BJP, are moving away.
The lesson, therefore, to draw from the results is the need for the BJP to go back to the economic drawing board. The problem, however, is timing. The government cannot address the structural issues of farm incomes and jobs in four months. So it will be tempted to turn to hardline Hindutva. That would be a mistake and reduce it to its core vote. The additional 10-12 percentage points the BJP has gained in 2014, compared to 2009, will be at risk. Narendra Modi has a creative and extraordinarily sharp political mind. He needs a new narrative, a new story, and implement whatever corrections are feasible on the economy. He must avoid the short cuts of identity and divisive politics.