Strategic perspective at play
The PM's political promotion of the Congress president may have a tactical backdrop
Politics is a game of perception. But decoding the perspective behind perception is more important. Since change is the only constant in the world, perceptions also change with changing time. Dynamics of the political landscape of the country has changed tremendously in recent past. Congress president became aggressive enough in his scathing attacks towards Prime Minister Modi, providing him substantial space in the mainstream media; and BJP also went all out after him. Interestingly, PM Modi has been more direct in his criticisms and comments towards Congress president especially through his 'Naamdaar' jibes and personal criticism of Congress' past and incumbent presidents. This brought forth the Congress president from periphery to the centre of the country's political landscape. This migration was interpreted differently by different sections. On one hand, a section of masses and media touted this as the arrival of Congress president for the top job, another section of masses and media found this as a mistake by BJP and PM in contributing towards making the Congress President a public leader. Some opined on how "the BJP is doing what Congress did to Narendra Modi in 2013-14". But the million dollar question remains, are BJP and PM Modi so politically naive to hit such a self-goal or is it part of a well-thought strategy?
In the past 55 months, perception about Modi Sarkar has certainly deterred but the charisma of PM largely remained intact with the majority of his constituency from 2014. He could even create a new segment for himself to make up for the losses he had incurred from the existing support base. Hence opposition shifted the electoral battleground from "development" to "social equations" with support from state-based political parties largely surviving and sustaining on their social strength. Minister in Vajpayee Cabinet and noted journalist Arun Shourie even proposed opposition parties to field one candidate against each BJP candidate. The premise for such a suggestion was that even under 2014's "Modi wave", BJP got only 31 per cent of total polled vote meaning 69 per cent did not vote for the BJP.
To counter the theory of Modi versus All, BJP now appears to be working to convert this election into Modi versus Rahul. Projecting Congress president as the direct contender can come to the rescue. Rahul's acceptability as a leader among the entire opposition is already under clouds among several state-level politicos who have been candidly voicing against the idea. This provides the BJP with a twofold advantage. The first advantage lies among masses where PM Modi enjoys higher brand value over Congress president. Through repeated mention of principal opposition leader, Congress president naturally registers high brand recall among opposition leaders making him a perceptual successor of PM Modi. This may work to PM Modi's advantage especially with relatively and politically neutral voting class.
The second advantage lies in making the contest triangular in many states. With polling percentage ranging in the 30s, it is imperative for BJP to have a triangular contest to win. Especially in states with high stakes, BJP will try to have a triangular contest where all the three corners have to appear strong. For a state like UP where 80 Lok Sabha seats are at stake, an alliance between Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party with defined and loyal social support base may pose an extremely difficult challenge. But with Congress aligning with Shiv Pal Yadav's Party, Raja Bhaiya's party and some other regional political outfits, it may present a brave front. Many Muslim voters still see BSP with suspicion and think that it may align with the BJP post-election if the need arises. Congress-led front with support from some smaller political parties with regional and social appeal may thus become a viable option.
Similarly, the state of Maharashtra has 48 Lok Sabha seats. Given the current state of an apparent equation between Shiv Sena and BJP, alliance appears quite unlikely. With Shiv Sena contesting separately, it will again convert the contest into a triangular one where all the three corners contesting strongly thereby splitting anti-Modi votes. The similar triangular contest appears to be resulting in the states of West Bengal, Odisha, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. For BJP, Karnataka and Bihar in its present forms appears to be problematic though. For rest of the states of central and western India, pitting Congress president as the main contender to PM Modi is what the political promotion of Congress president by PM Modi aims at. The strategic intent of PM Modi's action thus requires to be explored not for what is being said but for why is it being said as PM Modi himself had once said in one of his parliamentary speeches "you may doubt my understanding on one issue or the other, but you would not doubt my political wisdom".
(Prof Alok Kumar Rai is Coordinator, PGDBA Program, Faculty of Management Studies, Banaras Hindu University. The views expressed are strictly personal)