Turning disadvantage into advantage
When the elections are localised, BJP performed poorly but when the canvas becomes bigger, it has invariably held an advantage.
Back to back by-poll losses in UP, MP, and Rajasthan all of which have BJP governments, failure to form government in Karnataka, and discontent among allies of NDA like Shiv Sena, JD(U) and Akali Dal: all of these have put the ruling Modi-Shah dispensation on the backfoot. Some silence, some poetry, some blame-game, some introspection: these are the responses from BJP end. Talk of Opposition Unity Index: this is the response from the larger part of Indian media, along with why disparate opposition forces cannot hold on together for long. And, hectic activity in the Congress camp to win friends among regional parties and at times play second or third fiddle to them is also seen. Interesting is the Cong-BSP tie-up coming ahead even without BSP asking for it.
Does it mean that all is lost for BJP and it is only a question of time when United Opposition with 69 per cent vote-share in the last General Elections will vanquish the gargantuan war-chest and formidable RSS army of foot soldiers to defeat Modi-Shah dispensation which commanded 31 per cent votes last time but won due to disunited Opposition?
No, not at all. BJP still has the edge and with some deft steps, it can regain the narrative. Here are my five suggestions to those who perhaps do not need them as to how BJP can win back India for a second term for Modi.
Bring ahead Lok Sabha polls
First, bring ahead the General Elections from April-May 2019 to October-November 2018, advancing by six months, and try to club as many state assembly elections as possible (can go up to 10 at the most). This will deny the much-needed time for opposition unity, will block anti-BJP sentiments from swelling further with a possible debacle in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh Assembly polls, will prevent the opposition parties from sinking their historical rivalry and current differences and also prevent them from raising material resources to fight the mother of all elections in India which they are extremely starved of just now. A win in LS and around 10 Assemblies will make BJP central to Indian politics for a decade more, and Modi-Shah the core of this position. Too much at stake for BJP just now, and advancing the polls is one major way to take back the narrative.
Owning the electoral narrative
Second, BJP has its own story of the achievements of 48 months of governance ready and in public domain with a dashboard of daily progress. On the other side, the alternative narrative, governance perspective, Common Minimum Program, and counter to BJP's claims are none ready with the opposition. This is the time for BJP to strike the possible gold for the next five years. And it is possible to do with a narrative repeated constantly of an honest hard-working man versus a bunch of opportunists. For this reason, Modi's incentive is to presidentialise the 2019 election while the Opposition's objective is to localise it. A Modi-versus-Rest can have major benefits for Modi as the rest 'united' opposition may be largely a congregation of parties, leaders, and caste chieftains, more out of fear of Modi and for mere survival, than with any concrete strategy and plan.
Pros of by-poll losses
Third, the by-polls losses may not be all that bad. The BJP cadre must be taught to understand this by the top managers commandeered by Amit Shah so that the morale is not down. One, there is no correlation between a party's performance in by-elections and Assembly or Lok Sabha polls. Since 2014, BJP has only managed to win 5 out of 27 Lok Sabha by-polls held between 2014 and March 2018. Its five wins have come in seats where it was the incumbent — which means the party merely retained power on five occasions and failed to snatch a single seat from the Opposition. And in other seats, in most cases, BJP has increased its votes where the incumbent was an opposition party as seen in West Bengal (though lost a few in UP and Rajasthan etc). The by-poll turnouts are traditionally low and that seems to be a major factor in BJP's losses, especially both in Phulpur and Gorakhpur. While this may indicate the nature of its voter base and even some grievances at the local level against the immediate party leadership, when the referendum is on Modi in next Lok Sabha polls, this trend may get arrested or even reversed because as a brand, Modi's value far outstrips that of his own party's. Also, the nature of by-polls makes the result incumbent on the relative strength of candidates and caste-community calculation of a particular seat. These factors, however, become unimportant when the mode of election becomes presidential and the strengths and weaknesses of local candidates are subsumed within the strengths and weaknesses of the supreme leader/s.
Largest control of state governments ever
Fourth, despite the current miserable performance in by-polls, BJP holds power either on its own or with an alliance partner in 20 of India's 29 states. The last time a political party had such a massive political footprint across India was 25 years ago when towards the end of 1993, Congress held 16 of (then) 26 states — 15 on its own and one in alliance.
To put this in perspective, when Modi took oath as Prime Minister in 2014, BJP was in power in just seven states. This ought to tell us that when the elections are hyper-localised, BJP has performed poorly but when the canvas has become bigger, the saffron unit has invariably held an advantage. That's a reason of cheer for BJP in the ensuing LS polls. Alongside state government control, the ruling party has far stronger control over the election machinery, state police and central paramilitary forces, IB and CBI, and a 'disproportionate' influence on the Election Commission, etc, to 'smoothen the rough edges' during a keenly contested poll.
Fighting power complacency
Fifth, the current spate of by-poll losses might not be a bad position for BJP to be in as it gets ready for the LS home run. The party is less likely to suffer from complacency issues (always a danger when any party assumes such national dominance). Complacency can strike a fatal blow to a party's chances. In 2003, BJP had done exceedingly well in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh state elections. An elated Vajpayee called for early elections. The rest is history. If the Lok Sabha polls are advanced by six weeks, every shred of complacency within the cadre-based BJP shall be shed while the amorphous Opposition will still be figuring out its formula to combat the onslaught of BJP-RSS humongous political-electoral machinery, presumably the largest in the world.
(Prof. Ujjwal K Chowdhury is School Head, School of Media, Pearl Academy, Delhi and Mumbai. He was previously Dean of Symbiosis, Amity, and Whistling Woods. The views expressed are strictly personal)