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BJP’s real woes: Lessons from the electoral semi-finals

BJP is losing a perception battle and just like Nation First, Party Next, Individual Last became its neat mantra in the run-up to 2014 elections, it needs to get a fresh communication strategy put into place.

The prolonged silence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah on election results was very telling. The results were clearly unexpected and possibly led to prolonged internal discussions on the future course of action.

It was around 9:50 PM that the Honorable Prime Minister tweeted about the election results, gracefully accepting the public’s verdict and another tweet where he tried to lift the morale of BJP karyakartas. BJP President Amit Shah has still not tweeted on the loss except congratulating K. Chandrashekar Rao for the stunning victory in Telangana.

But as it happens, BJP supporter base erupted with a wide range of emotions after a 0-3 drubbing the party received at the hands of chief opposition, the Congress Party. Many were old issues that had been brewing up for a while now.

For a while now BJP’s hardline Hindu supporters have felt not only ignored but also complained of BJP making overt appeasement moves towards India’s sizable Muslim population. Many others have raised the middle-class woes, chiefly, tax burden, fuel prices and the fact nothing specifically targeted at middle-class was launched by the government.

But these are all just symptoms. What is the real cause?

At the centre of it all is BJP’s severe lack of communication about what it is doing. It is either getting lost under the information overload or lack of craftsmanship. Prime Minister and other Ministers do tweet things from time to time. Prime Minister even tries to speak directly with the citizens through Mann Ki Baat but the fact is, there is not a single communication opportunity where government presents a gist of its activities. Something that gives a wider sense of direction the country is taking under its governance.

Even election speeches chiefly rotate around either few pet projects affecting the poorer communities or focus on the Gandhi Family of Congress Party.

Core Agenda – Positioning

BJP’s Core agenda, for decades, included the abolition of Article 370, Hindutva (Ram Mandir), Uniform Civil Code and National Security. Its previous communication was accordingly spread annoyingly between these wide positions. The same was then wrapped together and brought into the fold of a more cohesive slogan of ‘Nation First, Party Next and Individual Last’, after a Debate Facilitation Document was posted on the website of Friends of BJP in June 2009. Since January 2010, BJP’s positioning changed to the new slogan, but unfortunately, its real position remained the same – Article 370, Hindutva (especially via Ram Mandir), Uniform Civil Code and National Security.

Naturally, its long-term supporters expected it to deliver on these agenda after BJP formed a full-majority government in 2014, the first in India since 1984. While on National Security, BJP has done exceedingly well, and even the opposition has not raised any complaint, on UCC, Article 370 and Ram Mandir, BJP has failed to make any meaningful progress.

Ram Mandir issue is stuck in Supreme Court and BJP Supporters now expect the party to circumvent the Courts via legislation, on UCC BJP has tried an innovative approach like working on the components of the matter. Accordingly, Triple Talaq issue was raised and sorted through judicial intervention. On Article 370, Govt has complicated the matter by proposing to review and repeal Article 35A that bars the entry of non-J&K Resident from buying property in the State.

Fact is, the abolition of Article 370 is a lost cause. BJP doesn’t have the courage to explain this to its supporters. The bus was missed in 1956 itself when the Constitution of J&K was ratified and brought into force. Article 147 (c) of the Constitution of J&K prohibits the Legislative Assembly of J&K from making any amendment to the provisions of the Constitution of India, as applicable in relation to Jammu & Kashmir.

That simply means, State Assembly has no rights to pass a resolution to seek abolition of Article 370 of Constitution of India, which in turn means the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir cannot extend such a request to the President of India.

As if this problem was not enough, the Govt of India under BJP has complicated the problem by announcing its intent to repeal Article 35A from the Annexure 2 of the Constitution of India which stops rest of the Indians from buying properties in the State of Jammu and Kashmir. Article 35-A was promulgated by the President of India under the provisions of Article 370.

Achhe Din

During the campaign for 2014 elections, BJP also made two tall promises. One, Acche Din and two, anti-corruption drive. Acche din was simply a reference to better economic management towards which it has brought a wide range of policies ranging from agriculture to innovation in the fields of science and technology. Finance has been made available to smallest of professions like barbers, beauty parlours, carpenters, vegetable vendors etc., while a specific focus on Start-up culture has been established in a format that needs further evolution.

The government has also opened up lately to MSME segment and has tried to provide the finances. Taxation reforms, compliance, large-scale infrastructure projects, wider distribution of power to households, renewable energy and many other projects have also been a key focus, but yet, nobody understands the big picture of Modi Govt’s economic development.

On corruption, especially a deep-rooted institutionalized form of corruption is not only difficult to remove but is sometimes fraught with dangers of ouster or fatal risks to the people leading such drives. Modi Govt has worked on three-pronged strategy – strengthen the institution and make them capable of self-remedy, reduce corruption in public and private lives and investigate some big ticket corruption cases involving powerful politicians like P Chidambaram and the Gandhi Family of Congress. People are baying for blood.

Strengthening of public institutions is not a popular agenda. Reducing corruption in public and private life is a welcome move but nothing more than an expected hygiene factor. The blockbuster entertainment is in the conviction of someone big, someone like Chidambaram Family or the Gandhi family. And that has not happened in 4.5 years.

Reduction of corruption and simplification of processes has increased India’s “Ease of Business” ranking, but people want to see someone big go to Jail. It’s not that none has gone to Jail. Maharashtra NCP Leader Chhagan Bhujbal was in Judicial Custody for nearly 2.5 years, on corruption charges. Laloo Prasad Yadav was finally convicted and sent to Jail by the CBI Court. Karti Chidambaram was in remand for 2 weeks. But not much has been achieved directly against either P Chidambaram or anyone from Gandhi Family. On the contrary government, itself was under attack for the escape of few big businessmen with ultra large NPAs.

That situation is now getting remedied with the custody of Christian Michel, the middleman accused in Agusta Westland Scam where BJP hopes to get a name of someone from the Gandhi family. Vijay Mallya’s possible extradition is also a major relief for Modi Govt and could change the narrative in coming weeks and months, before 2019 General elections.

Conclusion – Communicate Better

The components are all there. But there is nothing to tie all this neatly into a cohesive story that can be told to the simple voters. BJP is losing a perception battle and just like Nation First, Party Next, Individual Last became its neat mantra in the run-up to 2014 elections, it needs to get a fresh communication strategy put into place. It needs a team that specializes in this job and they surely don’t seem to be from its existing line of resources.

They better hurry and get it in place, no later than mid-January. 2019 General Election is going to be battle India has never seen.

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