City City Bang Bang, Columns

Coming On Too Strong?

The BJP understands the power of demonstrating strength. The Modi-Shah approach is that of strength applied strongly. The power distance between its top duo and everybody else, the ability to take decisions without having to worry too much about appeasing factions, the ease with which it takes risks and the big bets it places, the facility with communicating its narrative with flair, the seamless manner in which it inducts leaders from the other side, doing what it takes to win the smallest skirmish, using its formidable social media army to attack critics mercilessly, the stories that do the rounds about how cowed and intimidated the media is- all of these are helping in creating the sense of purposeful strength applied at full throttle all the time.

While this approach has obviously worked well for the party, it is worth asking if this is sustainable in the long run. The win everything, win-at-all-costs credo comes with costs that unfold over a period of time in the Indian political context. Potentially, it does not carry people along, it forces everyone else to try and cobble together strength, it creates internal fissures that can become more prominent over time, and prevents genuine feedback from getting fed back to the leadership.

Learning to lose a little, learning to lose strategically, is an important way of creating sustainable power. That way, interests of various kinds are accommodated, room is always left for some negotiation, and the other person always believes that there is a chance of a favourable outcome, and is often willing to wait till that happens. Playing this game is also very taxing, strength needs to be maintained at all costs; any slippage becomes a sign of weakness.

The need to be at war all the time with all the enemies one has created can be energising, but is eventually sapping. Creating internal enemies, losing the support of a wider public by taking obdurate stands in sensitive issues like Kathua and Unnao, disregarding allies, getting in people who are rank opportunists with the hope that you can discard them before they can discard you, controlling the media narrative to a point where media starts losing whatever little credibility it has and becomes irrelevant, pushing an institution like the judiciary to a point where it might feel compelled to fight back- these are the consequences that could potentially unfold.

Going up against a defined enemy is easy, going up against an enemy called disinterest and fragmentation is much more difficult. The Congress and the Left are very useful, they make for great enemies, for they emit an illusion of strength. This is weakness made to appear strong, so that it can provide fodder for anger.

The trouble arises when the regional parties outside the heartland come into play. The BJP’s formulations start slipping- Hindu consolidation is not the trigger it is in the Hindi heartland, and sub-regional issues elude the party’s capabilities, at least as of now. Rahul Gandhi and JNU are much easier to attack than Siddaramaiah.

Pushing hard provides reasons for the other side to set aside their differences and come together in unlikely alliances. By leaving the opposition with no room, the party helps clarify the situation for them. Previously unthinkable options suddenly appear on the table. The idea that Mayawati and the Samajwadi party could come together is one such event that could reshape the contours of the 2019 elections, and it has been made possible largely because the parties in question do not have any other choice.

The problem for 2019 is not only that there is stronger opposition but that there is weaker support. As things stand, it is unlikely that the BJP will be defeated by a more attractive national option; it is far likelier that they will lose seats, because of a combination of lower turnout by their supporters and greater voting on account of more local factors. In response, the instinct to display strength strongly could potentially make them use strong-arm tactics when the need of the hour might be for greater subtlety and flexibility.

The ability to forge alliances in a sustainable way needs the ability to bend a little and display respect to smaller partners, things that do not come naturally to the leadership. It would make sense for it to apply strength weakly, and to win the big wars, without feeling a compulsive need to win every skirmish.

Strong-arming the South is another tactic that could backfire dramatically. Sending Yogi Adityanath to lecture to states that are vastly better administered about how to govern, is arrogant and short-sighted.

The BJP acts on assumptions rooted in a deeply North Indian mindset, and far from being cognizant of this and working to find better ways of making a connection it is blustering its way through. As a consequence, a North-South faultline is beginning to emerge and this could pose long term challenges to the party’s plans.

The key difference between 2014 and today is that while Mr Modi continues to be extremely popular, his promises do not have the same ability to draw diverse constituencies out of their traditional modes of voting. His silence too is beginning to register; there is a difference between a leader who is above it all and one who isn’t there at all and of late, Mr Modi is coming through as absent, rather than strong, even to some of his supporters.

Additionally, in the intervening period, the party’s own priorities, particularly in times of elections have moved significantly towards the cultural side of its agenda, hence it is no longer trying to make the promises it was in 2014. The party is however acting as if it still has the same advantages in the manner in which it is pushing against both the opposition and its allies. The continued support of its very vocal base might be blinding the party to the pitfalls that come with an unremitting show of strength.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *