City City Bang Bang, Columns

The 2019 Battlelines?

The countdown to 2019 has begun. The BJP kicked off its campaign, with a new tagline and a flurry of newspaper ads. The Opposition put on a show of strength and bonhomie at the swearing-in of H D Kumaraswamy, signalling a resolve to fight the BJP together. The recent CSDS ‘mood of the nation’ survey has some sobering news for the ruling party- its citadel is showing signs of crumbling, in many parts of the country. The survey has the NDA squeaking through with a sliver of a majority. Of course, it is far too early in the game so not too much can be read into these findings except that it corresponds broadly with an arithmetical reality arising out of the prospect of the opposition coming together.

The danger for the Opposition is that it could mistake its own euphoria at being able to come together as being of value to the electorate. Opposition unity is a key factor in electoral arithmetic, but has little value in electoral marketing. Looking at the line-up of regional leaders cooing to each other does not re-assure voters; if anything, it potentially makes them anxious.

For the BJP, there is every incentive to double down on the Modi charisma and to position the contest as one between a strong leader and a rag-tag bunch of opportunists. The Opposition does not today have a convincing story about its credentials on air; but on ground it can do great damage to the BJP. The BJP for its part, cannot rely on the Modi + Hindutva plank that it has increasingly been using in recent elections. Given the new arithmetic, a 31% vote share will simply not do. Even if it were to attract additional voters in the event of a two-horse race, it would still need to look beyond its Hindutva core base. It faces two challenges here- firstly to attract a larger pool of voters, it cannot retain the more aggressive forms of Hindutva that it has been gravitating towards, for the extended constituencies it needs to attract might be repelled by that approach. Secondly, its 2014 promise of Vikas, is not the force it was given that this government has fallen short of delivering-particularly when measured against the kind of expectations it created in 2014.

The BJP’s response is in the process of unfolding, but its new tagline is quite revealing. Saaf Niyat, Sahi Vikas gives us a clue to how it is thinking.

In an overall sense, this is a calibrated message, far from the confidence and the sweeping promise inherent in the kind of messages it articulated in 2014. It has neither the emotionally resonant hopefulness, of Acche Din, nor the comprehensive definitiveness of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas. What it has is a sense of realism that is expressed with shrewd calculation, particularly, in the Saaf Niyat bit. The changing of the arena from performance to intention, from outcomes to belief in the sincerity of the attempt, is both plausible and competitive. The one thing a lot of voters grant Narendra Modi, is his desire to bring about positive change, even if by now, many acknowledge that a lot of his big initiatives have either failed, or not yet converted meaningfully into reality. In contrast, the ‘niyat’ of the opposition is suspect, for they can be presented as having come together with only one objective- to thwart the BJP. The idea of ‘clean’ intentions scales back claims on anti-corruption, without sacrificing that plank. The ‘Sahi Vikas’ bit feels like a somewhat tokenist attempt to keep the development plank going, with the qualifier ‘sahi’ being really wishy-washy. While it might reflect the reality of this government’s approach, as a promise it is more half-hearted mumble than confident assertion.

Overall, the signal from the BJP is that it is falling back from the front-lines of transformational claims, but is digging in to a secondary position with some resolve. This is a strategic retreat, not without some teeth. In some ways, it is an acknowledgement that flashy promises will not work, given that this is an incumbent government. Equally, the track record of the government does not allow for it to ask for re-election on grounds of its performance alone. The ‘saaf niyat’ plank is an intermediate claim, that rescues some strength from an act of equivocation.

In Modi, they have an asset that gives them an edge even when arrayed against imposing arithmetic. It is in the party’s interest to make this election about the individual, while it is the Opposition’s interest to make it about issues, the more local the better. Paradoxically, while the coming of together of the opposition creates great challenges for the BJP on the ground, it might help the Modi campaign on air by giving him a concrete target to attack.

Interestingly, while for the BJP it is clear what the preferred outcome is- a clean majority on its own, the same is not true for its rivals. Managing to eke out a victory in 2019 could well turn out badly for the Opposition, which is clearly not ready to run the government. Chances of any arrangement cobbled together breaking down and leading to a triumphant and more durable return of the Modi-led BJP is a strong possibility. Arguably, the best-case scenario for the Opposition is that the BJP returns with a coalition that it cobbles together. In this scenario, as many have speculated, either Modi might not head the government, or he may operate in such a weakened fashion, that the halo that surrounds him might get diminished.

The promises this time around seem to be more resigned in nature, as if acknowledging that change in India is really going to be difficult. The tone of the campaign is likely to be relentlessly negative, with the principal argument being that the other side is not worth electing. 2019 is likely an election that is much more about fear than hope.

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