City City Bang Bang, Columns

Downhill till 2019?

Over the last couple of weeks, a clear signal has emerged from the ruling party as to what the direction of its electoral strategy is. A series of signs, big and small, have confirmed what many have always believed- that when in doubt, the BJP goes after the one plank that it feels emotionally most secure in – the aggressive espousal of Hindutva.  Withdrawing from the J&K coalition has strengthened its hands when it comes to taking on a more aggressive posture against Pakistan, and this is likely to feed into an even more strident approach overall. While other election-minded initiatives are also being pursued- the increase in the MSP has been announced with a clear view to relieving widespread farmer distress and giving itself some insurance against this becoming a variable in 2019, the BJP’s own ability and interest in showcasing this move seems to pale in comparison to its investment in nurturing its core constituency.

The social media attack on Sushma Swaraj and what followed was a clear sign of the BJP approach. The attack was unusual in its ferocity and crudeness. While she has, along with Arun Jaitley, never been a favourite of the party’s vocal base, who have always looked upon her with suspicion, the kind of attack that was mounted was far too vicious and sustained for it to be an accident. That virtually no other leader of the party took her side (with the exception of Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari, who made a somewhat belated attempt to come to her aid) highlights quite clearly as to where the party leadership stands on the issue.

Were that in any doubt, PM Modi’s definitive endorsement of the party’s social media brigade laid the question beyond the realms of speculation. By lauding his ‘young friends’ for the ‘frank method of conveying opinions’, and asking them to ‘continue expressing and discussing freely’, he gave the strongest and most overt signal to his cadre that what they were doing had his express approval. More than anything else, this has set the tone for what we might expect between now and the elections. Interestingly, last week also saw Ram Madhav step in to defend Sushma Swaraj, but his intervention was, in reality, a direction to the party base to continue to keep the anti-Muslim narrative at front and centre of their social media efforts. Sushmaji was a means to a more strategic end, he was pointing out. Focus on the bigger picture, was the message.

That the message has got through is evident by the manner in which Jayant Sinha has tried to ingratiate himself with the party leadership. It is true that thanks to Yashwant Sinha’s actions, he might be under a cloud that he is very keen to emerge out of. But the idea of garlanding those convicted of a brutal lynching, while they were out on bail and then justifying it, is, at least on the face of it, so out of character for a person of his background and sensibility, that it serves to underline how much pressure leaders of the party feel to salute the party flag. Loyalty can be signified in many ways, but none is more graphic than for one to have to subject oneself to ritual self-humiliation. The whole point of such an exercise in symbolic atonement is to publicly display one’s willingness to be called out and criticised mercilessly, in an attempt to prove one’s ideological credentials.

We are currently in that phase before a major election when parties and political formations are in the prototyping mode. Data is crunched, alliances get explored, approaches get tested, the stock is taken of resources, tasks are assigned, the macro and micro assessments are made, scenarios are painted. The Opposition’s task is easier in that it has no real option but to focus its attack on the government and its track record. Realistically, it is in no position to offer a compelling alternative proposition, except that it is not the BJP. In framing its strategy, it has to assess what aspect of the BJP’s performance should it focus on. As the actions of the Congress in Gujarat and Karnataka demonstrate, one of their key dilemmas is how to try and neutralise the anti-Hindu charge that is laid at its doorstep. Go full throttle on a rearticulated vision for a secular India, or hedge one’s bets by soft-pedalling this issue?

The BJP’s preference for an attacking approach is so viscerally rooted that it becomes difficult for it to gauge whether it is electorally advantageous as well. The need to stay angry, to be consistently vituperative, to look for and construct enemies to tear down can get exhausting and even counter-productive after a point in time. The social media discourse that the party engenders, the tonality used by its most loyal TV channel supporters, and the frequent statements made by the elected representatives of the party all follow the same implicit logic.

The downsides to a relentlessly negative approach are becoming visible. The Centre’s handling of the AAP government is a case in point. Whatever might be anyone’s opinion about Arvind Kejriwal, the manner in which his government has been systematically harassed by the ruling party, through the instrument of the LG, is a blot on democracy. That, even after the Supreme Court’s intervention, the Centre seems reluctant to give up on its machinations, is something that illustrates the BJP’s negative approach and also points to its dangers. There is little incremental political advantage in pursuing such an obstructionist strategy that makes one’s rival a martyr.

Issues relating to identity are and will continue to be very important to the Indian voter, but equally, as Narendra Modi’s 2014 campaign demonstrated so graphically, so will aspirations. Today, it appears for in the 2019 elections, no political formation will speak to the hopes of the electorate, only to our fears. Fasten your seatbelts, it is going to be downhill from here on.

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