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BJP: Turning intensity into numbers?

As the respective campaigns of the major political parties gather steam, it does appear that at the level of the overall narrative, the BJP is comfortably ahead of its rivals. Post- Pulawama, it has been able to shed its some of the tentativeness that had begun to creep into its campaign, and is pushing ahead with much greater clarity and force. The Congress, which lost much of the momentum that it had started building, is getting back into the fray, but it might just be too late. The launch of its manifesto got some traction, but it is hardly an electoral instrument of note. Not having built meaningful alliances, it has now to make the most of its limited resources.

The primary strength of the BJP, one that distinguishes it from most other political parties is the strength of its supporters, not just in numbers, but far more critically, in the intensity of their support. Their keen desire to belong and make a difference allows the party options that others simply do not have. The ‘chowkidar’ campaign is a good case in point. While the immediate trigger might have been Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Chowkidar Chor hai’ jibe, the campaign seems to developed a life of its own. On the face of it, the idea of trying to make the label a positive one, and for all leaders to append ‘chowkidar’ to their names, feels like a somewhat desperate manoeuvre. Symbolically too it lacks heft. As many have pointed out, chowkidars in India do not carry an enormous amount of respect, and most chowkidars, far from feeling any pride in the work they do, lament their station in life.

The trouble with this view is that it reads the symbol far too literally and does not account for the fierce need that the BJP’s support base has for any device that helps them advertise their sense of belonging. If the Congress were to attempt something like this, it would quickly become a joke, but the BJP is able to pull it off because there are so many who feel a great sense of pride in flaunting whatever label, no matter how inappropriate, as long as it identifies their affiliation. The unapologetic confidence that gets displayed by a large number of loud supporters helps turn what might have been clumsy propaganda into a plausible show of strength. The Modi film, Namo TV and the serials that have started spouting pro-government messages are able to pass muster because there is a ready market for these which will not only defend this heavy-handed propaganda but enthusiastically promote it.

Strategically, this campaign, coming as it does on the back of the Balakot strikes, is helping the BJP achieve its key task- converting the ardent enthusiasm of the relatively few into mainstream preference of the many.  Without this transfer of enthusiasm to a larger public, the BJP’s support base is a loud but electorally limited island. The party needed to infect the larger mass of voters with some of the belief that its core base has. It helps that leading the army of the passionate believers is a majority of our TV news channels, who are relentlessly plugging the party’s line. The BJP’s very vocal social media army adds to the mix in a potent way.

For the Congress, the task is structurally the opposite of that of the BJP. It needs to convert lukewarm bonding into weak but widespread support. The party’s cadre, such as it is, comes nowhere near that of the BJP in terms of the quality of support. Its greatest chance lies in gathering the scattered discontent that might exist amongst the invisible and silent many. Its imperative is therefore to fragment the discourse, by localising it, rather than aggregating it. For the Congress, the incentive is to keep the campaign on as rational a path as possible, by focusing on the shortcomings in this government’s performance, for any emotionally resonant issue is likely to bring together the BJP’s formidable base. Personal attacks on Mr Modi have always galvanised him and his supporters, and we are currently seeing such a backlash play out.

Overall, what these combined efforts have managed to do for the BJP is to help building an aura of inevitability around Mr Modi’s return. Even for those with doubts, as election day approaches, there is a temptation to align with whoever looks like the ultimate winner. Several ground reports too are suggesting that might be working, particularly in the Hindi heartland. The arithmetic might still look difficult, but more and more people have started believing that the sentiment seems to be heading Mr Modi’s way.

However, the truth is that all Indian elections are virtually impossible to predict given the vastness and complexity of the country and of our electoral system. The omnipresence of the media and its highly slanted nature can create a narrative that might be highly misleading. Also, given that the BJP won a staggering proportion of all seat in North and West India, what might look like a very positive reaction on the ground, might still not be able match the intensity of the support it received in 2014. Additionally, the flip side of having a very vocal set of supporters is that they can drown out other weaker signals that might find expression only on election day.

By its very nature, the analytical lens that most often used is an extremely narrow one. The contest is frequently posited as being between two parties whereas it is in reality a far more complex affair, and regional parties that will in all probability help determine the outcome of this election, are almost always inadequately factored in.

The BJP’s cheerleaders could well be the force that convert a tight election into one the party wins comfortably. Alternatively, it could obscure the reality on the ground. We could mistake the noise of a few for the assent of the many. Time will tell.

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