The emphatic victory of the Congress-UPA alliance may not have just a single explanation, says R. Jagannathan in the DNA, citing specific instances where the BJP lost the plot.
The emphatic victory of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) may not have one single explanation.
There are state-level explanations for its victories in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Punjab and West Bengal, for instance. But the fact that the party dented rivals such as BJP and Mayawati in their home bases suggests that its message struck a chord.
Mayawati’s bulldozer personality obviously blinded her to shifting ground realitie. But she is smart enough to rethink her strategy. One can’t be sure about the BJP, though.
This writer believes that the BJP lost the plot not in March 2009, when the bugle was sounded for the latest election, but in 2004, when it stumbled to a shock defeat.
The party’s public behaviour since then has been that of a bad loser, and nobody loves such a person. Soon after the defeat, we saw Sushma Swaraj threatening to shave off her head if Sonia was made prime minister.
The party looked foolish when Sonia abdicated in favour of Manmohan Singh. Then there was the unseemly behaviour over the UPA’s decision to induct “tainted” ministers. Sure, there was a political point to be made, but the BJP shot itself in the foot by becoming obstructionist in Parliament.
Nobody was amused. In every subsequent encounter with the UPA — the Ram Setu affair, the Afzal Guru episode — the party acted churlishly, opposing for the sake of opposing, and creating a ruckus in Parliament.
The party’s thumbs-down to the Indo-US nuclear deal took the cake: it tried to scuttle something it had itself been working towards when in power. Everybody could now see the BJP’s desperation to score points.
The last act in this tragedy was scripted by Advani himself, with his ill-thought-out taunts about Manmohan Singh being a “weak prime minister”. It took the Sonia-Rahul-Manmohan combine just two weeks to demolish him, providing a fitting finale to five years of foolish opposition. In short, the BJP was in self-destruct mode from May 2004.
These tactics could, perhaps, have worked when the nation itself was in an angry mood, but 2004-08 — the first four years of the UPA — was a period of economic optimism, with the rural areas receiving good monsoons and government bounties.
The BJP was completely out of sync with this optimism by injecting sourness into the political atmosphere. Even though the mood has been more sombre since September, 2008, the urban electorate has squarely cast BJP in the role of Cassandra. No one will vote for a Cassandra, for elections are about looking at the future with hope.
The second major problem with the BJP is that is has not yet adjusted itself to the needs of 24×7 news TV. TV needs pleasant faces, sharp but sober talking points, and people who know what to say and how. This calls for preparation and planning. Impotent anger does not work — except during brief periods when the public mood itself is similar.
Unfortunately, none of the BJP’s top leaders had a TV plan. Advani, with his inability to bring forth a single smile during the campaign, was a disaster. The party’s main spokespersons — Arun Jaitley, Rajnath Singh and Sudheendra Kulkarni, among others — displayed no soft, human touches during the hours of debating that went on TV during the campaign months.
Narendra Modi could have done better, but this time he came across as too belligerent when the nation was looking for sobriety and steadiness.
At a time when the BJP was trying to convert election 2009 into a presidential contest, they had to play to the visual gallery. Their hero was reduced to a zero by how he appeared on TV. In contrast, the dynasty’s clean faces made all the difference to voters looking for simplicity and good sense. The BJP clearly needs to think TV the next time. It needs camera-friendly faces.
Third, Hindutva was not the problem. It wasn’t on the BJP’s agenda this time, and, in any case, parties cannot turn ideology on and off. But they can learn to nuance it better. If the BJP were to abandon its Hindu leanings, it may as well close shop. In branding, it is what you stand for that counts.
Support for violence and intemperate talk can only destroy the BJP’s Hindu credentials. The party needs to talk a new language that is positive. Being Hindu should not mean demonising the minorities. In fact, it should be creating a new inclusiveness by teaming up with, say, Muslim parties the same way it is doing with the Akalis.
A BJP-led coalition should resemble Malaysia’s UMNO coalition, where the top party is a party of Muslims, with the Chinese and Indians getting their own exclusive spaces in the coalition.
If the BJP wants a future, it has to work out its gameplan for 2014 right now.