Changing narrative

Print edition : May 10, 2019

Prime Minister Narendra Modi being presented with a bow and arrow during an election rally in Bagalkot city in Karnataka on April 18. Photo: Firoz Rozindar

Congress President Rahul Gandhi at a political rally in Bajipura village near Bardoli, some 300 km from Ahmedabad, on April 19. Photo: SAM PANTHAKY/AFP

BJP candidate Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur at a party workers’ meeting for the Lok Sabha election, in Bhopal on April 18. Photo: PTI

A procession taken out by the Bajrang Dal during Hanuman Jayanti celebrations, in Hyderabad on April 19. Photo: Nagara Gopal

Stung by the failure of the campaign based on muscular nationalism in the early phases of voting, the BJP desperately looks for new strategies and altered roadmaps, with emphasis on Hindutva.

“Now, this election campaign is increasingly looking like Narendra Modi’s style of governance over the last five years, particularly the manner in which the government pursued demonetisation and GST [goods and services tax]. A new narrative every day, with new reasonings and strategies along with altered roadmaps to attain a proclaimed objective. God knows whether this would also lead to results as chaotic as demonetisation and GST produced.”

This was the gist of banter among a group of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) workers in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, on April 17, a day before the second phase of polling in the 17th Lok Sabha election. They were referring to reports about the formulation of a new election slogan for the party even as the polling process was well under way, pointing to a mid-course correction.

According to information that came from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters in Delhi on April 16, the new slogan, “Kaam ruke na, desh jhuke na” (Work should not stop, the nation should not bow to anyone), would take precedence over slogans like “Main bhi chowkidar “ (I am also a watchman) and “Modi hain to mumkin hain” (With Modi around, things are possible).

The earlier slogans had sought to bring the general election under the singular narrative of muscular nationalism along with the projection of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the protector of the country. The context for this was the February 14 terror attack in Pulwama and the subsequent air strikes by the Indian Air Force in Balakot, Pakistan. This was accompanied by political assumptions that national security and the government’s anti-terror operations would occupy centre stage during the election.

The expectations at that time were that the campaign would build a nationwide nationalistic fervour, which could be converted into a formidable electoral advantage. An important ploy aimed at achieving this was the “Main bhi chowkidar” drive that exhorted people as a whole to adopt the “chowkidar” title and become symbolic protectors of the country.

The new slogan, which is an open admission that the earlier narrative failed to influence people, seeks to replace aggressive muscular nationalism with a more sober commitment that the work for the people would continue even while the country’s security and prestige would be upheld.

At one level, this correction is also an acknowledgment of the focus of several opposition parties, including the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), on the theme of economic and social justice. BJP leaders said that the new slogan would give a pointed counter to the Congress’ NYAY universal basic income scheme under which it promises to pay Rs.72,000 a year to 20 per cent of the country’s poorest families.

New slogan

The seasoned RSS workers of Kanpur understood the larger import of the downplaying of the muscular nationalism slogan as well as the course correction, although they couched their initial reactions in humorous wisecracks. Later, speaking to Frontline at length, a couple of senior workers from the group said that the apprehensions on the party’s shifting electoral narratives could not be brushed aside lightly. “This is a serious issue. The history of our recent election campaigns has been one of clear and definitive political slogans, coupled with imaginative campaign strategies backed by rock-solid organisational structure,” one of them said.

He added: “This was the case even when we suffered a shock defeat under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004 and later in 2009, when everybody knew that a campaign that projected L.K. Advani as Prime Minister would not have much appeal among the people. Many of us knew midway through the 2009 election that the Advani candidature was uninspiring, and yet we did not budge from the fixed narrative. In 2014, we rose to great heights of resolute pursuit of an election strategy, which was designed almost a year before the elections.”

The senior member said: “Of course, Modi imparted a rousing leadership in the execution of the 2014 election plan. This time too, our organisational machinery is well-oiled and much better than that of our political adversaries, but the leadership has been found wanting in conceiving effective slogans and crafting imaginative campaigns.”

Indeed, this popular appeal deficit was noticed by the BJP leadership, its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), as well as the Sangh Parivar associates in the campaign period from early March to the first phase of polling on April 11. So much so, the alliance’s star campaigners, including Prime Minister Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, started veering away from the singular focus on national security issues and patriotism to other campaign themes such as the iteration of corruption charges against opposition parties.

The time-tested communal polarisation tactics also began surfacing before April 11 in the form of exhortations to the Hindu community to remember the atrocities that the minority communities, especially Muslims, had inflicted on them in the past. But all this was being done without any official proclamation to the rank and file and the campaigners on the ground about the change in the electoral narrative. BJP and Sangh Parivar insiders said that an official notification of the change down the organisational structure to the level of ground-level campaigners became imperative after the BJP and the NDA leaderships evaluated the polling trends in the first phase of polling.

According to them, the evaluation showed that of the 91 seats that voted on April 11, the NDA could expect to win only about 25—a significant drop from 2014, especially in crucial States such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra. As a result, the new slogan that focusses on both work for the people as well as national pride was coined and formally circulated in the organisational channels of the BJP and its allies in the NDA.

Four factors had apparently been flagged repeatedly during deliberations among various Sangh Parivar constituents prior to this course correction.

The first was the perception among large sections of the public that the BJP, especially Modi and Amit Shah, had gone on a misjudged overdrive on the muscular nationalism campaign. Second, the efforts to create communal polarisation, especially in western Uttar Pradesh—which was the hotbed of sectarian riots in 2014—were effectively neutralised by the alliance of the S.P., the BSP and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD).

“In hindsight, S.P. president Akhilesh Yadav’s insistence on including the RLD in the alliance was a political masterstroke, which effectively prevented the advancement of our Hindutva electoral drives,” said one of the senior RSS activists in Kanpur.

Formidable U.P. opposition

The S.P. gave up one of its seats to the RLD to keep it in the alliance even though BSP leader Mayawati was not keen on including the party. The Jat community, the RLD’s core vote base, was actively involved in the 2014 riots and engaged in serious clashes with the Muslim community. However, the social and political contours of the alliance this time were such that the community refrained from repeating 2014. The widespread agrarian crisis in the region also helped bring the communities together (see story on Uttar Pradesh election scenario).

Both the first and second phases of elections in Uttar Pradesh—for a total of 16 seats—were influenced by this social cohesion that thwarted efforts to arouse communal conflict.

Third, the success of Bihar’s opposition grand alliance led by the Lalu Prasad Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in forging a broad social coalition of Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Most Backward Castes (MBCs) and Muslims once again prevented a pan-Hindu consolidation.

Fourth, the party’s proven inability to make inroads into the south, barring Karnataka, brought down the overall expectations in terms of seats at the national level.

Evidently, all these points were factored in while revising the electoral narrative. Tweaking the main slogan, of course, was only one part of it. The response to the first point was in the enhanced focus on 36 welfare promises mentioned in the BJP’s manifesto. The list includes the doubling of farmers’ incomes, providing permanent houses, bringing water to every household and providing Rs.1 lakh as interest-free loan to farmers on kisan credit card.

Apparently an iteration of these schemes has evoked derision from several quarters, including sections of the NDA and the Sangh Parivar, because many of these promises are reminiscent of those made in 2014 that remain unfulfilled.

By all indications, intensifying efforts at Hindutva consolidation has been identified as the solution to their rivals’ consolidation of predominantly OBC Hindu communities and Muslims in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The candidature of the Malegaon blast accused, Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, in Bhopal against senior Congress leader Digvijaya singh is perceived as a major step in this direction.

The party’s calculation is that the hyper-aggressive Hindutva warrior image of Pragya Singh will heighten the social divide that has deepened during the Modi regime on account of the actions of both government agencies and non-government players such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bajrang Dal and other fringe groups.

However, sections of the Sangh Parivar, especially senior activists like those in the Kanpur group, are doubtful if this “extreme push” would work in the current atmosphere.

Speaking to Frontline, S.P. president Akhilesh Yadav said Pragya Singh’s emergence as an electoral player revealed the real face of the Sangh Parivar. “It also reveals two fundamental facts about the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. First, they will go to any length to polarise communities, especially Hindus. Second, all their talk about patriotism is insincere. Otherwise, how could they field someone who has so openly bad-mouthed a police hero like Hemant Karkare, who was in the forefront of fighting terrorists in the 26/11 Mumbai attack?”

Congress leader Ajay Maken was of the view that Pragya Singh’s candidature highlighted the downhill trajectory of the BJP-Sangh Parivar in terms of political morality and democratic integrity. “Leaders like Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi were considered hardliners in their time, but they had all engaged with democratic polity and its spirit at some levels. Under the Modi-Shah leadership, even that pretence has been thrown away,” he said.

The 2008 Malegaon blast that killed nine led to the coinage of the term “saffron terror” and Pragya Singh was one of the main accused in the case. She was charged under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) and imprisoned for nine years. The MCOCA charges against her have been dropped but prosecution proceedings are continuing on the basis of other charges.

Pragya Singh has alleged that she was tortured while in jail and has “pledged to restore the dignity of saffron by defeating Digvijaya Singh hands down”. That this candidature is an overt signal to unleash polarisation at a larger level is clear from the community-wise composition of Bhopal. Hindus account for about 69 per cent of the population and Muslims for about 26 per cent. The appeal in the BJP campaign here, right from the beginning, is to fight to restore Hindu pride. It remains to be seen what chain reactions this candidature and related propaganda will set off in other parts of north India.

On his part, Modi too has persisted with the pursuit of aggressive Hindutva in his individual campaigns. Addressing meetings in different parts of the country, he has been invoking the Sabarimala controversy among other polarising issues, arguing that the Communist parties and the Congress in Kerala have created a situation where taking a God’s name would lead to incarceration.

Amid such efforts, Modi has also maintained that this is an election where pro-incumbency is a factor and not anti-incumbency.

Supplementing this claim, Bihar Deputy Chief Minister and senior BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi told Frontline that the overarching sense in this election across the country was that there was no alternative to Narendra Modi, although the alliances carved out by the opposition parties created the impression that they were steadily cleaving out significant chunks of the BJP’s massive support base.

He added: “Moreover, the Congress’ organisational machinery is in complete disarray in spite of the gains the party made in the December 2018 Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. That party does not have the political and organisational vitality to stand up to Modi and his team.”

Congress’ troubles

This observation about the Congress’ organisation has a lot of merit. The party has scored some vital points in terms of ideation of new policy initiatives and programmes (see comparison of manifestos), but it has failed to follow this up with solid organisational initiatives and electoral strategies.

While the internal assessment of the BJP and other Sangh Parivar outfits is that the regional parties are giving them a good fight in crucial northern States such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the Congress has not managed a similar spirited fight in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where it is the principal opponent to the BJP (see report from Madhya Pradesh).

Persisting inner-party fights and the central leadership’s lack of control are debilitating the party in almost all the States. So much so, party leaders in several States admit that they have not been able to effectively take the message regarding a programme as important and electorally potent as NYAY to the grass roots.

The manner in which the party’s high-profile spokesperson, Priyanka Chaturvedi, quit protesting the re-entry of certain alleged lumpen elements into the organisation thoroughly exposed the lack of control of the leadership.

However, the work of effective regional leaders in Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Kerala has offset the setbacks.

On the other hand, the BJP’s organisational manoeuvres have a grand sweep, from macro-scale operations to micro-level management. BJP leaders in several States are enthusiastic that they have been able to wean away several regional influencers from other parties (see Uttar Pradesh election scene report) and assert that this would make a big difference in select constituencies.

Clearly, this level of organisational preparedness is also conducive to unleashing communal propaganda and divisive operations on a large scale.

As the 17th general election remains poised in a delicate balance after two phases of voting, which have certainly unravelled the loosening grip of the BJP in crucial States, and with five more phases remaining, the moot question is how far the ruling party will be able to retrieve lost ground through the phalanx of course corrections ranging from mixing development promises with national security and pushing outright communal propaganda not only through statements but also through symbols.