Cover Story

‘Wave’ & reality

Print edition : May 16, 2014

BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, along with party colleague Amit Shah and others, on his way to file his nomination papers in Varanasi on April 24. Photo: Sanjay Kanojia

Rahul Gandhi, along with sister Priyanka Vadra, on his way to file his nomination for the Amethi seat on April 12. Photo: Nand Kumar/PTI

At the release of the BJP manifesto in New Delhi on April 7, L.K. Advani, party president Rajnath Singh, Narendra Modi and Murli Manohar Joshi.

Will the “Modi wave” the BJP has worked up in the media help the party ride over the barriers of caste and identity politics? Even senior leaders of the party are not sure.

The 2014 general election was from the outset perceived to be an uneven contest. The Congress and its partners in the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) have been on the back foot owing to a variety of factors, primarily triggered by the anti-incumbency of a 10-year regime, while the principal opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) find themselves in the position of the primary beneficiaries of this anti-incumbency. The Congress and UPA II were weighed down by charges of lack of direction in policy formulation and governance, administrative ineptitude and the corruption scandals that hit the government at regular intervals over the past four years.

The BJP and the NDA were naturally expected to reap the benefits of the popular reaction against the UPA, despite their own problems of leadership, differences on policy and personality tussles. Even so, the BJP managed to project a prime ministerial candidate in Narendra Modi and also succeeded in generating a nationwide campaign and debate on his political personality and the so-called development model he espoused in Gujarat as Chief Minister. The NDA also added a few new allies to its fold in Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

In comparison, the Congress was found wanting when it came to defending itself or projecting the achievements of its government. It fought shy of projecting Rahul Gandhi, its vice-president, as the prime ministerial candidate despite the fact that Manmohan Singh had made it clear that he was not available for a third term. So the contest began as an uneven one and has remained so until the end.

The only question of interest now is whether the BJP and its allies will be able to win power on their own or whether they will fall short of the majority and be forced to depend on parties outside the NDA fold. The campaign theme that Modi and his supporters in the BJP, including party president Rajnath Singh and senior leader Arun Jaitley, pushed aggressively revolved around the slogan “272-plus for NDA”. The same group of leaders also sought to highlight a March-April 2014 survey conducted by agencies close to the party. It apparently stated that the BJP and its allies were in the first or second place in 423 of the 543 constituencies. As for the number of seats in which the grouping was found to be first, they would only say “approximately 260” because in many seats, according to them, “the contest is too close to call”.

This survey has been circulated widely among the echelons of the BJP and the NDA. While the middle-level leadership and the rank and file are enthused by it, a section of the BJP leadership has ridiculed its circulation as propaganda overkill. The leaders who have made this point privately and not–so-privately include those considered close to veteran leaders Lal Krishna Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Sushma Swaraj. In their view, despite the best efforts of the BJP and its allies, the NDA will find it difficult to muster more than 200 seats.

This difference of opinion points to, among other things, the continuing power struggle within the BJP, which manifested itself during the selection of candidates and in a number of other ways in the run-up to the election. The specific cases during the selection of candidates involved Advani, Joshi and Jaswant Singh. Joshi was moved out of Varanasi to make way for Modi himself, while Advani was forced to fight again from Gandhinagar in Gujarat though he preferred Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. When Jaswant Singh’s desire to fight from Barmer in Rajasthan was summarily rejected, he decided to contest from there as an independent. Sushma Swaraj’s wish list in terms of preferred candidates, including the case of Jaswant Singh, was not accepted. All this was perceived as insult and humiliation of senior leaders by the new power centres in the party led by Rajnath Singh and Modi. This power play within the BJP was also seen as a factor behind the contradictory views on the survey and the numbers it projected. One view within the BJP and the Sangh Parivar is that the power struggle, as reflected by the difference of opinion on the survey numbers and in other ways, could itself lessen the actual tally for the BJP and the NDA.

Notwithstanding this difference in perception, the BJP and the NDA have registered an unprecedented pan-Indian presence in the election through the projection of Modi and the advancement of ideas ranging from development to Hindutva. The main slogans that formed a part of this thrust included personality-oriented ones such as “Ab ki Baar Modi Sarkar” (this time Modi government) and “Good days are coming, Modi government is coming”. They pointed obviously to Modi’s track record as Chief Minister. All along, the BJP also pushed the Hindutva agenda overtly and covertly so as to polarise voters on communal lines. This agenda unravelled itself aggressively in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (story on page 14).

The gains from this strategy are strikingly manifest in Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, and to a lesser extent in Odisha and Bihar. In Tamil Nadu, the BJP, for the first time, attracted an unprecedented number of allies, including the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK). In Andhra Pradesh, it managed to get the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) back in the NDA after more than a decade. Another actor-turned-regional-leader from the State, Pawan Kalyan, who formed the Jana Sena Party after breaking away from the Congress, also pledged support to the NDA and said the Jana Sena Party was in fact a Modi sena. In West Bengal, the BJP is expected to touch an all-time high vote percentage, though this may not result in seats. In Odisha, too, the BJP is hopeful of emerging as the second largest party behind the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). In Bihar, despite long-standing ally Nitish Kumar leaving the NDA following Modi’s elevation as the BJP’s national campaign head, the party is hopeful of a creditable performance.

On the basis of all these assumptions and projections, the official leadership of the BJP has claimed the presence of a Modi wave in the country. But this is disputed by sections within the BJP, including Advani, Joshi and Sushma Swaraj. Joshi was rather open in putting down the “Modi wave” claim in a television interview. Modi struck back by refusing to attend a scheduled rally in favour of Joshi. These developments have caused consternation among the BJP rank and file and many of them, as also Sangh Parivar activists, think this could affect Joshi’s chances. There are a significant number of constituencies in Uttar Pradesh and other parts of the country where such internal tussles may be neutralising the so-called Modi wave. The “wave” and identity politics Apart from this, a more concrete phenomenon that has challenged the Modi wave theory is the reassertion of caste-based identity politics in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It is in the central, eastern and Bundelkhand regions of Uttar Pradesh that caste-based identity politics is reasserting itself after the intensely communally polarised elections in western Uttar Pradesh. This correspondent could see several signs of this reassertion in the half-a-dozen districts of eastern Uttar Pradesh that he travelled in. A significant one was the view held by Dalits and people from the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), a rough translation of which is as follows: “Of course, Modiji has the chance to become the Prime Minister this time, but it will not be on the strength of our vote. We belong to this particular caste and we will vote only for the party that has been traditionally protecting our interests.” At a wayside gathering of farmers belonging to different castes and political orientations this idea came up in the form of a shared allegory: “This talk about a Modi wave is like an algal bloom that spreads sometimes on water bodies. It makes the water look green, but dip your hand in and you will realise that it is normal water. So, look inside the algal bloom that is the Modi wave and you will find the normal water of caste.”

In Punjab also the BJP-NDA election agenda faces a rather strange political challenge in the form of reverse-communalism triggered by the denial of the party ticket to former cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu, the BJP’s MP from Amritsar. This action of the BJP leadership has upset the numerically significant Sikh community in the constituency and it has turned against the BJP’s high-profile candidate Arun Jaitley. Naturally, this will benefit the Congress candidate, former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh. The ripple effect of all this can be felt in other seats in Punjab, too, where the benefits will go to either the Congress or the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) . Hope for Congress Such developments have brought some relief to the Congress. In the early stages of the run-up to the elections, Congress leaders and workers were so low on confidence that they were literally running away from the contest . This forced Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi to step in and get many of the senior leaders to enter the fray. The drama that accompanied these developments even led to comments that the Indian National Congress was turning into “Indian Reluctant Congress” and then to “Indian Compulsion Congress”. According to a senior Congress leader, the prevailing situation, largely of the BJP’s own making, could prevent the expected rout of the Congress in Punjab. “In any case, we expect a better performance than what was anticipated in Karnataka, Kerala, Telangana, Maharashtra and Bihar. The developments in Punjab point to unexpected gains,” the leader said.

The Congress leadership has questioned the BJP’s survey and the claims of the wave made on that basis. Talking to Frontline, senior party leader Vayalar Ravi pointed out that the BJP had only 116 seats in the 2009 elections and the NDA had 157. “Out of this 157, the Janata Dal(U), which has parted ways with the BJP, had 20 seats. Last time the BJP came second in about 106 seats. With these figures, the projection of being first or second in over 400 seats is, put simply, ridiculous, much like the so-called Modi wave,” Ravi said.

Obviously, the developments in Punjab and Bihar have given some voice to the Congress leadership. But that is certainly not enough to prevent the slide it is facing across the country and especially in States like Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, which had boosted its tally in 2009. Conversely, there is little doubt that the BJP has the advantage of being the primary beneficiary of the anti-incumbency feeling against the UPA government. But, as many BJP leaders themselves say, the big question is whether this advantage is good enough for the party and the NDA to gain power on their own or whether they will have to take the support of regional and identity-based parties who continue to hold on to their areas of strength and chip away at the grand national edifice that Modi, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are trying to build. As the election process enters its last lap, this question looms large before Modi and co.

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