Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah are in a bind. While the Big Two, it’s reliably learnt, want the party’s election strategy to pivot on the Modi government’s governance record, party workers seem to be animated more by the Ram Mandir issue. This seems to be the major takeaway from the BJP national council meeting at the Ramlila Maidan in Delhi on January 12 and 13, in which 12,000-odd chosen party workers and leaders from across the country participated.
The party machinery believes Modi still has robust support among the masses, based on the popularity of the government schemes. But his image has taken a hit among his own followers in the party after the interview earlier this month when the prime minister declared that the BJP would consider an ordinance on the temple only after all judicial remedies had been exhausted.
The statement upset the party’s ideological fount, the RSS, no end, with the top Sangh leadership raising the Vajpayee era question all over again: if the BJP can’t build a Ram temple now, despite its hold over both Houses of Parliament, when will it? RSS joint general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale, considered to be close to the Modi-Shah duo, even issued a press note where he was initially conciliatory but later went on to subtly warn the BJP that a status quo on the temple issue before the 2019 poll would be a betrayal of the Hindus.
The buzz till now was that only the RSS was unhappy with Modi’s apparently statesman-like deference to the highest court of the land. But the largely lukewarm response of BJP workers to Modi and Shah (except when they spoke about the temple) now has the BJP’s top leadership worried. Of course, Modi’s reference to his own “majboot sarkar (strong government) versus a “majboor sarkar” (referring to the likely constraints of a patchwork opposition coalition government) drew cheers from the audience, but there was not much else to show. Modi then reiterated that he alone couldn’t win the polls for the party, that the cadre’s involvement was integral.
A lack of motivation at the ground level has been one of the BJP’s big challenges of late. One reason, say analysts, is the over-amplification of governance initiatives. But there are other worries too. The Modi-Shah model, particularly the prime minister’s style of working, is not exactly participatory. An example is the number of political posts lying vacant even as the Modi government’s term comes to an end, ostensibly because the right people are not available for the posts. All this is harming the party now.
A senior BJP leader is quite critical. “The Congress takes just a few weeks after coming to power to throw out appointees of previous governments. It also immediately fills these posts with its own nominees. That’s what Amarinder Singh did on taking over as chief minister in Punjab. In one stroke, he removed the nominees of the Parkash Singh Badal government.” A running joke among the BJP cadre is how it was easier to get rail reservations confirmed when the UPA was in power. It shows the disgruntlement in the ranks on the tight concentration of power, on its perks not trickling down.
But the Big Issue staring the BJP in the face is the Ram Mandir. Says a BJP leader who was earlier with the RSS: “The workers want a Ram Mandir. But you are trying to pacify them with claims of good governance and through moves like 10 per cent reservation for the economically weak among upper castes. The situation is going the way it did (for the party) in 2004. The only difference is Modi. He’s a lot more popular than A.B. Vajpayee was then. But now there are more problems, after the Mayawati-Akhilesh Yadav alliance in Uttar Pradesh.”
Indeed, the SP-BSP alliance has made the 2019 situation quite grim for the BJP. The stats say it all: the votes secured by the SP-BSP-Congress together in the 2014 election-when the Modi wave was at its zenith-would have got it 58 seats if it had been in an alliance, leaving around 20 seats for the BJP. So the question is: will the Modi wave be stronger this time? Shah spoke forcefully about the BJP setting a target of securing 50 per cent of the votes in UP, but analysts feel it’s quite difficult in the absence of an emotive issue like the Ram temple. Initial readings suggest that BSP supremo Mayawati has read the game right when she said the “guru-chela (Modi- Shah) were already losing sleep” over the alliance. Unlike in the past, the alliance seems to be one of mutual respect too, with the seat-sharing pact locked at 38 seats for each party, leaving two vacant for the Congress (Rae Bareli and Amethi, the constituencies of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi). The Congress reacted with caution initially, but has since declared that it will fight all 80 seats in the state.
The BJP’s grand narrative for 2019 rides on six major points: Modi’s charisma; the strong nationalist line woven around internal security issues like illegal immigrants, terrorist infiltrators and the army offensive against them in Kashmir and elsewhere; its strong cadre base; the 220 million beneficiaries of Modi’s schemes like the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) for the poor, Ujjwala (cooking gas), Mudra (small bank loans without collateral guarantees) etc.; the fight against corruption; and the 10 per cent reservation for the economically weak in the general category.
The problem is: except for the Modi charisma bit, the rest of the messaging has to be transmitted to the voter by the party’s rank and file who are now fixated on the Ram Mandir. The saving grace is the constant criticism of opposition parties, particularly Congress president Rahul Gandhi, of Modi with slogans like ‘Chowkidar chor hai (The guard is a thief)’ and ‘crorepatiyon ki sarkar (government for the rich)’ has not affected the prime minister’s image. Rather, he’s been able to turn these negative campaigns to his advantage. “They (the opposition) are ganging up on the chowkidar, trying to throw him out so that they can get back to their corrupt ways. But this chowkidar isn’t going away. He is here to stay,” Modi thundered at a rally in Agra on January 9 to applause.
Meanwhile, Shah’s plan to win elections remains the same-booth management where one party worker woos five to 10 voters among the reported “220 million beneficiaries” of Modi’s schemes. The party’s vast electoral machine is already on the move, with updated lists of beneficiaries passed around every week. They are especially upbeat about the Ayushman Bharat health insurance scheme beneficiaries, which the BJP believes will be a big draw. Housing under PMAY for the rural and urban poor is another scheme the party wants to leverage, especially as digital monitoring has ensured transparent delivery. As Modi told BJP workers from Tamil Nadu in early January: “The UPA made just 2.5 million homes for the poor in its 10-year rule. Against that, we made 12.5 million homes, and that too of good quality, in less than five years.”
However, with the Ram Mandir issue taking the front seat again, this advantage may be lost. Says a BJP leader from the Hindi heartland, “It’s a Catch-22 situation for the leadership.” That’s not good news for the party as the 2014 victory was as much due to Modi’s charisma as the Sangh Parivar putting its collective might behind the BJP.
The party’s latest upper caste quota gamble could help, party leaders say, provided the leadership plays its cards right. “Its electoral potential may appear limited, but it can be a game-changer,”