2019: BJP’s Negative Campaign Won’t Work



After every election, one of the commonest remarks of the teams and the leaders who lose is that they would introspect, study the results and make course corrections. In the case of the assembly elections, Union Minister Arun Jaitley said the same: “We have done reasonably well. We have to introspect. The cadres will have an honest analysis.”  Prime Minister Narendra Modi said victory and defeat are a part of life, and that he accepted the results with humility. Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah has done none of that. It is fair to say that he and the entire leadership are worried and have done some preliminary work on how the party will present its case for 2019. Common sense and past records both suggest that the writing is clear: the assembly election results indicate that the BJP has slipped badly; some would argue that the party is no longer the frontrunner for the upcoming Lok Sabha polls.

Changing of tracks

What then should the party and its leadership do to change this? The first indication was a louder, shriller and more personalised attack on the Opposition. It was seen in Raebareli on Sunday, when the Prime Minister attacked the Congress in the home constituency of its leader, saying the party was “agitated” and telling “lies” as there was no “Quattrocchimama” or Christian Michel in the BJP government’s defence deals. Quattrocchi, who died in 2013, was named in the Bofors gun deal investigations and Michel is one of the three alleged middlemen being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) over charges of organising bribes to push the AgustaWestland chopper deal. The 50-minute address was a tirade against the Congress, including remarks that roped in Pakistan: “What is the reason that people in Pakistan clap when some of our leaders speak?”

If this is the nature of the political response, it means more of the same from the BJP. It indicates that the BJP will continue its focus on what the Congress has not done or done wrong when it was in power, not what the BJP has done over the last five years. In short, a negative campaign against an Opposition the BJP decimated in 2014 with a mandate for change; not the change that the BJP was supposed to have brought in. Negative campaigns work but not to highlight sins (alleged, imagined or real) that are long past. It is not that corruption in high places is not an issue. It is that the government has done pretty little to unearth scams and send a clear message on corruption while at the same time making life for ordinary citizens difficult with measures like demonetisation, not to speak of being caught up in the thick of scams itself.

While it seeks to clear its name in the popular perception in the Rafale deal, the BJP is pushed to more of anti-Congress-ism, bordering almost on contempt and hatred. But so much has been said on the topic, mostly empty rhetoric, that there is little else but to raise the voice, frown a little more and rope in Pakistan more often. It cedes space to the alleged failings of others, not to any offerings that must be at the heart of the campaign now – the plan for today to build a future for tomorrow.

Growing on a diet of hatred, and on the mis-reading that people will buy into this as an agenda in itself election after election, the BJP is less geared to build bridges and more geared to pull down and tear apart. The assembly elections suggest that this story will not sell anymore. There are two ways – raise the tempo to dangerous new levels or change track and offer a “real” developmental agenda in the little time left. The innate tendency is to do the former.

Cong’s old guard

The Congress, too, is doing its version of more of the same. It remains in the grip of the old guard, some of them are the ones who brought the Congress to its knees and have left it in a place very few would have imagined the Grand Old Party could ever fall. The election results bring hope for the party, for the work of Rahul Gandhi but they also send some warnings.

Consider that the Congress has just about bagged Rajasthan, a state that many (including some in the BJP) had agreed would be lost to the Congress. The Congress eventually bagged 99 seats with 39.3 per cent vote share, marginally ahead of the BJP vote share of 38.8 per cent (and 73 seats). This indicates that there is a swing but the Congress will need to do more at the ground to turn this into a robust advantage. The coming to power itself changes things and the process may accelerate but not necessarily.

In Madhya Pradesh, the picture is quite different. The BJP has bagged more votes than the Congress, which came to power with more seats. The BJP got 41 per cent vote share with 109 seats. The Congress bagged 40.9 per cent vote share with 114 seats. The Congress has clearly not been able to move its ground machinery enough to translate years of pent up anti-incumbency energy into votes. It is as much an issue of workers and their enthusiasm as it is a factor of the leadership inspiring confidence in the state, which did not offer as clear an indicator as in Rajasthan.

The trouble is that the BJP has done much damage and has little to offer. The Congress, too, has not offered any grand vision for the future. The BJP mandate is now almost fully spent. There is little time, interest, inclination or capacity to offer a new agenda. The staple of mandir, re-naming of cities and roads and raising communal issues is shown as not working. The questions that are coming up with vigour are of jobs for the youth, a viable and sustainable plan on agri issues and issues of safety and security of the Dalits, the marginalised and the minorities. In the age of tall claims, sloganeering and social media excesses, these are the very issues that are not in the forefront of the political debate.

Billion Press