The Web


Home > News > Columnists > Arindam Banerji

What BJP needs: New leaders, better strategies

May 27, 2004

The nautanki was in town. Bada mazaa ayaa.

But according to most -- mazaa to ab shuru hoga. In India, we call these fun times elections.

And how can it not be -- when you have Laloo and Taslimuddin, both with dubious records, as senior ministers of the government -- how can a nation of 1 billion people not rejoice in sheer excitement? I have to admit, even the natural cynic in me had not thought that the fun and games would last this long.

But not all was fun and games, and not everything could be seen through the eyes of a cynic.

After all, how could any Indian not feel proud to have two sparklingly honest and enormously educated people at the helm of the country? Two people who any Indian family would be happy to invite over for dinner?

But the story does not begin there. First there was:

1. Mandate for everything

If you believe the media -- it seems that the Indian people gave a huge mandate on just about everything -- first there was the mandate for the Congress, then there was a mandate against the BJP, a mandate for secularism, a mandate against economic reforms, a mandate for more rural friendly policies and of course, the big one -- the mandate on the foreign origin issue of Sonia. All these mandates in just one vote -- the Indian voter has to be a true genius, clairvoyant and great communicator, all rolled into one.

The facts unfortunately do not support any mandate shmandate theory. If you look at the excellent data collected by the Election Commission of India, you'll quickly see the orange and the blue evenly distributed across the nation -- judge for yourself, if there was this big mandate for the Congress or if the BJP was 'voted out of power everywhere.'

The stark truth is that -- on one hand, the Congress polled 26.69% of the votes where it ran, but only won 34.77% of the seats it contested --while the BJP polled only 22.16% of the votes where it ran, but won 37.91% of the seats it contested. Drawing conclusions from this data one way or the other is just playing ideological politics -- no real conclusions can be drawn.

The interesting thing is that the BJP won massively in the rural areas of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, which have some of the poorest rural populations in the country -- so much for the rural versus urban mandate. Of course, for perhaps the first time, the BJP made significant gains in Kerala and the North East, some of the most demographically balanced areas in India -- how does this match with the secularism mandate?

So confident was the Congress of its secular mandate, that the party immediately turned around and said -- to hell with this secularism nonsense -- let us nominate E Ahmed of the Indian Union Muslim League as a minister. Of course, the IUML's secular credential are shall we say -- somewhat -- actually more than somewhat -- shaky. Shaky enough that the CPI-M calls it a communal party.

'The Congress had stabbed from the front those who had voted for a secular government in New Delhi,' fumed Politburo member V S Acuthanandan.

What to do -- mandate hai na!!

The problem with almost all this mandate shmandate nonsense is that there were no national issues of any significance at all in these elections -- what happened in April-May was a set of 29 state elections with local issues almost always being the dominating deciding factor.

In fact, in Andhra Pradesh the key issue was free power and Telangana -- both of which are local issues. In Tamil Nadu, water issues and Jayaamma's high-handedness were the deciding factors, while in Gujarat, constant battles between Modi and Keshubhai Patel and the unhappiness of the farmers from North Gujarat with Modi's policies, led things astray. In Delhi, the removal of key local leader Madan Lal Khurana rang the death-knell for the party.

Extracting national mandates from this set of widely varying 29 state assembly elections is inherently an exercise in extrapolation, where the fundamental observation has to be that 'your guess is as good as mine.' Any other observation is void and false.

For all those who want to see and interpret the data for themselves, I suggest a half an hour spent at the site of the Election Commission of India. It is much more informative, than almost any of the analysis that I have seen so far.

2. Media inadequacy of the BJP

One thing is absolutely clear though -- whoever runs the media and information for the BJP and other right-of-centre groups should be immediately fired -- for sheer stupidity and incompetence. In spite of almost six years of handling power, there are few, if any major media personalities or editors of elite media, who could be considered right-of-centre --I'm not talking far right fundoos, but simply right-of-centre personalities comparable to the moderate Republicans in the US.

This lack of sympathy for secular but right-of-centre causes has expected results and has been going on for a while, as Tavleen Singh notes:

'How much is Sonia Gandhi a real figure and how much a myth created by the media? This is a question that comes to my mind every time I see an interaction between her and Delhi's political journalists. The most recent one was last week when a gathering was arranged at the Parliament House annexe. It was clear that the country's most hardened hacks fell over themselves trying to get close to 'Madame' much as if she were a movie star. 'No questions, please, no questions, no questions, no television cameras,' her flustered flunkeys yelled but they need not have worried because when the questions did come they were so mild that any child could have answered them.'

This trend has never stopped -- in a recent Sonia interview puff-piece questions about favourite foods, lessons from Indira, her personal life and her children dominated with a question or two on the continuation of reforms thrown her way.

Essentially, a Barney interview with a potential prime minister of India, just a few weeks before national elections for a country of 1 billion people -- Barney, for those out of touch, is this purple dinosaur toy, which incessantly belts out the irritating jingle 'I love you, You love me.'

The problem is that this imbalance habitually misinforms the Indian voter, since in any case much of the Indian vernacular press takes its lead from the elite media. If the BJP could not convince any of the elite media to understand its point of view, its causes and its vision for the nation after six years of rule -- who should be blamed?

And then came the message itself -- reams have been written on the India Shining message -- but the problem is not the message itself, but the applicability of a single message to entirely different audiences -- urban and rural. Everybody who has been involved in marketing campaigns knows that messages need to be fine-tuned for the target audience.

This BJP message certainly was not fine-tuned for the rural audience nor was the rural audience ever educated about how they were going to be linked in with the India's burgeoning economy. This brings me to the other point on selling --who is responsible for educating the public about the reforms -- especially the rural poor?

Remember, the attempt to foist the VAT programme last year -- same problem there too -- good idea, but poor marketing and almost no pre-selling the concept to those most affected. Result -- an utter failure. This is an endemic problem that exists within all right-of-centre groups -- a pure inability to understand of how to use the media and how to effectively use public relations as a multiplying factor for their causes.

So, in spite of spending hundreds of millions of rupees on the communication campaign, it was money ill-spent. The Congress on the other hand did a far better job of getting their act together with far less money.

Dilip Cherian, CEO, Perfect Relations, set up an excellent communication strategy to 'reach out to the poor and less-informed people living in the country's remote and rural areas. He chose at least 48 centres across the country from where he unleashed his media campaign for the Congress by reaching out to the public through local cable television networks, the vernacular press and the lesser-known communication channels that were left untouched by the BJP's high-tech media campaign.'

The Congress message was well focused on getting the women's vote out, especially in rural areas, by painting the attack on Sonia, as an attack on India's bahu.

Years of such poor media management adds up -- but who'll bell the cat?

Who would tell the emperor that a high-tech, US style media campaign based on SMS messages and irritating phone calls, changes far fewer minds than favourable coverage on local radio and television. Presence of a sprinkling of editors and media personalities who understand and espouse a right-of-centre viewpoint in the elite media is critical to getting your point across, both in India and in the world outside. But the emperor when informed of this is entirely supercilious -- he doesn't want anything to do with the 'stinking' elite media. The result -- no credibility with the media, big and small, that now reach a phenomenal number of Indian homes.

3. Strategic bankruptcy of the BJP

Any party that wins less than 20 seats in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Haryana, Punjab and Kerala combined, does not deserve to run the country -- no way.

If anything reveals the nature of the problems that the BJP faces, Uma Bharati's antics accompanying her recent protests over Sonia as PM do.

'Bharti's decision to quit Tuesday over Congress president Sonia Gandhi's possible elevation to the post of prime minister was not the only one made without informing BJP leaders. BJP leaders were also cut up over Bharti's decision to appoint her brother Swami Lodhi and eight party leaders to plum posts in various corporations of the state before she left for Delhi to submit her resignation. Lodhi was appointed chairman of the Madhya Pradesh State Civil Supplies Corporation while actor Nitish Bharadwaj of Mahabharat fame was appointed head of the Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Corporation' -- Hindustan Times, May 20, 2004.

Here is a party operative that acted completely against the national and local interests of the party and did not even bother to inform her colleagues or higher ups -- that about sums it up, since this happened pretty much all over the place, across the nation before and during the election. This indicates complete and shocking lack of control over state cadres and regional partners.

Infighting between Modi and Keshubhai in Gujarat, Modi's poor handling of farmers' pleas, infighting in Mumbai's constituencies, poor preparation of candidates in Uttar Pradesh/Delhi, complete lack of support for friendly partners in TN, no guidance to the Trinamool in West Bengal, yada, yada, yada -- the list keeps going on and on.

The question that one has to ask is, where was the adult supervision during all this?

The other day, I was watching an interview of Delhi BJP candidate, 28-year-old Smita Irani. Four things stood out -- I was very impressed by her desire to serve her country and her passion for it; I was thoroughly disappointed by her naiveté in allowing her political opponents to define her.

At one level, I seriously hope the young lady can maintain her passion and go on to play an important role in national politics in a decade from now. But where were the BJP national campaign managers? The first principle about running large organisational events is to never let anything fall through the cracks and here there were huge yawning gaps. Who was supposed to hand-hold this candidate and provide her the direction necessary? Who was supposed to raise the fervour for an unifying cause? Who was supposed to provide 'voter management' on the day of the polls?

The BJP's first mistake -- Vajpayee took the low-route by hiding Pakistani perfidy to curry favour with some religious groups, thus removing any chance of having a nation-wide cause for national elections -- multiple state elections resulted instead of a national elections.

Second mistake -- the obvious one -- who was the partyman arrogant enough to not strike deals in Haryana, Assam, Maharashtra and Bihar, as well as make enemies out of friends in Tamil Nadu? 

Third mistake, utter chaos and infighting, poor choice of candidates, poor preparation of candidates -- where were party management basics?

The complete inability to build up media support for right-of-centre causes, the complete inability to recruit and convince media personalities about nationalist causes -- was the last nail in the coffin. All these add up to a party going from winning 50 plus seats in UP in the 1990s to barely 10 seats in this election. If that isn't an ominous sign, I do not know what is!

Unfortunately, it looks like the BJP may not have learnt anything even after the elections.

Jaya withdrew all her decisions just after the devastating loss in the election -- her high-handedness on some issues such as over-punishing the government employees after the strikes were over, the large increases in electricity and transport tariffs did cause the election debacle, but as The Telegraph put it, 'The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's non-performance in the Lok Sabha elections has obviously shaken her, and she has gone for an indiscriminate withdrawal of all her policies in Tamil Nadu barely a week after the results. While her retreat on some fronts may augur well, the hurried decision to arrange for free electricity to farmers, for example, suggests an unashamed bid to ensure votes in the coming assembly elections that says little for thought or planning behind any of her moves, past or present. The ban on conversions was a policy that cost her dear this time.'

The revamping of all policy decisions of the last two years does not engender confidence and does not necessarily fool all the people. The flip-flops of the partners continue unabated. Want more of the same, look at the continuing flip-flops within the Trinamool in West Bengal.

So we now have a situation where the BJP's internal party and cadre management is in complete turmoil, while it faces incessant brand-building around second generation Congress leaders like Rahul, thanks to the balanced Left-wing media.

The BJP needs to get used to the fact that they consistently polled somewhere in the low-to-mid twenties, while their main opponents poll somewhat higher -- implying that they have to depend upon better seat winning percentages to win and devise strategies accordingly.

Unless new leaders emerge and better strategies are devised, the BJP may be in trouble at a national level for some time to come, even though I expect them to do very well at the forthcoming state elections.

The question again is who will bell the cat -- especially, when much of the right-of-centre is fully engaged in fervent cat-fights amongst themselves.

Part II: Imbalanced media and the loony Left

Article Tools
Email this article
Top emailed links
Print this article
Write us a letter
Discuss this article

Related Stories

The mathematics of politics

Cong beat NDA at its own game

Arindam Banerji

Copyright © 2004 India Limited. All Rights Reserved.