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Modi needs to remember negativism doesn't sell

By N Sathiya Moorthy
March 19, 2019 20:00 IST
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BJP strategists need to remember even at this late hour that ‘negativism’ sells when you are in the Opposition as the Indian voter has mostly voted anti-incumbency, and not when you are in power. You still needed to highlight your achievements and promises,  and let the voter draw his conclusions, says N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing a rally. Photograph: Abhishek N Chinnappa/Reuters

Independent of the BJP’s claims about its government’s five-year performance, to sweep the upcoming Lok Sabha polls as in 2014 the party strategists have to make it an all-out ‘Modi-centric’ affair.

Indications are that they are unable to strike a balance, rudely woken up by the unanticipated SP-BSP alliance in Uttar Pradesh, for instance.


If the BJP thought that by keeping the Congress rival and party chief Rahul Gandhi in focus through high-voltage and unverifiable criticism from the past, accompanied by undignified attacks on the latter, they may have overdone their bit, and far too long. In the process, they forgot that the voters would be evaluating the five-year performance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and not that of predecessor governments of the Congress rival.

The young, first-time voters are more susceptible to evaluating the performance of the incumbent, not even against their promises at the previous elections but against their own vague and unfamiliar yardstick of the time. The BJP benefited hugely from this segment in elections- 2014, as they also contributed to the ‘Modi wave’.

Yet, in elections 2019, the composition of the first-time voters has changed, in every respect -- but the BJP strategists seem unable to shed their hangover from the past. If they have among themselves first-time voters from 2014 providing inputs and undertaking electoral work, the latter have already become ‘committed’ voters and cadres, whose views may have been coloured by what they are unable to see. Their ‘unwillingness’ to see them, if there is any, comes only next.

If in 2014, the BJP thought that it had to keep the campaign Congress-centric, it was justified by the fact that the latter was in power at the Centre. The BJP strategists also rightfully concluded that raising the ‘anti-incumbency’ bogey very early on would pay them rich dividends.

Given that the Congress-UPA and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were in their second term, anti-incumbency in 2014 dated back to their first term in office. Given their lackadaisical, lethargic ways, the Congress election machinery was unable to counter the BJP onslaught especially after an ‘unfamiliar’ campaigner in then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi hit the nation’s streets. The rest, as they say, is history.

But elections 2019 is a different ball-game. Rather than marketing the Modi achievements, the BJP and the prime minister both were still busy running down the Congress rival and Rahul Gandhi. It remains to be seen if their campaign hit the target or may bounce back on them -- especially, a certain voter-sympathy for Rahul Gandhi, who a section of the voters may still feel they might have treated too unfairly for their own comfort.

The Congress and Rahul Gandhi may not have time to go too far on attracting the first-time voters, especially after the relative success of his conversation with students of a women’s college in Chennai in mid-March. If however it was a representative response, the BJP and their poll-ally in ruling AIADMK in Tamil Nadu getting upset over it.

Thus far, BJP strategists, the media and social media have all gone on the continued assumption that the first-time voters may after all be with Modi, as they were in 2014. The state government has issued notice to the Chennai college management for organising the Rahul meet after the Election Commission’s ‘Model Code of Conduct’ had come into force.

On contemporary voting and alliance patterns, the states and seats across the country could be broadly categorised under four heads. First, are the states where the BJP and Congress face direct fights, or something close, without heavy dependence on allies, new or old. Together, Chattisgarh (11), Gujarat (26), Haryana (10), Himachal Pradesh (4), Madhya Pradesh (29) and Rajasthan (25) account for 119 seats.  In the overall context, this category comes only in the third of the electoral demographic list, as far as parties and alliances are concerned.

The second list comprises states, where either parties are dependent on allies new or old. This comprises the highest category of 241 Lok Sabha seats in the nation’s total of 542. They are: Assam 14, Andhra Pradesh 25, Bihar 40, Goa 2, Karnataka 28, Jharkhand 14, Maharashtra 48, Punjab 13, Telangana 17 and Tamil Nadu 40 (including the lone PuducherryUT seat, where the same alliances remain). In these states, the governmental/electoral performance of the allies can make or mar the chances of the two national rivals.

The third category comprises states where one or the other of the two parties are either non-existent or has to prove themselves again. Better still, in states like Uttar Pradesh, the electoral initiative may rest as much with ‘other/regional’ parties as with one or both of the ‘Big Two’ national competitors. Thus, Orissa (21), Tripura (2), Uttarkhand (5), Uttar Pradesh (80), West Bengal (42) and Delhi (7) add up 157 seats. The figure may change if AAP and the Congress strike a last-minute poll-deal in Delhi. Its impact, either way, may be felt in neighbouring states like Haryana, too.

Broadly composed, the fourth and last category accounts for a total of 38 seats, and is topped by Kerala (20) and Jammu & Kashmir (6). Here, one or the other national party has to prove itself substantially. The list also includes some of the single/twin-seat north-eastern states and also left-out Union territories, together accounting for five seats among themselves.

In these states, especially Kerala, the Opposition Congress-led combine continues to be vying with the ruling CPM-led alliance, with the BJP seeking to make inroads. In some of the north-eastern states, barring Assam, the BJP is in power because regional parties want the Congress out. The LS polls may decide who between the two national parties will stick on for a longer innings, and how. J&K is a different kettle of fish, where issues and alliances remain murkier, for now at the very least.

So, does it pay the BJP and Modi their time’s worth by focussing near-exclusively on the Congress and Rahul Gandhi long after the five-state assembly polls is well past them? If anything, it only focussed excessive attention on the ‘anti-incumbency’ in states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh, more than might have been necessary from the BJP’s LS poll-perspective. It was so earlier in the case of Modi’s native Gujarat, where he needed to prove a point -- and did so with great effort and by expending more time than any prime minister had possibly done in a single-state assembly election.

As if to shake off a mind-set and pattern, the BJP has been shifting their campaign focus, slowly but surely, on Modi and his achievements as prime minister. In doing so, however, they did not seem to have noticed the haste and hurry with which the prime minister went about launching and/or inaugurating new projects worth thousands of crores, all at one go, and often through video-conferencing invariably from a venue closer to a political rally venue.

If the idea was to let the so-called ‘affected sections’ of the common voters to get over the hangover from demonetisation and GST, in the form of job-losses and personal funds hiccups, that purpose may not have been served. The results of them all had deeply sunk in, one way or the other -- depending on which end of the stick one was holding, for anything fresh and fast to take away their collective impact, positive or not-so-positive.

It is instead possible that the voter is yet to get a grasp of the PM-centric fast-tracked projects, especially those for which the PM launched the work, which were all otherwise in the future. There were also those like a brand new ‘National War Memorial’ in the Capital, when there was already one that the nation and its services personnel and veterans have come to respect and revere.

Yet, throughout his political career, up to becoming PM, Modi has survived mostly on ‘negative publicity’ -- and also drawn further inspiration and possible energy from them all. What they received, he gave back, and in fuller measure -- at least for the object of criticism went, if not all the subjects, too.

But then, the BJP strategists need to remember even at this late hour that ‘negativism’ sells when you are in the Opposition as the Indian voter has mostly voted anti-incumbency, and not when you are in power. You still needed to highlight your achievements and promises,  and let the voter draw his conclusions -- which is what the voter does ultimately, whatever be the BJP strategists understanding and that of the media, from Elections-2014.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.

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