We are heading into the heat of campaigning for general elections. There are a lot of things that will be said by a lot of people. However, two principal actors will gain all the attention. Narendra Modi, incumbent PM and the epicentre of political narrative in the country for nearly 6 years now. Rahul Gandhi, his principal challenger and unstated opposition candidate countering Modi. The NDA which had a stellar campaign in 2014 quite surprisingly lost its way on communication front early 2018. During the course of the year they yielded considerable space in setting narrative to Rahul Gandhi and Congress which translated into Congress snatching 3 states away from them in end 2018. That Congress promised the moon and much of it looks like lies peddled now is an another matter.
2019 seems to have gotten NDA / BJP / Modi off to a decent start as far as communication and narrative setting is concerned. The recent response to terrorist strikes has also bolstered the image of the government. Note, I don’t advocate cashing in on an adverse event at all. I am only stating that actions of the government are inline with the expectation they set for themselves when they came to power in 2014. BJP have also eaten humble pie and sorted (for now at least) their alliance hassles in large states of Bihar, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. This should give them some peace and the opposition who were salivating at the chance of this breaking up a little head ache.
Let us focus on things that will become part of the narrative as we go into election mode for the ruling party. Here are my top critical items.
1. Anti corruption
Modi came on the plank of anti corruption. His clean image made everyone believe he will throw corrupt people out and rid this country of all ills. However, exaggerated, people believed the moon on this topic. He has delivered the cleanest government in years. There is absolutely no high level corruption charge on him or anyone in his cabinet. He comes unscathed on this one. However Nirav, Mallya, Choksi, 2G judgment and with no scratch yet on PC/ Vardra, don’t do good on optics. This will have to be managed heavily. Opposition could beat the government to pulp on this front as they have been doing all of 2018. As I said, clean government nevertheless but corruption delivery optics needs to be managed. Who was corrupt before 2014? If so, why are they still free? Will Michel and rest help them balance the view on this front? Needs to be seen.
2. Terrorism & Naxalism
This perhaps is a decent delivery point from the PM. He has been firm on dismantling all terror infrastructure across and within the borders and has been systematically engaged at it. He has balanced talks and no talks with Pakistan at different times. Supported by smart foreign policy initiatives to corner Pakistan, he has been able to manage optics in the wake of the recent terror strike followed by the air strike. His free hand to the army yielded the surgical strike a couple of years ago. Internally as well, red corridor had been seeing meticulous cleansing. That the Chhattisgarh state government is out of their hands may not augur well for this story but there is plenty to talk on this front from the PM. Deaths on the border will be a data point thrown at random by all and sundry but it is a fact that this government has shown gumption for retribution when there is an attack on their soil / countrymen. That is a big change of image from all PMs of the past that Modi has cast for himself.
3. Triple Talaq & Uniform civil code
NDA invested heavily on the TTT bill. Yes, it is great for gender justice and sorting the social issues ailing Muslim women. However, the amount of political capital invested by the PM personally and entire cabinet on this at times made me wonder what they were doing with it? If they expect this to yield electoral dividend, then I urge them to wake up from the reverie. I expect 0 benefit out of this. However, caught in the TTT is the uniform civil code expectation that NDA has done precious little about. BJP was the truly nationalist party rooted on issues of uniform civil code, Hindutva etc but ended up delivering absolutely nothing on this front. Luckily for the BJP, they are faced with an opposition who wouldn’t touch this issue with a barge pole. So, they are saved the embarrassment of someone picking this up and weaving into their narrative instead of BJP.
4. JK policy / article 370 / 35 A
JK offered great opportunities for the BJP to stamp themselves firmly – taking on separatists, stopping their funding, integrating JK with mainstream country, 370, 35A, cross border terror, radicalization of Kashmiri youth, resettling of Kashmiri Pandits etc. Entire country waited with baited breath to see Modi do something here. People across country thought it was about right time.
A state government formed in coalition with PDP conveyed flexibility and realism from BJP on somewhere reaching out to J&K instead of waiting their turn to rule that state which they may never have in their lives due to demography stacked against them. Nationalistic issues of repealing article 370 and 35A which have been part of party articulations for decades have been kept under the carpet. People know that 370 can be repealed with a presidential order and doesn’t need a constitutional vote. Can they do this albeit as a last gasp to save their face? This will be a sore issue when they get back to voters seeking votes.
At the fag end of the term, doing anything now, would also make them look desperate. Damned if they did and damned if they didn’t on this one.
2014 Hindu voters for the first time in the history of this country cutting across caste, sub caste, state saw them firmly rally behind Modi and BJP. For once, it was surreal to see one man Modi camouflage all fault lines within the Hindu society and bring it together. Later, when BJP romped to a majority in UP, many saw this is the opportune time for what has been BJPs single biggest promise to the nation, a Ram Mandir. Knowing our judiciary and expecting them to deliver a verdict on this within this term was a bit much. That the BJP, used that as a tactic to wait and not make a move is even more flabbergasting. A party that built its entire growth trajectory on a Ram Mandir couldn’t deliver it with them being at the center and state is something many are unable to come to terms with. If not now, then when? A petition at the SC seeking control of undisputed land that are around the disputed site by the BJP is almost a last minute optics management tactic. Why did they not parallel track this ask for access along with the case progression in SC?
Yes, no other PM in history of our country has worn his religion on his sleeve unabashedly and walked around like Modi has. However, is that enough to convince your core Hindu voter that you stand for their right? Whoever gets to explain this to the people better weave a very very strong believable story. Else this is a quick sand with regional parties waiting to exploit the fault lines in the society as they have been doing for years.
What will happen if Rahul Gandhi who has a penchant for lying stands in UP and says he will build the temple? Can BJP even look the voter in the eye if he did? its an entirely different matter that Rahul Gandhi may even forget he said this the next day and most definitely not deliver on that promise. However, it could potentially damage the Hindutva narrative of BJP. They are already caught on back foot with RGs temple run.
I am not even listing other optics stuff like Ram Setu and government control of temples etc., Outside of all that, Ram Mandir/Hindu consolidation will definitely play its part till the last vote is cast. If BJP wants to come back to power, it cannot bank on the 20% (minority) vote coming its way on the plank of vikas as they have survived previously and can survive only if they hold onto the other 80% minus the other minority religion votes.
Modi is a brilliant orator. BJP leveraged this to the hilt in 2014. BJP has continued to leverage that till 2019 as well. Not one single cabinet minister barring Arun Jaitley has been able to articulate government policies with media / public. Government despite delivering a corruption free rule, couldn’t even handle the jarring noise from its opponents over Rafale. Independent social media (usually called RW trolls) did a much better job of explaining this and countering opposition claims than government of the day. This leads me to the final point which is communication. In 5 years, this government hasn’t been able to create 8-10 people who can woe voters with their communication. There isn’t one single vote catcher minister in the cabinet. It says a lot about BJPs bench strength. Modi was a challenger in 2014.
All he had to do was ask questions. In 2019, he has to share his government achievements and also defend allegations. The noise around Rafale is just a curtain raiser. As we move ahead, expect opposition to get shriller and more nauseating. However, it is incumbent on the government to fend for itself. It is here that the government stands naked but for the PM Modi saving the day for his entire cabinet. On and off Piyush Goyal has stepped up to explain achievements and shifts in his ministry. Barring sparing examples like that, BJP has nothing here. Yes, they were relying on the CMs of the states to bridge the gap. However, with 3 critical states not with them anymore, how believable would it be for those 3 lost CMs to take a success story to the people after having lost an election barely few months ago? This means, Modi and only Modi has to step up again and communicate with 1 B people. Pity the guy as he has to again shoulder the election campaign single handedly overcoming even the lackadaisical performances of local candidates in remote corners of the country.
In 2014 but for Modi, BJP wouldn’t have come to power. That’s known well. They must be having a sense of deja vu when they head into campaigning for 2019. What would they have done but for Modi?