In his victory speech at Vadodara, Narendra Modi asked the voters for 10 years. Many think that given the magnitude of the BJP’s victory and the Congress’s defeat, this is likely. However, whether the BJP can be successful in replacing the Congress as the party synonymous with governing India in the 21st century is up for debate. For the BJP to replace the Congress as the natural party of governance it, like the Congress in the past, has three options — display an ability to govern, develop a national presence and organisation, and either co-opt or eliminate the opposition.
The Congress ruled India for many years because the party was perceived as one that best represented the policy preferences of most Indians — centrist on economic policy and a keen supporter of the rights of the underprivileged. The Congress’s policies floundered amid poor delivery of policy, and corruption that undermined its ability to appear capable of governing. In the 2014 National Election Studies (NES), respondents were asked whether they received benefits from flagship government policies like home loan schemes (awaas yojanas), the MGNREGA, free health benefits and various types of allowances and pensions. Less than 30 per cent of the beneficiaries of any one of these policies gave credit to the Central government for them.
The BJP won the election by presenting Modi as an agent of change — a change in how a country could be governed, with Gujarat put forth as a shining example. Regardless of the debate surrounding the “facts” on Gujarat, CSDS survey data suggest that most people perceive Gujarat as a well managed state. Now that Modi is in power, the image of Gujarat can no longer be used to mobilise votes. Voters will be assessing how the BJP and Modi govern from Delhi. Unfortunately for the BJP and Modi, reforming governance in India is a long and arduous task. Given the demographics of India, especially because so many people need the state for their well-being, no elected government can introduce radical policy changes, especially of the right-wing variety. The BJP also cannot afford to alienate its core supporters, the urban middle classes.
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ttempts to appease both groups can only yield incremental policy changes. The maiden budget presented by the BJP government reflects the difficulty of making rapid changes in a large and complex society. The BJP could make its mark by changing archaic laws, making the government work more efficiently and creating a more approachable and open government, but not appearing partisan while doing so. These tasks are difficult by their very nature, as the recent controversy over the appointment of Nripendra Misra as principal secretary to the prime minister shows. To put it simply, major changes in governance that will transform the face of the state in the next five years will be difficult to achieve for anyone, including Modi, who is reportedly a man in a hurry. To remain in power for longer than five years, the BJP and Modi cannot rely on providing results through better governance alone.
To replace the Congress as the natural party of governance, the BJP needs to build a wider and deeper organisational base. The success of the party in the 2014 elections is attributable to the organisational skills of Amit Shah in Uttar Pradesh. However, repeating the exemplary performance in UP or maintaining the stunning vote-seat conversion ratio that the BJP achieved in the 2014 elections will be difficult in future. Therefore, the party needs to deepen its pockets of influence in eastern and southern India.
In the 2014 elections, the BJP indeed managed to attract a larger chunk of “vote mobilisers.” Vote mobilisers are individuals whose support for a particular party goes beyond simple voting, and instead involves monetary donations, door-to-door canvassing, leaflet/ poster distribution, among other mobilisational activities. In 2014, the BJP had more mobilisers than any other party. The BJP also had more vote mobilisers in 2014 than in 2004, while the Congress had far fewer individuals willing to mobilise votes for it at the local level. The NES 2014 data show that these mobilisers, while capable of increasing both turnout and vote-share for their chosen party, display little party loyalty or partisanship.
Instead, they are drawn to a winning candidate or party. Indeed, 54 per cent of the BJP’s vote mobilisers stated that they were motivated to vote because they believed they were voting for the winning party, while only 38 per cent stated that they simply voted for the party they wanted to vote for (see figure). Since it is “winnability” that motivates mobilisers, their support for a party is shallow and potentially fleeting. And, if India’s tradition of anti-incumbency bias holds, vote mobilisation may be even easier for the Congress and regional parties in the next round.
Given this data, it becomes even more incumbent for the BJP to appear as the winning party in the next election. If governance will not necessarily yield winnability and the support of vote mobilisers is fickle, the BJP will have to turn to a third option to ensure future electoral success — weakening the Congress.
How can the BJP weaken the Congress? It has two options. The first is to co-opt the Congress’s elite into the BJP, a strategy used by the Congress in the past. This is virtually impossible for the BJP because of the resistance it would face from its own cadre to giving defectors senior positions within the party. The second option is to create conditions for the disintegration of the Congress’s organisation. For well-understood reasons, the dynasty lies at the centre of the Congress’s organisation. The dynasty is the glue that holds together the various local and state factions (and the national-level coterie) that compose the Congress party. If the dynasty goes, it’s likely that the Congress will fragment and no longer be able to present itself as a party that can win a national election and govern India in future. This would provide the possibility for the BJP to present itself as the only national party capable of governing from Delhi.
On this issue, Modi’s politics is quite distinct from the BJP of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Modi made ridding India of the Congress a central part of his campaign message. He attacked dynastic politics directly and made sarcastic comments about both Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. He broke an unwritten code by holding a mega rally in Amethi (Rahul Gandhi’s constituency) in the last hour before the campaign period ended. At the rally, Modi not only attacked the mother-son duo but also minced no words in going after Priyanka Gandhi, her husband Robert Vadra, and even the late Rajiv Gandhi. The recent notice given to the Congress by the income tax department on the National Herald issue and making the Congress run from pillar to post for the leader of opposition status is a reflection of a politics that will make every effort to undermine the dynasty. The Congress coterie comparisons of the treatment of Indira Gandhi by the Janata Party and the BJP’s contemporary attacks are not apt. Neither Sonia nor Rahul have the political capital that Indira carried. There are many more people now who dislike the dynastic character of the Congress party’s organisation, and Modi and the BJP are likely to antagonise only a few by directly attacking the first family of the Congress.
If the BJP wishes to replace the Congress as Condorcet winner, that is, in pairwise comparisons with other parties many people would prefer the BJP to govern India nationally, it needs to introduce better governance, develop a more robust organisation, or undermine the Congress. The first two tasks are difficult, but the third can be carried out with more ease. As the BJP steps up its attacks on the dynasty, the Congress’s coterie, whose very existence is threatened by these efforts to isolate the dynasty, will protest. In the coming days, we expect that these voices will only get shriller.
The writers are with Lokniti-CSDS and the Travers Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, US.