Marking its seventh anniversary in power at the Centre, the ruling BJP enters its eighth year grappling with two unprecedented challenges within: one, a dent in public trust in the government during the second Covid wave and, two, the first chipping of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Teflon coat.
The sharply falling Covid curve and the safety net announced for children and a section of the next of kin may have brought some respite but many senior party leaders The Indian Express spoke with underlined the enormity of the challenges ahead.
“This is the lowest period for us since we took charge in 2014,” said a senior leader in charge of key states.
The lingering grief of those who lost their loved ones, the ongoing vaccine crisis, the economic uncertainty and, more importantly, the very public spectacle of mismanagement – from families helpless and hapless to WhatsApp videos of the party declaring a Modi victory over the virus – all mark out the long haul the party faces.
These leaders accept that while the critics include the “usual suspects, the same set that attacks us over note ban, NRC, J&K, China, GDP,” there is disquiet in every home across party lines.
“Our hardcore loyalists remain with us but for the first time since 2014, we are hearing voices from within our supporters and fence-sitters about the Centre’s competence and leadership,” said a senior leader who is in charge of the party in key states.
“But it’s not irreparable,” said the senior BJP leader. “The leadership is aware of the anger and anguish on the ground. We are keeping them in mind while we prepare for the way ahead. We will gain some of the lost ground, if not all of it.”
So integral has Modi’s image become in shaping the party’s politics and fortunes that a dent in it, whatever its size, gets magnified down the line.
Many leaders said that whenever there has been social or public hardship – after the noteban, GST, migrant crisis last year — the party has been shielded by the perception of Modi’s “sincerity and commitment” and goodwill created by the Centre’s marquee welfare schemes.
That is now being tested.
“Signficant reserves of that political capital we had have been lost,” said a senior BJP leader, who is also a member of the Rajya Sabha. “The party and the government will have to tread with extreme caution because we have become prone to attack, criticism and that shield isn’t as strong as it was a few months ago.”
Other than the falling curve, time is an ally, said a Union Minister. “No one has to decide on the BJP or Modi until three years later,” he said. “Modiji’s charisma and popularity helped the BJP gain formidable political capital on which we built the party and expanded it. Sensible leaders always change their tactics once they realise what isn’t working…we will review and march ahead despite the setback and bruises.”
Another leader said that April and May were “abnormal” and “public anger in that crisis” can’t be seen as enduring. It can also be managed better if the Centre is pro-active – and seen to be so.
“Our best case scenario is that the curve keeps falling, and we are able to meet the target of at least 30-40 crore one-shot vaccinations by August,” said a leader who works closely with the Covid task force. “People are fearful and angry but nothing works better than things improving. That will set off a virtuous cycle.”
Given the vaccine supplies and the curve still stubborn in many rural areas, this remains a challenge.
Said the president of a party state unit: “Yes, people are angry but when they go to polling booths, they will think about the sincerity of the leaders and the work done thereafter.”
The bigger issue that many leaders talk around is how centralisation of power and the leadership is playing out. “From being a party with a cluster of leaders at the centre and regional satraps in the states, since 2014, we are now a very top-heavy party. The BJP, despite its mammoth support base, dedicated cadre and a credible ideology, heavily depends on its top leadership for its electoral victories. A number of elections since 2019, has proved, most recently in Bengal, that where Brand Modi does not work, the party can’t win elections,” said an office-bearer.
So state to state –both where it is in power and in opposition – BJP leaders and cadres are facing public criticism and anguish. “The loyal support base felt let down by the party governments. Our voters feel cheated,” admitted a party leader from Uttar Pradesh, where elections are early next year.
“District level leaders are talking about illness and death in villages and fear. Young men who returned home from Mumbai and Delhi to their villages are this time more wary of going back until they are vaccinated, that is draining their economics too.”
Another unnerving aspect of this crisis for the party is that it has hit its strongest support base, the urban middle class. “Unlike in the demonetisation issue, GST implementation or in the migrant labour crises, the middle class is angry. This is the first time when their bank account or their phone numbers didn’t matter because of mismanagement and scarcity. People lost their loved ones, the dead do not go away especially if they have died without proper care or facilities,” said a party leader. “That will need time and a lot of effort for healing.”
Last year, during the migrant crisis, the BJP could tap into its party and RSS network to provide relief. The “Seva hi Sanghatan” slogan came late, some leaders said, and oxygen and beds weren’t as easy to organise as food camps or buses. “Even the party’s initial attempts to protect Brand Modi by alleging conspiracies, targeting the Opposition or fuming on social media didn’t help matters,” said a political observer who had worked with the BJP.
The party has begun damage control – its top leadership has been advising its MPs and MLAs not to “brag about the steps taken” but to regain ground by being “sympathetic and empathetic.” The announcement of a financial safety net was a first small step in what is, clearly, a fraught road.