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In the strongman’s shadow

The Advani drama is over. But for the BJP,challenging times have only just begun

Written by Suhas Palshikar | Published: June 13, 2013 3:10:21 am

The Advani drama is over. But for the BJP,challenging times have only just begun

As expected,the drama surrounding L.K. Advani’s resignation proved to be a tame affair. The party did not show signs of wide cracks; there was not much explicit support to Advani from inside the party and,above all,the resignation letter did not even try to articulate any larger point that the party rank and file or top leadership could have related to. The Advani episode thus proved to be neither dissent on principle nor protest over strategy. But irrespective of that,Narendra Modi’s BJP would still face the four challenges of organisation,image,coalitionability and electoral viability.

While detractors of Modi would surely harp on his record during the 2002 violence against Muslims,the party would project him as the icon of “development” and a new vision. This would raise questions about whether the party has not performed as well in the two relatively less developed states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where it has been ruling for the last two terms. Projecting Modi would only lead to underplaying the performance of the governments in those two states. How the party organisations in those two states and the chief ministers themselves would respond to this,will be of immense organisational importance for the party. Given his ambition to become prime minister (should the BJP form the government),Modi would ensure his loyal supporters as candidates and as campaign managers in those two states as also Rajasthan. This would unsettle the existing equations in those states where the BJP otherwise stands a fair chance of performing well in the coming Lok Sabha election. The way Advani has been silenced by the Sangh will always remain a pointer to anyone wanting to compete with Modi or share credit with him. These matters will surely test the organisational resilience of the BJP.

The other challenge would be in the realm of the party’s image and USP. There is no doubt that,in the coming months,opinion polls would show that Modi’s image and popularity are soaring and that would mislead the Modi bandwagon to believe that he is the only saviour and guarantor of the party’s success in the coming elections. But therein lies the dilemma for the new BJP. Does it go back to the Hindutva agenda whole hog? If it does that,it becomes easy to alienate the BJP on the secular-communal axis. But if the BJP under Modi does not look like Modi’s BJP,then much of the charm and masochistic appeal of Modi is wasted. Modi’s own image transformation from “Lauh purush” (iron man) to “Vikas purush” (development man) remains to be tested outside of Gujarat. The BJP will have to keep juggling between these two images of the leader. Aware of this dilemma,Modi has already indicated his strategy — a negative campaign on the plank of a “Congress-mukt” nation (a nation free of the congress). This has predictable elements (dear to the Sangh Parivar),such as Nehru-Gandhi family-baiting,indirect attacks on Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins,Rahul Gandhi’s inexperience and,of course,the many corruption scandals that the UPA has offered to its opponents as easily available fodder. This strategy seeks to escape the difficult choice between the Hindutva image and the “Gujarat Shining” image.

But this strategy also implies an interesting move — Modi’s first astute step to resurrect the anti-Congressism that had previously helped the BJP construct the NDA. Will the slogan of “Congress-mukt” India inject new enthusiasm in the NDA?

For the last five years,the NDA has been more or less defunct. The challenge for the BJP will be to either revive the NDA or be able to increase its own seat tally dramatically. If we assume,safely,that even with Modi the BJP is not likely to reach 200-plus seats,then it is necessary for the party to retain and strengthen its “coalitionability”. State parties will have a nuanced response to Modi’s elevation to the centrestage. In the case of existing NDA partners,the BJP would still require the likes of Advani and Sushma Swaraj to ensure the continuation of the alliance. Modi,having come from a state where this experience of negotiations has been non-existent,would find himself in a tough situation vis-à-vis NDA partners and potential partners. This leads to two alternative scenarios. First,the BJP would lose friends and get isolated even if its own vote and seat tally improve slightly. Or,second,both before and after the election,the BJP will meet with exaggerated demands from allies in terms of agenda,seat-sharing and power-sharing (in the event of cabinet formation). All three are bound to frustrate Modi and dent his image of a strongman.

While Modi’s eager supporters expect him to attract more votes for the party,the BJP’s ability to win more seats will be severely tested under Modi. A divisive leader attracts more votes from among the faithful than from the fringes of the party’s support networks. Thus,a strong pro-Hindutva constituency wanting a strong leader would throng the polling stations,thereby adding to the BJP’s vote share,but will that increase its seat tally sufficiently?

In 1991,at the height of the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation,the vote share of the BJP rose from 11.5 per cent in 1989 to 20 per cent. But that did not help the party to convert its base into seats. Technically,this is called the “seat-vote multiplier”. This is the ratio of the proportion of seats won to the proportion of votes polled. The seat-vote multiplier actually went down in 1991 compared to 1989. In our (first-past-the-post) election system,not just votes but the capacity to efficiently convert votes into seats matters most. The hype of the Ayodhya agitation did not necessarily help in increasing seats in proportion to votes. The seat-vote multiplier shows high levels during the three elections of 1996,1998 and 1999. Since then,it has been a story of declining vote share and declining seat share,besides a decline in the seat-vote multiplier. It is this legacy of electoral failure that Modi inherits along with a dwindling NDA.

In a nutshell,Modi’s greatest challenge will be to decide how much “Modi-fication” to bring to the beleaguered party.

The writer teaches political science at the University of Pune

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