ON FEBRUARY 14TH, at a post-lunch meeting in Delhi between top leaders from the BJP and a handful of advertising wunderkinds, there was a sense of urgency. They quickly got down to discussing ways to pitch before voters the gains of the federal schemes launched by the Narendra Modi Government. The goal of the brainstorming exercise was to come up with pithy and incisive lines to hard-sell Modi and his message in the run-up to the 2019 General Election. The sales pitch would highlight electrification, housing, rural aid and a raft of achievements of the BJP-led coalition that swept to power five years ago after a ten-year gap. The party estimates that 220 million people benefited from various welfare programmes over the past five years. Add to it 110 million members of the BJP and they have a sure-shot win in the General Election—so went the calculation. The thrust of the campaign was unambiguous: woo those who stand to gain from Government handouts. In 2014, the BJP secured a simple majority by winning just over 170 million votes.
The grandees of the ruling party and the advertising pros were soon upbeat about the prospects of the high-wattage poll campaign although they all knew only too well that translating simple math into electoral triumph required enormous hard work and grit.
It was then that the meeting was interrupted by a chilling bit of news from afar: from Pulwama in Kashmir, where a suicide bomber had rammed his explosives-laden SUV into a CRPF convoy, killing many people. The toll kept rising even as the meeting ended, and it wasn’t until much later that the Government received confirmation of the deaths of 41 CRPF personnel. In retaliation, on February 26th India launched an aerial attack on a camp in Pakistani territory that was apparently run by Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), which had claimed responsibility for the Pulwama attack.
Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan downplays any deliberate effort on the part of the BJP to whip up frenzy over national security. “It is not a slogan for the BJP in this election. It is a matter of grave concern for the right-thinking people of this country because of the Pulwama attack,” he tells Open in an interview. He emphasises the fact that we have a powerful leader in Modi who led the nation through the tough phase after the Pulwama attack and this is destined to have an impact on the elections. “Thanks to the aerial strikes that we launched on Pakistani soil against a terrorist camp in response to the killing of CRPF men and the diplomatic offensive that followed resulting in the release of [Wing Commander] Abhinandan Varthaman after Pakistan captured him, the Prime Minister’s bold stand will be appreciated by voters,” he adds. The Centre claimed that Varthaman was released due to its clever diplomatic moves that prompted an isolated Islamabad to de-escalate tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
Whatever the BJP may say, that it wanted national security to be on top of the poll campaign agenda was clear from Prime Minister Modi’s speech in Churu, Rajasthan, on February 27th, where he lapped up nationalist sentiment in a huge and highly televised rally. More speeches, columns and online posts by other leaders stressing on a ‘strong, defiant’ Indian leadership followed.
Hamburg-based Dr Sangeeta Mahapatra, who closely follows social media and offline campaign trends in India, elaborates on the shift in strategy that revved up the BJP’s campaign machinery. “Each political party can tailor the national security slogan—which way they want to play this high-value concern, and the kind of terminologies, images, and format of messaging to be used—as per their targeted online audience. This is already happening with the BJP and the Congress trying to win the politics of perception with online messages full of loaded language on who is more concerned about national security.” Mahapatra, associate, Institute of Asian Studies, German Institute of Global and Area Studies, goes on, “In the past few weeks, we have seen their messages on national security serving three main purposes through the use of virtue words like patriotism: it can boost their image as the protector of the country, who is above all criticism; it can be used to discredit detractors and critics as being weak or subversive or exploitative; and, it can help deflect attention from issues that can hurt electorally.”
National security, according to more analysts Open spoke to, is extremely attractive as an election slogan thanks to its high emotional appeal, rather than a topic like development. In fact, in the days after the Pulwama terrorist strike, there was intense speculation about the course India would adopt. The consensus was that Modi had ‘locked’ himself into an unenviable corner where he had no option but to strike at Pakistan. Equally strong was the speculation about the nature of the response. The expectation was that there would be some action across the Line of Control (LoC) similar to the one seen in the wake of the Uri terrorist atrocity in 2016. Instead, India dramatically escalated the response by using the Air Force to strike at a location well into Pakistani territory—Balakot in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
The opposition and the ruling party have been vying to seal pre-poll pacts and coin incisive campaign manifestos. Debates on jobs, the agrarian crisis and the economy have taken a back seat. Instead, the focus has shifted to a terrain where BJP has the current advantage: National security
In the weeks after that strike and the near-crisis between the two countries, the opposition’s response, say analysts, has been haphazard and chaotic. Its allegations range from demanding “proof” of the strike to claiming that Modi has used the episode to his political advantage. Apparently, neither of the two charges has gained any significant traction.
The other question was that of the BJP making use of the strike in its campaign. So far, in one sense, this has remained muted, according to various observers. For one, news of the strike across different platforms was so widespread that no claims were necessary about India’s resolve or that of the Government that carried it out. It was one of those rare one-sided events where opposition parties could only snipe at the edges while being forced to overtly support the ruling party. Opposing the idea of being firm on terrorism or not giving an adequate response would have been political suicide. With the Election Commission’s stringent conditions on what can and cannot be said on the matter, even if the BJP cannot publicly claim credit for the Balakot strikes, it is too closely associated with the decision for anyone to question it.
Mahapatra argues that if one follows the topics trending online, the Pulwama attack and India’s aerial strike on Pakistan seem to be a rallying cry against a common enemy and have fuelled patriotic fervor. These topics can dominate the polls of 2019 as talking points within the larger concern over national security, she says. “The BJP has already made it clear that they will use this incident to demonstrate their capability as a strong Government vis-a-vis an irresolute, feeble UPA under the Congress,” she says. This is evident from the recent Facebook posts of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who put the spotlight on the matter and appealed to the people to elect a strong leader. In a Facebook post on March 12th, Jaitley argued that with the 2016 surgical strikes across the LoC and the aerial strikes of February 26th, the Prime Minister has introduced what he described as the Modi Doctrine. ‘Do we fight the terrorists merely on the strength of intelligence information, preventing attacks and diplomatically isolating Pakistan? In such cases, will we be able to ensure a hundred per cent success? The odds are loaded against us on this ground. Even if the terrorists succeed only once a year, they make their point. Our intelligence and security have to succeed hundred per cent. That is a big challenge. Alternatively, the surgical and air strikes evolved a policy that we must attack terror at the point of its origin. In both cases we succeeded. Pakistan realised that there was a severe cost involved if the State continued to patronise terror. The world welcomed our proactive approach. Pakistan was diplomatically isolated. Its traditional friends were not willing to stand up and defend it,’ he wrote in a post meant to educate BJP cadres on national issues.
“National security is not a slogan for the BJP in this election. It is a matter of grave concern for the right-thinking people of this country because of the Pulwama attack,” says Dharmendra Pradhan, Union Minister
Mahapatra adds that the Congress has tried to dent Modi’s credibility by poking holes in the Government’s claims of effectively neutralising JeM. “Social media messaging works best in a charged climate and that is what is happening now; both the parties are using emotive videos and texts with captions containing what is called ‘high-inference language’—something that has high persuasive power. This helps to mobilise public opinion in their favour and against their opponent. By making itself a key actor in the war game, a party can project itself as being hawkish and strong enough to destroy the enemy. This can have mass appeal,” she forecasts.
WITH THE ELECTIONS approaching—to be held in seven phases from April 11th to May 19th—the opposition and the ruling party have been vying with each other to seal pre-poll pacts with regional and national parties. In some cases, the talks are still on. The most formidable alliance is the one in Uttar Pradesh, cobbled together by the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The original idea was a grand alliance of three parties—SP, BSP and the Congress —besides small players. Talks between the parties, which first began in November 2017 only to be stalled, were revived after the Congress and the Janata Dal(S) managed to form a government through a post-poll alliance in Karnataka in June last year. That was the moment when the opposition sensed that there could be a revival of anti-BJP forces. On October 3rd last year, less than two months before the opposition victories in the Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan Assembly elections, Mayawati was to meet Congress veteran Kamal Nath at the latter’s 1 Tuglak Road residence in Delhi at 9:30 pm to discuss a seat-sharing agreement. The plan fell through because the BSP had demanded Assembly seats in some traditional Congress strongholds in Madhya Pradesh, which was unacceptable to the latter. In 2017, the Congress had fought an unsuccessful electoral battle in a tie-up with the SP against the BJP, which won 325 of the 403 seats in the state Assembly. Priyanka Gandhi, who is now Congress general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, was instrumental in stitching up that alliance.
Contrary to expectations, the Congress, which has entered into a pre-poll pact with its ally NCP in Maharashtra, could not create the larger alliance it had hoped for to take on the BJP and the Shiv Sena in the state. It failed to rope in the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh led by Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar and the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana of farmer leader Raju Shetti. Ambedkar is now part of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi coalition which has allied with Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehad- ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM). Maharashtra sends 48 members to the Lok Sabha, the second-largest number after Uttar Pradesh.
In Tamil Nadu, though, the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress was able to tie up with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) while the BJP aligned with the ruling Dravidian party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). Tamil Nadu accounts for 39 Lok Sabha seats. In neighbouring Karnataka, the dismal performance of the Congress-JD(S) government could work in the BJP’s favour. In Kerala, the only state where the CPM- led Left Front is in power, the stakes are high for the Marxists, who face challenges this time from traditional rival Congress as well as the BJP, which, despite having won no Lok Sabha seats from the state till date, has seen a rise in vote share. In Andhra Pradesh, where simultaneous state elections will be held along with Sikkim, Odisha and Arunachal Pradesh, an anti-BJP coalition has shown no signs of gaining in political momentum. In Odisha, where Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal has had a long inning, the BJP, which has made gains in local polls, anticipates that it can improve its tally drastically this time around on the back of anti-incumbency and pro-nationalist sentiments.
“The BJP and Congress are already trying to win the politics of perception with online messages full of loaded language on who is more concerned about national security,” says Sangeeta Mahapatra, scholar, German Institute of Global and Area Studies
While in Bihar, opposition unity against the BJP-Janata Dal (United) combine remains weak, in Jharkhand, the Congress seems hopeful of sealing a pre-poll pact with regional allies. In Delhi, the Congress and AAP, traditional rivals with overlapping votebanks, failed to reach a seat-sharing pact. In the North-East, the BJP has managed to win allies over the past few years and sees no threat to those alliances despite the furore and drama over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. Regional allies in Nagaland and Assam that had distanced themselves from the BJP and whose leaders had resigned from key positions are now back in the saddle. In Punjab, the BJP has placated the Shiromani Akali Dal with 10 of the 13 seats from the state.
In West Bengal, where the once-dominant Left Front led by the CPM had been pushed to a distant third in the past few elections, including local polls, the BJP hopes to make more gains, especially in tribal areas and bordering districts. The ruling Trinamool Congress in the state had won 34 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in 2014— when the BJP managed to win the Darjeeling and Asansol seats. Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee is part of a loose conglomeration of 21 opposition parties that have vowed to defeat the BJP, whom they call a pro-Hindutva entity, in the national polls.
THE TWO GREAT controversies to hit the Government in the past two years—that will likely impact the election outcome—centred on the issue of unemployment, especially in the wake of demonetisation, and the distress in the agricultural sector.
Reports emerged, suggesting the ‘suppression’ of a National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) survey report for 2017-18. The contents of this report, which were leaked, painted a grim picture of unemployment at 6.1 per cent, a four-decade high. The issue took a political colour, with the Government coming under fire for doing precious little to generate employment. Anecdotes began surfacing about highly qualified candidates applying for clerical and other positions that did not require such qualifications. This was very quickly dubbed an ‘unemployment crisis’.
A similar story panned out in the agriculture sector. Here a combination of low growth and a steep deflation in the prices of agricultural commodities led to cries of an ‘agrarian crisis’. At 2.51 per cent growth from 2014-17, the progress of the sector was indeed low. This was matched by a decadal low in the growth rate of rural wages. The trick, of course, is that when the two figures are viewed together, they tell one story, but when they are disjointed, another story, far more critical of the Government’s performance, emerges. Politically, the latter proved handy to the opposition. The fact of a 10-year-low in rural wage growth is indeed cause for worry but there was little interest in probing the cause. Its link to low growth and poor productivity in Indian agriculture—the economic basis of the problem—has not been addressed. In the past, rural wages were artificially propped up by creating a wage floor with programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). The latter was dependent on huge budgetary outlays to fund it. In the UPA years, this led to fiscal slippages and affected economic growth. While the Modi Government has increased outlays for this programme, the structural link between low productivity in the farm sector and its effect on rural wages is a tough economic problem to solve.
One piece of evidence that sits uncomfortably with claims of very high unemployment is the economic growth story. Official statistics on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth—itself a subject of controversy—suggest that the average GDP growth for the five years of the Government, with the final year being a projection, averaged 7.3 per cent. Even if one takes this with a pinch of salt and considers only the three quarters of FY2018-19, the figure averages to 7.2 per cent. The disaggregated, quarter-by-quarter growth when compared to the relevant period of the previous year remains below expectations by a notch or two. But it remains one of the highest growth rates in the world and certainly within the bounds of average Indian growth rates when viewed from a decadal perspective. The explanation given by private sector economists is that the quarterly growth slowdown was due to factors like high oil prices in mid-2018 and due to the fallout of the shadow banking sector crisis last year. Since then oil prices have fallen and banks have taken over some part of the lending that was carried out by the shadow banks. In purely macroeconomic terms, some part of the explanation for slow growth rests with what are called ‘base effects’, which are statistical quirks and not due to some crisis.
It is hard to believe that a country can continue to grow at 7 per cent rate but generate no employment. The real issue is the nature of employment: with structural changes in economies worldwide, the nature of jobs has changed dramatically in the last decade. In every respect—from adjustments to these changes on the part of those seeking jobs to their reflection in statistical systems that capture these changes adequately—India has lagged behind. Social security systems that can mitigate these changes— such as unemployment insurance—are non-existent. The consequent noise in the political domain gets elevated as a result.
How will this impact the BJP’s chances in 2019? The golden rule of Indian politics is that ‘everything is local’. As regional parties stress on bread-and-butter local issues, politics gets more ‘localised’ and the debate about jobs, the ‘agrarian crisis’ and the economy now appears muted. The impetus that an alliance of regional and national opposition parties would have given to airing these issues is now lacking.
Again, the result of all this is that some part of the debate has shifted to another terrain where the BJP has an advantage: national security.