Debating India

POLITICS

Winning without Hindutva?

V. VENKATESAN

Saturday 27 December 2003, by VENKATESAN*V.

Article paru dans Frontline, Volume 20 - Issue 26, December 20, 2003 - January 02, 2004.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s resounding success in the Assembly elections in three north Indian States brings its electoral strategy under close scrutiny.

in New Delhi

THE outcome of the December 1 Assembly elections in Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh raises key questions about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s successful electoral strategy and future ideological direction. Has the BJP abandoned communally divisive issues in favour of development and governance in order to expand its ideological and geographical influence and win sufficient numerical strength in the Legislative Assemblies to form governments?

Of late, there has been a clear gap between the perceptions in the media and the BJP leaders’ own assessments about the party’s performance in elections. For example, when the BJP’s victory in the Gujarat Assembly elections in December 2002 was widely attributed to the success of the party’s Hindutva experiment in the State, BJP leaders were reluctant to admit it. Instead, the party’s national executive, at its meeting on December 23, 2002, in New Delhi, described the Gujarat verdict as an endorsement of the party’s commitment to "cultural nationalism" and to the elimination of terrorism. The party did not explain what it meant by cultural nationalism, nor did it say whether that was an election issue.

The party had a motive in keeping such an important issue clouded in vagueness. Both Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani claimed that it was good governance that brought the BJP back to power. Although it was true that the BJP owed its victory to the consolidation of Hindu votes following the anti-minority pogrom in the State and its vicious communal campaign, the party felt acutely embarrassed about admitting it. It knew that a similar campaign would not help it in other States.

Advani admitted that the Opposition’s aggressive campaign against the Modi government’s role in the riots led to the party’s victory. But he was careful not to attribute the victory to any specific electoral strategy pursued by the party. This was despite the fact that he often counselled his partymen not to be apologetic about Hindutva. Party president M. Venkaiah Naidu spoke about replicating the Gujarat experiment in States going to the polls in 2003, but soon backtracked and clarified that he only referred to repeating the party’s experience of ensuring a cohesive campaign.

The BJP stood vindicated in its public stand on the Gujarat outcome, when the party suffered a rout in the Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections early this year. Party leaders attributed the debacle to the anti-incumbency factor and groupism in the party. Even though the leaders raised Hindutva-related issues in a limited sense during the campaign, they failed to impress the voters.

The outcome of the December 2003 round of Assembly elections has once again brought to the fore the relevance of Hindutva as a campaign theme for the BJP. The BJP refrained from raising communally divisive issues during the campaign, acutely aware that the voters in these States, like their counterparts in Himachal Pradesh, were bound to reject any open espousal of Hindutva. When the BJP forged the National Democratic Alliance at the Centre, it kept out divisive issues, such as building of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, abolition of Article 370 and enactment of a uniform civil code, from the National Agenda for Governance. That was in order to secure the support of its secular allies to form the government. Now it is compelled to keep these issues out of the election campaign in order to secure the support of secular voters and to attract the anti-incumbent votes in States ruled by the Congress(I).

These compulsions become clear when one compares the electoral outcome in Delhi with that in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. The BJP raised local issues like infrastructure development, water supply and uninterrupted power supply in all these States, but that had an impact only in Madhya Pradesh where the lack of progress in these areas was apparent. In Delhi, the BJP could not gain from the `feel good’ factor purportedly generated by Vajpayee’s so-called positive governance at the Centre. In Rajasthan, issues other than governance, such as astute caste mobilisation by the BJP, played a major role in decimating the Congress(I). In Chhattisgarh, where the BJP secured only a near-majority, Chief Minister Ajit Jogi was the issue.

Therefore, from the election results it would be naive to expect a sincere attempt by the BJP to keep a distance from the issues of Hindutva. BJP leaders are indeed sincere in claiming that the party would never seek to make Hindutva an election issue, in order to derive electoral benefit. However, the party, they assert, will react to Hindutva-related issues if its adversaries raise them during the campaign. The party has shown that it will pursue Hindutva silently. One of the first decisions of the Uma Bharati government in Madhya Pradesh was to ban cow slaughter and that of the Vasundara Raje Scindia government in Rajasthan was to make the singing of Vande Mataram compulsory in schools. Observers expect many more such steps in the BJP-ruled States to appease the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), whose volunteers worked hard for the BJP’s success. It is said that the BJP leaders do not think it necessary to invoke Hindutva during elections. As the people identify the party with Hindutva, an open display of the party’s ideological colours during elections is considered redundant and sometimes a liability.

The contribution of Union Minister of Law and Justice Arun Jaitley and BJP general secretary Pramod Mahajan in these elections has been exaggerated in the media to suggest that their emphasis on "scientific" campaign management techniques was the key to the party’s strategy. Jaitley is considered the architect of the BJP’s victory in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and Mahajan in Rajasthan. But BJP insiders admit that their strategy succeeded in these States primarily because there was a groundswell of discontent against the incumbent Congress(I) governments. Jaitley admitted in one of the post-poll interviews to the media: "Our strategy was to strengthen the anti-incumbency factor, which anyway existed."

Mahajan claimed in an interview that the party did a scientific survey before giving the ticket to its candidates, and studied the geo-social profile of constituencies extensively to assess the ticket aspirants’ chances of victory. He said feedback from workers, engagement of resource persons for giving fresh ideas and in-house surveys that helped to take corrective steps were features of the "scientific" campaigning that the party relied on. Long-time BJP watchers, however, said the party had tried similar methods in earlier elections also but failed to reap dividends when its prospects were otherwise grim. Perhaps the truth is that at best these techniques can serve as secondary aids for a political party fighting an election in the television era. The key to electoral success, it would seem, lies elsewhere.

The success in `Operation 2003’, as the party called these elections, has emboldened the BJP’s strategists to try a similar experiment for `Mission 2004’, the Lok Sabha elections. Vajpayee and Venkaiah Naidu have dismissed speculation about advancing the Lok Sabha elections to take advantage of the pro-BJP sentiment as seen in these Assembly elections. The fact is that the BJP won the majority of seats in these States in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections and it is unlikely to add substantially to its strength in the Lok Sabha from these States in the event of a snap poll. Yet, as Advani claimed, the BJP was bound to use "good governance" as the trump card in future elections, and fight the next general elections on the strength of the track record of five years of the Vajpayee government.

The BJP appears to see some magic in the Assembly election results, in the form of "good governance" as a successful rhetoric. But the campaign in these elections will testify that the BJP has not really presented any alternative development or governance framework in response to what the Congress(I) has been practising all these years in office.

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