This week’s Outlook Cover Story is titled “What if he fails?” . In the cover photograph, a ‘young’ and smiling Rahul Gandhi (albeit with a receding hairline) is happily interacting with natives of UP while his gorgeous sister looks on approvingly from behind (you may not be far off the mark if you construe it as back seat driving). The subtext is clear – what will happen to Rahul Gandhi and his carefully choreographed future if he fails in UP?
This interesting cover story set me thinking on the opposite theme – “What if BJP Wins in UP?”. What implications will it have on BJP and more importantly on its leadership debate. The context – now that is clear that Narendra Modi will not campaign in UP. Let us consider the two alternatives :
1. What if BJP Fails?
First let us define what will constitute a BJP failure. This is a relative question and in multiple scenarios BJP can be considered to have failed. For example – if it is clearly relegated to a humiliating fourth position (20+ seats, even if Congress itself does badly at say 40+) , or is significantly below Congress ( as in Congress is 80+ while BJP is say 40+), or even if BJP does well (as in 90+ seats) but Congress wins a majority on its own. Put simply, BJP’s failure will be measured not only in context of its own numbers, but also relative to success of Congress. Why Congress? Because in the larger scheme of things at national level, only these two parties are in competition.
Now that we understand what a failure of the BJP in UP would look like, let us look at its consequences –
This election in UP has been a Nitin Gadkari show. All the way through. He has taken four decisions, all of which have his unmistakable imprint . First, he has defied not only Modi but also Advani in bringing back Sanjay Joshi. Despite visible public protestation by Modi, he has continued to have him. Second, the induction of Uma Bharti despite reservations by MP unit cadre as well as local BJP leaders in UP. Third, the Kushwaha episode. And fourth, and perhaps the most important – a below the radar, low media hype election campaign.
If BJP fails through any of the scenarios outlined above, the hammer would surely fall on Gadkari. He will be blamed for faulty election strategy and for compromising BJP’s campaign against corruption through the Kushwaha episode. But most importantly – he will be blamed for antagonizing Modi, BJP’s biggest and only true mass leader, by being obdurate on Sanjay Joshi. If BJP fails, Gadkari can kiss his national ambitions goodbye.
At the national level, an already nasty media campaign against BJP will get even more vicious.. It’s presumed lack of leadership will be highlighted ad nauseam. Corruption will no longer be an issue, at least as per media. All the gains that BJP had purportedly made against a gigantically corrupt and blundering Congress would plausibly be lost. Congress would be on the upsurge. The moment of Prince would have arrived.
BJP supporters will obviously be dispirited. But in the defeat, the chant to bring Modi to national stage, by his die-hard supporters, will only get shriller. It will now become the TRUTH that only Modi can take on the combined might of Congress and the establishment (read as complicit and compromised institutions). Modi will become the accepted future of BJP.
So in the short-term BJP’s failure in UP would seem disastrous but in the long-term…..?
2. What if BJP wins UP?
Let us understand what does a BJP win mean – one scenario is obviously getting an absolute majority or emerging as the single largest party. Remember, Nitin Gadkari has claimed that BJP is the dark horse of the race. Another scenario in which BJP could be considered a winner is if it does significantly better than Congress (say Congress is at 40+ seats while BJP is 100+). In this case, no government in UP would be possible without BJP. When the entire national media has written off BJP, this will be a major upset.
What will be the consequences of this win?
Nitin Gadkari will obviously arrive at the national level with new “weight”. Uma Bharti would script her comeback to BJP with a bang. But what else?
As argued above, Nitin Gadkari has taken four major decisions in this election. Two of these are particularly significant. One – defying Modi on Sanjay Joshi and two – the below the media radar, door-to-door style election campaign. Look closely and these two might seem connected.
The bane of BJP in elections has been that even though it might have a committed support base but in the past Muslims have been voting en bloc against it. So unless BJP gets vote percentage share from the rest in the region nearing forties (as in Gujarat), this handicap always affects it in the first past the post system. A mid twenty percentage vote share, decent to make a good enough showing for other parties, is simply not good enough for BJP.
The two events that propelled Muslims to vote strategically against the BJP happened in 1992 (and thereby a decade of persistent voting to defeat BJP) and in 2002 (starting another decade of strategic voting against BJP). Both these two events are now in history and well past their sell by date.
What can be a possible solution to this handicap – the Bihar model. So what is the Bihar model? In Bihar, the BJP in alliance with JD(U) did exceedingly well because they prevented the en block voting by Muslims. Sure Nitish as a low-key leader helped. But two other things happened in Bihar – one, it was a below the radar, door-to-door style campaigning (as is being tried in UP) and two, Modi did not campaign in Bihar (as again in UP).
The theory is – in present times of general disenchantment against Congress, Muslims would not vote en block against the BJP unless a high voltage election campaign shocks (and reminds) them into doing so. A below the radar, issue based election campaign (as tried in Bihar in 2011) would still get BJP it’s committed votes while preventing the Muslims from voting en mass against it. This does not mean the Muslims will start voting for BJP – but that they, like other any other community, would start voting based on individual preferences and not strategically with just one aim to defeat BJP. If this can be achieved, then BJP with its committed voters and additional floating voters who may vote for it depending on issues in that particular election, can actually stage a win even with mid twenty percentage votes.
Bihar was only a partial test of this thesis as it was being fought with JD(U) as lead partner and Nitish as face. UP will be true validation of this thesis as BJP is fighting alone.
So if BJP wins UP – it will be two successive elections in North Indian Hindi belt (where the appeal of Modi is plausibly at the highest outside Gujarat) where BJP would have won without Modi.
In such a scenario will the logic not seem just that Modi is indeed a liability outside Gujarat, as the national media suggests? That outside Gujarat, BJP wins without Modi and not with him will become the common refrain. Some of this reportage, will no doubt, be inspired by BJP insiders who consider themselves to be in the leadership race.
Modi not only frightens those outside his party, but also some within his own. RSS is wary of him since he is his own man. Those leaders, whose only constituency is TV studios, obviously fear him, for his ascendency will mark and end to their ambitions. Some of this opposition to Modi within BJP will be his own doing too, after he has refused to campaign in UP and thus has taken on almost everyone.
So all these diverse interests will coalesce into propagating this – a resurgent BJP is within sniffing distance of winning the national elections. It should grab that chance by projecting a moderate, universally acceptable face as its national leader and not waste it by projecting a polarizing figure like Modi. Because after all it has been proved that BJP can win as important a state as UP without Modi, so why do they need him anyway? Chattisgarh and MP will be touted as additional proof, that low-key leadership works and the high voltage attention that Modi brings will do more harm than good to BJP.
So in the short-term, a win in UP will be euphoria for BJP but in the long-term……?
Put simply the scenario looks like this :
- BJP fails in UP: Short term disaster for BJP but in the long-term, Modi as President of BJP by end 2012 (when Gadkari’s term ends) and leading it in 2014.
- BJP wins UP: Short term euphoria but in long-term various forces combining to keep Modi out from national stage. Someone else (Sushma / Jaitley / Gadkari) becomes the leader in 2014.
So what do you, the committed BJP supporter prefer? A BJP win or failure in UP?
And what do you, the non BJP supporter prefer? And yes, what do you, the centrist prefer?
Please vote on the accompanying poll.