In this post I intend to present an agenda for BJP 2.0 based on the learning from its rise in the early 1990s, of what can be termed as phase BJP 1.0, its failure in the last decade and the success of many BJP-led State Governments in the last few years.
But first, two personal anecdotes and the story of a speech.
Circa mid to late 1990s: I was a student in an engineering college and one of the healthy practices in the institute was regular organisation of debates. Invariably the topics covered in the debates would be those that were nationally relevant then: Should India explode the nuclear bomb? Should India sign CTBT? Should Article 370 be scrapped? Should Uniform Civil Code (UCC) be implemented? Should India adopt hot pursuit against terrorists? Most of these topics had been pushed into national agenda by the BJP, which was then rising as the challenger to the ruling establishment in Delhi.
Circa July 2004: Like everyone else, I too was flummoxed at the defeat of the BJP-led NDA in 2004 general election. By this time I was working in a company which was closely involved in the infrastructure segment. While the tremendous progress made by Vajpayee-led NDA in infrastructure connectivity was national news, I had personal experience of seeing the dynamism put in sectors like hydro power, road-building and the Kashmir rail project, among others. The defeat of NDA was therefore an even greater surprise to me. Sometime in early July 2004, I was travelling on a personal trip from Lucknow to Allahabad by the Ganga-Gomti Express. In the dark hours of the evening, there were stretches of tens of kilometres when the train would pass by villages in absolute darkness. This seemed par for course to me in a state like UP and it did not register as something odd. However, what happened at one of the small stations has stayed in my mind ever since. The train was passing by the station at slow speed although there was no scheduled stoppage at that station. As was customary, a station official was waving the green flag from his chamber, which was lit by a kerosene powered lantern. Something struck me then: How did it matter to that station official, who used to spend most of his workings hours in his office which was lit by just one kerosene powered lantern, whether a fine express highway had been built connecting Mumbai to Pune or that even NH-2, which was closest to him, had been four-laned? That official may have never used NH-2 in his life!
The idea of a progressing India, and progress had most certainly been made in many sectors, had not yet touched the lived experience of sufficient number of Indians to actually come out and vote for it. As I have argued in an earlier post, the difference between Congress and BJP is that Congress seeks vote from people at their default level – as Dalits or Brahmins or Patels or Muslims or Christians or Jats or Vokkaligas. The BJP, on the other hand, asks people to vote for an idea which is, at least on one level, above their default level — the vote for BJP in 1998 or 1999 was for cultural nationalism and a robust national security policy. In the last decade, many State Governments run by BJP have made governance the idea on which they seek votes. There are however two major differences between the BJP Governments being successful at State levels winning votes on governance and the failure of BJP led NDA to do the same in 2004. First, the lived experience of a large number of Indians, in 2004, did not yet correspond to the governance delivery, the agenda on which NDA was seeking votes in 2004. This is in contrast to people in, say Gujarat or MP, who in some part because the scale is smaller than an all-India level, have all experienced the fruits of governance delivery. Second, the BJP Governments in each of the States, in the earlier round of election (Gujarat in 2007 and MP in 2008), were also elected on the promise of governance delivery. For a sustained period, the electorate had then been primed, through political rhetoric, on an agenda of governance only. So when re-election was sought (Gujarat in 2012 and MP in 2013), it was about a match between promise and delivery and both Governments, having delivered, were re-elected by massive majorities.
In contrast, the BJP was elected at the national level in the nineties on an agenda of cultural nationalism and national security policy and reelection was sought in 2004 on governance delivery! So even though in terms of governance delivery, the track record was excellent, the match between promise made during the first time elections (1998 and 1999) and delivery at reelection time (2004) could hardly be made. Not surprisingly, the 2004 election, in many senses, became a default election. And in any default election, Congress will always have a head start.
Circa 2007: Modi was speaking at the Hindustan Times Summit in 2007. What is remarkable in this speech is that he is talking exactly the same ideas that he has used so dramatically in his national pitch in 2013. That is, six years before 2013. That governance and development as a paradigm is not an event but a process could not have been brought out in a more stark fashion. But there is something else that Modi expands upon in his speech ( between 0:00 to 4:50) that is very pertinent. That for any agenda to become a mass movement, there has to be an emotional attachment that must be built around that agenda. Modi uses the example of Gandhi to make the point that ownership of abstruse but vital nation building agenda only comes if people are emotionally invested in it. The Congress does this very well — it sells negative emotion to garner votes. That of fear of security in the minorities, that of fear of loss of free food and minimum wage in the poor and so on. Whenever BJP has been successful, it has been able to sell its agenda on an emotional plank too – that of positive emotion. In the nineties, that emotion was of nationalism. The BJP State Governments in the last few years have sold positive emotion too — Gujarati Asmita, for example, is a positive emotion built on the foundation of good governance.
The above two anecdotes and the story of the speech by Modi have been narrated to arrive at the following conclusions.
First, the BJP was setting the narrative during its rise in the nineties. It was the ideas of BJP that were being debated in the schools and colleges and in intellectual circles. This process stopped in the last decade when the topics of debate were nuclear deal or inclusive growth, none of which were BJP ideas. Not coincidentally, BJP saw a decline in the last decade.
Second, because the BJP seeks votes from people at one level above their divided default level, it must always have an inspiring idea which can unite people. Hindutva was that idea that asked people to rise above their castes. Nationalism was that idea that asked people to rise above their religious or regional divide. In a default election, Congress will always have a head start. BJP has succeeded only when it has converted the election into a non-default pan (or pan state for assembly election) Indian election for an idea.
Third, for the governance agenda to succeed, it must be sold on an emotional plank because that only builds in a binding ownership. How many kilometres of roads have been built may not be that important to people as telling them how that road connectivity improves their earning capacity and simultaneously makes them a participant in nation-building.
Fourth, governance agenda will work as an election plank, only if it connects with the lived experience of people.
Fifth, there must be simple takeaways from BJP ideas for the future. BJP in the nineties was a party of complex views on issues facing the nation. But for the public debates, there were three takeaways – Article 370 on Kashmir and relationship with Pakistan, Uniform Civil Code on domestic social structure, and the nuclear bomb on national security. All these issues were complex in nature, but for the electorate it could be broken down into simple takeaways. They defined a new way of doing things, different from the broken past and thus inspired a generation to vote. These simple takeaways were also easy for the cadre of the party to explain to the voters: “How are you different on secularism? We advocate Uniform civil code” and so on.
The construct of new BJP, under the leadership of Modi, can learn from all the above experiences when BJP has been successful and offer its BJP 2.0 vision in two forms. First, it must have a broad vision for India, each of which must be communicated into easy takeaways. Second, it must articulate a governance agenda, because that is what has been its success mantra in recent years, in terms which will impact the lived experience of almost all Indians in the next five years. The BJP must not only again become the party whose ideas are debated in schools and colleges, but it must also present its governance track record at a nationally scalable level. The BJP 2.0 agenda could thus be articulated into audacious major themes, each of which though comprehensive, could also be broken down into a visionary takeaway and action takeaway which will impact lived experience of most Indians. Here is a suggested list of five such themes, each presented in Inspiring Idea takeaway and Lived Experience takeaway.
Inspiring Idea: Make Free Speech absolute.
Great nations, through history, have been built on strength of inspiring soft ideas. From the Greeks to the British to the United States, each, in addition to being military powers, was also soft power during the era of its dominance. It is ironic that the first amendment to the US constitution strengthened free speech while that in India, by Nehru, curtailed it. For India to be a leader among community of nations, it must embrace and indeed expand the best ideas from history.
Lived Experience: End all judicial pendency in the next 5 years.
This could be done by a slew of measures such as amending the CrPC (some of which were suggested during NDA rule), opening evening and weekend courts, using retired Judges in civil dispute resolution courts, etc. Changes could be made in-laws to mandate a time frame for deciding most civil cases and since government is the biggest litigator, decisions could be made to massively reduce this.
Inspiring Idea: Delete Socialism from the Preamble of the Constitution
Socialism is not a construct of the founding fathers but Indira Gandhi introduced perversion, which is designed to keep a vast number of Indians poor. Scrapping socialism as a constitutional mandate would make private enterprise valued and respected. Scrapping socialism will promote competition and with it entrepreneurship, which is the only historical way nations have become rich and prosperous.
Lived Experience: 24X7 power in every home in the next 5 years
This is one issue, on which even the worst detractors of Modi have not been able to question his delivery record in Gujarat and therefore this promise will have great credibility. Reforms in power sector, speeding up investments in nuclear power plants by removing hurdles, private investment in all forms of power generation, converting the Thar Desert in Rajasthan into a massive solar farm and all such ideas could form part of the mix to deliver this promise. A massive investment in this sector has the potential to generate jobs, revive GDP growth and create a whole new rural economy and other such benefits.
Youth and Education
Inspiring Idea: Youth in Governance
Scaling up from the project launched in Gujarat, every major government office should offer fully paid opportunity for the best and brightest, from the corporate world, to work in government for a specific number of years and then return. The government machinery would get enthused with infusion of fresh mind and ideas while the youth would be enriched with experience gained from the complexities of the challenge.
Lived Experience: Skill Development Centres & Private Investment in Education
The last major reforms in education were taken more than a decade ago. It is time to massively overhaul the education sector. Regular university degrees have become useless in securing jobs. Massive investment in skill development centers would create more employable youth. This will also free up the university courses for only those who are looking at higher education for more academic purposes, thereby restoring some value to the degrees. Private investment must be allowed in all forms and at all levels.
Inspiring Idea: Make India a Top 25 destination to do business (currently 134th)
For the economy to return to high growth path, private investment, both domestic and foreign, must return to India. This is the only scalable way to rapidly generate enough jobs and reap the demographic dividend. Reform agenda 2.0 must make India an easy place to do business and all measures, such as scrapping crazy levels of multiple approvals, reforming labor laws, etc should be part of the action items.
Lived Experience: Income Tax rationalisation
There is a strong case for rationalisation of income tax rates, making India a moderate tax state. No tax limit can be raised to 10 lacs, 10 per cent up to 50 lacs, 15 per cent between 50 lacs to a crore, and 20 per cent above it. All exemptions can be scrapped. This will immediately raise real purchasing power of middle class by offsetting effects of high inflation of the last few years, raise consumption thereby giving a fillip to a lot of industries, and would make it easier for everyone to calculate their tax liability and file returns, thereby ensuring greater compliance. This will also, in an oblique way, address the concerns of the people who might be apprehensive about labor law reforms.
Inspiring Idea: Scarp Article 370
Article 370 is not only discriminatory for non Kashmiri Indians, but as Modi said during his initiation of the debate on this topic in Jammu, it is discriminates against Kashmiris too. Also, integration is a two-way process. Article 370 hinders the integration of Kashmiri people with rest of India. For most of them, India means only the Indian state and not the vibrancy of its people and its culture, for many of them have hardly meet any non Kashmiris. Scrapping Article 370 would mean starting real people to people integration and make Kashmiris a part of Indian story in this century.
Lived Experience: Resettle Kashmiri Pandits and a Truth & Reconciliation Commission
The Kashmiri Pandits must be resettled with full dignity and safety and provided economic help in the resettlement process. Truth and Reconciliation Commission can help in addressing genuine grievances of the people of Kashmir.
These ideas could be presented in the next few days and the opened up for debate across all sections. This will help the BJP drive the narrative in the lead up to the 2014 elections. Closer to the actual elections, based on the national debate feedback, these points and as those derived from the debate, could be incorporated in the final official document.
2014 election is a watershed moment in the history of India. Never before, has any leader presented a more comprehensive challenge to the Nehruvian consensus. The vision articulated by Modi must include agenda items that finally dismantle the last remaining vestiges of Nehruvian albatross and make India realise its true destiny. Only Modi can do it.
This article was first published in Niti Central on 16th January 2004. Here is the link: