Lessons for BJP, if any, from By-Polls

So what are the lessons, if any, which the BJP needs to draw from a series of by-poll results since it assumed office in May 2014. Is there a lesson that even Prime Minister Modi needs to learn? 

I have argued many times in the past that the essential difference between the BJP and Congress (or parties broadly in agreement with Congress way of doing politics) is the level at which they seek votes (here & here). The Congress way of seeking votes is at the default divided level – people divided in their religious and sub caste identities. That is why most of Congress social intervention policies are designed to sharpen these divisions rather than subsume them. Regional parties like the Samajwadi Party (SP) or the RJD practice this Congress method even much more brazenly, unshackled as they are from the responsibility of not having to host sophisticated, whiskey-fueled, Idea of India parties in late night clubs of Delhi.

The BJP method on the other hand is to ask people to vote one level above their default divided level. This is not easy because the divided default level is a social condition built over centuries. Therefore, for the BJP way to succeed, it needs two things in place – an idea which can unite people above their default level and a credible messenger of that idea.  In the nineties that idea was cultural nationalism; in 2014 general elections it was good governance. Then the messenger was Vajpayee, in 2014 the messenger was Modi.

Most elections start off as default elections. The only way BJP can win is by converting the elections into non-default, pan state level or pan India, election for an idea. This is the consistent message from each election since 1998. In a default election, on an aggregate, the BJP would fare poorly even while taking other factors like local incumbency, candidate selection, organizational strength, etc into account.

By-elections are by definition default elections. There is no state or national level idea to be sold.  Exceptional circumstances apart, by-elections mostly see substantially lower turnout than general or state level elections. The reason is obvious. The by-elections are not fought on an idea, the only way BJP wins, but a combined mish-mash of local candidate appeal, organizational strength and default caste and religious mobilization. It is no surprise then that on an aggregate, the BJP would not do as well in a by-election as it would do in a pan state or national election, even within reasonably similar political time frame.

So is there no occasion for the BJP to learn lessons from these results? 

The success of BJP and in particular Modi, in 2014 general elections, was that they could for the first time create a national vote after three decades. That vote was created on the back of a truly world class election messaging campaign. It is this campaign that broke decade of entrenched identity politics and built a new constituency of aspirational Indians who were willing to cast their vote in hope for the future rather than the grievances of the past. This constituency was created in the face of a united opposition and a broadly hostile national media. The electoral verdict of 2014 has not altered these realities. The opposition is entitled to try every trick to recover lost ground, as it did in Bihar when sworn adversaries like Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav joined hands. The national media, most of which started and got nourishment in Congress years, has remained broadly hostile. That is why such transformative initiatives as the Jan Dhan Yojana or the fact that WPI inflation is at its lowest in 5 years hardly attract any news headlines and analysis in the outrage-a-day media milieu.

However, this is not to suggest that nothing has changed post the May 2014 electoral verdict. It is the BJP’s communication messaging that has distinctly changed. Compared to the election campaign, the messaging is now completely underwhelming. Just as creating a constituency of voters who could rise above their default level was a national project that required monumental effort of world class machinery, sustaining that constituency is an equally monumental project. In Gujarat, this constituency had been created and nurtured for over a decade but at the national level it is still in its nascent stage and therefore requires continuous engagement and communication. Before the elections, this constituency was exposed, on a daily basis, to the competing ideas – through all forms of communication, mainstream and social media – of Modi and his development agenda on the one hand and the Idea of India proponents and their project of accentuating identity schisms on the other. It is this that has changed post elections with the BJP communication distinctly below the new normal it had established before the elections, while the opposite message of trying to pull back people in their past divided identities continues unabated. 

The competing vision of Modi, of uniting people above their divisions, and for the very reason that it seeks to unite people above their default divided levels, needs sustained messaging machinery, perhaps even on a bigger scale than what was required before the elections. This is the only lesson, if any, for the BJP from these by-polls. 

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A version of this article was published in DNA Newspaper. Here is the link :

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7 thoughts on “Lessons for BJP, if any, from By-Polls

  1. mdbiyani says:

    I am sure the educated voters have got the message but they seem plain lazy. They should be pulled up by societal pressure. Voting is a compulsory exercise
    The effort to get the voters out & karyakartas at booth levels tracking missing. Politics is a full time job seems missing . UP govt threats , black mailing if any were not highlighted may be the central govt cannot do anything about it . In Rajasthan is it the development method that is questioned . Corruption & Nepotism is an issue . I am sure all above would not have been lost on the BJP . but if they cannot manage the bypolls with 70-80 % voting , it is their failure

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  2. Modis messaging was no doubt effective and raised the expection of people sky and want quick fix solution and when they find that at ground leval they find that life has not changed ie price raise,power problems,unemployment continues,they feel cheated and disillusioned.
    On top of that if the local leadership is low calibre then there is no body to convince the voter to understand the time required for massive changes for better that Modi is about to unleash.

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  3. Tushar Pandey says:

    taking liberty to ask some questions on some aspects which have not been brought up in the article – Do you think Yogi Adityanath’s and his ilk’s brand of politics had any bearing on the elections results? And do you subscribe to it as a viable strategy to win the elections? Personal views, rather than the party’s stand would be welcome.

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      • Tushar Pandey says:

        Answering a question with a question allows one to divert attention from the issue at hand without a reasonable response. Just to clarify, rather than explain all the BJP’s losses, I was attempting to probe the viability of this strategy in UP, since that’s the largest sample size we are looking at in these results.

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    • Akhilesh Mishra says:

      Interesting question Tushar. There are two aspects to this. First, the social issue that Yogi Adityanath has flagged and second the politics of it. That anyone should be converted by force or allurement or entrapment or enticement is a grave social issue and in whatever form it is happening needs to be challenged openly and squarely. Social issues like these should never become “viable strategy to win elections” but equally they need to be addressed socially.

      On the politics of it, the new BJP is about a bright future of India – the agenda of growth and development. That it how BJP should remain 🙂

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