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Poll Strategies For 2014!

Updated: July 13, 2013 11:44 am

Analysts are scratching heads trying to decipher poll prospects for 2014. One issue of fierce debate is the impact Mr. Narendra Modi will have on the results. To assess the rationale behind his projection the poll strategy of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Singh (RSS), which is determinedly naming him as the BJP candidate for Prime Minister, needs to be understood. To decipher it and other related issues there are two recent newspaper articles that are noteworthy. First, there was the article by Mr. Abheek Barman in The Times of India entitled “Modi’s Himalayan Miracle”.

The author quoting facts and figures has effectively demolished many claims of the Gujarat Chief Minister. More tellingly he has rubbished the claimed role of Mr. Modi in rescuing 15000 victims from the Uttarakhand deluge. But the most significant revelation of the article undoubtedly was about the deployment since 2007 of the powerful Israel dominated public relations agency, Apco Worldwide, to promote the Vibrant Gujarat summits and Mr. Modi’s image. The other day BJP President Mr. Rajnath Singh stated that Mr. Modi never claimed that he had rescued 15000 pilgrims from Uttarakhand. Of course Mr. Modi never did that. That was what Apco was being paid $25000 per month for doing. It would be reasonable to infer that many of Mr. Modi’s assertions and projections are inspired by inputs from Apco. As for just one example, his recent presentation of two video studies in the Planning Commission meeting may safely be attributed to this source. In that sense much of the vigorous media and corporate support for Mr. Modi may justifiably be credited to Apco.

There is nothing wrong or unique for aspiring political leaders to utilize the services of professional public relations outfits for electoral purpose. But a more significant aspect deserves attention. A highly professional and competent outfit like Apco would not ignore the background and persona of their client in formulating poll strategy. The relations of Mr. Modi’s party with its parent RSS must surely have been taken into account. Therefore would there not have been direct or indirect cooperation between RSS and Apco in forging the poll strategy? If so, to what end?

The RSS and BJP leaders backing Mr. Modi are openly stating that they aspire for single party majority in 2014 without the help of poll allies. On what premise would this daunting ambition be based? Till now the BJP campaign is riding on two horses. It is targeting the Hindutva brigade for which Mr. Modi presents a most attractive face. Let it be noted that RSS Chief Mr. Mohan Bhagwat has repeatedly asserted the centrality of Hindutva for shaping India’s future. Most recently on June 19th while extolling the legacy of Swami Vivekananda in a function he said: “We have changed leaders and agendas, nothing has worked. Politics is not the way to make India a superpower; it is only Hindutva that can do it.” Given such commitment to Hindutva how would Apco proceed with its campaign?

The answer seems to be simple. Mr. Modi’s claimed commitment to economic development appeals to the rising new generation of young Indians. The commitment to Hindutva appeals to the traditional pro-Hindu vote bank of the BJP. The strategy opted for Mr. Modi seems to be to marry both commitments and create a groundswell that might give the BJP single party majority which would promise the stability that most Indians desperately yearn for. And how will that marriage be consummated? By convincing India that the Hindu rate of economic growth can be replaced by the new Hindutva rate of economic growth that could make India a superpower. And Mr. Narendra Modi with his background and record as Gujarat Chief Minister is the man to accomplish it.

This is a credible strategy and should not be dismissed out of hand. However there are serious pitfalls to overcome before it can succeed. That brings us to the second recent newspaper article referred to at the beginning of this essay. In a perceptive analysis, “Doing the Modi Math”, Mr. Ashutosh Varshney in The Indian Express has analyzed reasons in the past for the accretion of the vote share by the BJP in elections. Endorsing Mr. LK Advani’s reasoning he has pointed out that the votes jumped mostly through poll adjustments with allies. However there were two exceptions to this. Post Emergency in 1977 and post Mr. Advani’s Ayodhya Rath Yatra in 1991 the BJP significantly increased its tally. The Emergency of course was a rare issue and Indira Gandhi invited failure without help from opponents. The BJP, the Jan Sangh then, united with other opposition parties to exploit the wave. It is with regard to the 1991 experience that I venture to add a caveat.

In 1991 BJP jumped to 120 seats from 88 during the Mandal agitation and immediately after the Ayodhya movement had consolidated its traditional vote bank. But let it be noted that in 1988 it had jumped from 2 to 88 seats because it had made poll alignment with VP Singh. In 1991 it could successfully reach the figure of 120 only from its base achieved in the 1988 performance. Let it also be noted that it sank to 2 seats in 1984 because due to a misplaced sense of patriotism the RSS backed the Congress after the assassination of India Gandhi. As a member of the BJP then, I had warned Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee of this switch and predicted to him that he would lose to Madhav Rao Scindia in the election. This warning was given to him prior to my proposed resignation from the primary membership of the party.

How then might the BJP attempt for single party majority be assessed? Much depends upon how opponents of the party conduct themselves and what strategy they adopt. Until now Mr. Modi’s poll conduct has been poor. But the conduct of his opponents has been poorer. Mr. Modi erred in undertaking the Uttarakhand rescue mission thinking it would impress voters. His opponents did worse by emulating him. Mr. Rahul Gandhi was ill advised to appear like Mr. Modi’s imitator and visit Uttarakhand by helicopter. The error was compounded by his violating the injunction of Home Minister Mr. Shinde debarring VIPs from visiting the area. The damage was accentuated by Mr. Digvijay Singh’s patently false claim that Mr. Gandhi had traveled by foot. Opposition leaders and Congressmen from Andhra made Mr. Modi look good by openly quarreling at an airport trying to claim credit for the so called rescue of victims. The public is not stupid. People view with disgust the attempt by politicians to politically exploit such a horrendous tragedy. Not one leader had the sense to simply address the press over television to urge the public to unite and follow the example of the brave armed services personnel risking and losing lives while rescuing victims. People would have approved that.

There are two pitfalls confronting Mr. Modi’s campaign. The first relates to the definition of Hindutva. Hindutva is Hinduism. According to a Supreme Court ruling it does not denote a religion or a particular community but a way of life. That is the definition that will be acceptable to the pro-development new generation of voters. Despite reaching out to Muslims and making all kinds of statements the BJP and RSS leaders have not succeeded in changing public perception about their attitude to the minorities. Hindutva will have to relate to Hindustanis and not just Hindus. Hindustanis are conditioned by a way of life. BJP and RSS leaders should know that VHP and Bajrang Dal activists harassing couples on St. Valentines Day is not included in that way of life.

The second pitfall is even more serious. Its potential to damage the BJP will depend upon how adroitly its opponents exploit it. Thanks to Mr. Modi egged on by big business and Apco he represents a model of economic development that can be effectively challenged. He represents efficient and rapid economic growth by removal of bureaucratic glitches. In a sense it is not different from Mr. Manmohan Singh’s model. It merely claims to be more efficient. There is no pretence for inclusion and it rests upon the efficacy of the trickle down effect of economic development. This can be challenged by an alternative model. Mrs. Sonia Gandhi is attempting to do that but very incompetently. The answer to the big business Modi-Apco model is not dishing out doles and subsidies left and right through an inefficient administration leading to national waste. The answer lies in effectively empowering the disadvantaged to exploit India’s rich human resource material.

As just one example, not a single party has pledged universal free compulsory education and the eradication of caste based reservation within the next five years by offering a concrete, credible and achievable roadmap. It is available. But it requires political courage to seize it. Other examples can be cited. But thus far no politician or party has displayed the will, the vision or the courage to attempt it. After all, such daring can be attempted only by leaders committed above all else to the national interest and not merely to immediate personal political gain. If Mr. Advani and his few loyalists in pursuit of their beliefs were to break away from a Modi-led BJP to help consolidate a Federal Front into a Federation, a stable two-party system would be established in India. The natural polarization in India is not between an irrelevant Left and Right implanted by the West. It is between the impulses for decentralization against centralization. Both impulses have permanent relevance in India.

By Rajinder Puri

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