The BJP's tactical rhetoric at its National Executive pitched Lok Sabha 2019 as a Modi-centric BJP versus a Maoist-militant-aligned Congress. In BJP president Amit Shah's words, a “making India” vs “breaking India” agenda.
Projecting absolute confidence and brazenly overlooking performance shortfalls, the party leadership reiterated the promises of 2014 and added a few more. At the same time, it sneered at the Opposition ‘Mahagathbandhan’, warning voters not to be taken in by a motley crew of ideologically disparate forces.
Deftly playing on voter psychology, it sought to introduce a feel-good factor vis-à-vis the incumbent regime and a negativity bias towards the ‘Mahagathbandhan’.
The BJP's dream merchants presented macro-economic indicators as promises of prosperity and ignored short-term speed bumps like a free-falling rupee and soaring fuel prices. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's 'New India' of 2022 is touted as a magical place, free of poverty, terrorism and corruption.
The party clearly feels that the Modi charisma is still bankable, all the more now that he has subsumed the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee! ‘Ajay Bharat, Atal Bharat’ not only appealed to nationalist sentiments, but evoked a beloved Brahmin leader, at a venue dedicated to Dalit icon BR Ambedkar. A useful ploy at a time when upper caste leaders are miffed over the amendment to the SC/ST Act and another example of the BJP's skill in balancing interest groups.
Most significant was the effort to whip up a 'fear factor' vis-à-vis the Opposition. While some political analysts may see the attack on the incipient anti-BJP front as a sign of insecurity and even desperation, it is a clever electoral tactic. It taps into a darker aspect of voter psychology and aims at inducing a feeling of disgust and suspicion towards its rivals.
The Mahagathbandhan is described as an 'eyewash' and a 'mirage' and thus, an inherently unreliable construct designed to fool the voter. Modi went so far as to characterise it as a faux alliance: “Netritva ka pata nahi, neeti aspashth, neeyat brasht (uncertain leadership, unclear ideology, intentions corrupt)”.
In other words, it is an unwholesome cabal of squabbling leaders, who have no concrete programme or vision and nothing in common except a lust for power. Thus, voters should turn away from it in disgust.
HRD minister Prakash Javadekar defined the Mahagathbandhan as nothing more than a “Modi roko abhiyan (stop Modi campaign)”. This reinforces the narrative of power-hungry schemers with a destructive agenda, bent on derailing Modi's Bullet Train No. 2022, which is headed towards glorious prosperity.
To further feed the fear factor, the BJP leadership sought to club the Congress with the far Left and the Maoist-militant nexus; the message being that it is aligned with disruptive forces seeking to undermine social harmony. Needless to say, it suits the BJP to see Rahul Gandhi standing cheek-by-jowl with 'urban Naxals', rather than in front of Kailash Mansarovar.
The two strings to Amit Shah's bow are ‘Modi vs motley crew’ and ‘Modi vs Maoist-lovers’. His appreciation of Maharashtra's crackdown on Sudha Bharadwaj & Co. must be seen in that context, as also his heckling of the Congress' waffling on the Triple Talaq Bill. The sub-text being that gender-insensitive mullahs rather than liberal values dictate Rahul's agenda.
The ‘48 months against 48 years’ slogan indicates a considerable degree of 'performance anxiety'. The BJP is keen to convey that it has made progress towards achieving the promises of 2014 but, stuck with legacy issues, needs another term to bring its plans to fruition. The harping on the recent hike in minimum support prices (MSP) and resolution on agriculture underlines its apprehensions with respect to the worsening farm crisis.
Another signal emerging from the National Executive is the appeal to sub-nationalism, by appropriating icons such as Sardar Patel and Chhatrapati Shivaji (giant statues of both are underway). It has also called dibs on Ambedkar, to add a Dalit flavour to its upper caste-OBC vote bank.
The grim faces on the dais at the Ambedkar International Centre betokened a steely determination to pull out all stops in Lok Sabha 2019. The BJP leadership is well aware that pulling off another “90 per cent of 60 per cent”, or sweep of the Hindi belt, is a tall order. It will have to successfully address the critical determinants of voting behaviour: leadership (charisma), caste, community, candidate, sub-nationalism and economic well-being. And propaganda, however, skillful, can only go so far.