Barely seven days before polling, the otherwise composed Vasundhara Raje was livid. One of the more credible opinion polls in a leading magazine showed the Congress heading for a convincing victory in Rajasthan. “I have been getting a fantastic response and it’s getting better each day,” she told her friends, “I can’t see how I can lose.” A similar view was proffered by the finance minister, Jaswant Singh, to a high-level meet of ministers in Delhi. “If we don’t win in Rajasthan, my name isn’t Jaswant Singh,” he said with a touch of drama.
It is not that the well-wishers of the Bharatiya Janata Party disbelieved either. But such is the pernicious hold of opinion polls on the political class that the party was mentally prepared for the worst. The nervousness had a lot to do with the mood in Delhi where senior ministers had a tough time convincing even their children and relatives that Madan Lal Khurana was either in a winning position or a more wholesome alternative to the Congress chief minister, Sheila Dikshit.
Fortunately for the BJP, neither Vasundhara nor Pramod Mahajan, the general secretary overseeing Rajasthan, lost their nerves. In the final days of the campaign, as the Congress grew increasingly smug and over-confident, the BJP pulled out all the stops. Taking advantage of the Election Commission’s new guidelines, the TV channels were saturated with advertisements projecting Vasundhara as a sincere, attractive and even glamorous chief ministerial aspirant. At the same time, extensive publicity was given to the Jat Mahasabha’s belated endorsement of the BJP. It was conveyed that the party had got its caste arithmetic right and was, therefore, in a winning position.
The problem in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh was different. Here, with opinion polls reporting a decisive mood for change, the BJP’s challenge was to keep up the momentum, prevent the election agenda from being derailed by extraneous issues and, most important, guard against the famed skills of the chief minister, Digvijay Singh, in “election management”. The organizational matters were left to the party’s formidable machinery, carefully nurtured since the days of rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia and Kushabhau Thakre. At the level of strategy, the BJP concentrated on a relentless media blitzkrieg against Digvijay’s 10-year record and on building up the image of Uma Bharati as a spirited but dignified alternative. Uma was bluntly told by her minder, the Union minister, Arun Jaitley, to not over-exert herself and be mindful of her appearance. She should not, it was stressed, look either tired or dishevelled.
The BJP’s convincing victories in three of the four states may have caught the editorial classes napping but it was preceded by at least six months of careful planning and rigorous attention to strategy and detail. Except for Chhattisgarh, where the Judeo tapes led to the party finding a clear anti-Ajit Jogi focus in the final days of the campaign, the BJP mounted an awesome exercise in election management and ended up reaping its rewards on Thursday morning.
Yet, the ability of Mahajan and Jaitley to turn campaigning into almost a science is only half the story. Behind the razzmatazz of the campaign, the visible mobilization of resources and the deft image management was also the fact that these elections were designed as dress rehearsals for the general election due next year. If the BJP steered well clear of emotive issues centred on its Hindutva ideology, it was not because the party is no longer interested in its core ideology. Nor does it stem from the fact that exploitation of anti-incumbency was too ready-made an issue to miss out on. The shift in the BJP is a consequence of a political decision to make governance, development and leadership its theme song for 2004. In many ways, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan were laboratory experiments of an idea that has been endorsed by both the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani. The resounding success of the approach — which, incidentally, is crucial in holding a diverse coalition together, has set the agenda for the Lok Sabha election.
However, before the BJP lulls itself into complacency and over-confidence, it needs to ponder some of the other trends from this round of elections. At the heart of the matter is the undeniable reality of elections becoming increasingly presidential in nature. If a personable chief minister like Digvijay was worsted, it was not only on account of his indifferent performance but also because Uma was able to draw an incremental vote from the youth, backward castes and women. Likewise, Vasundhara gained from her cross-caste appeal and her success in motivating more women to come out and vote in a woman chief minister. At the same time, Khurana lost out on the BJP’s sizeable middle-class constituency because he was felt to be wedded to an archaic style of interest-group politics. Most important, he could not connect with the young voters who make up nearly 40 per cent of the electorate.
Vajpayee’s ability to attract an incremental vote has never been in doubt. Opinion polls have repeatedly shown that the prime minister’s personal popularity outstrips that of both the BJP and its coalition partners. In addition, his lead over the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, is vast. In a general election, which the BJP also hopes to convert into a presidential election, the Vajpayee card will be played to the hilt.
There is, however, one great imponderable. Vajpayee conveys an image of steady reassurance, uprightness and decency. At the same time, it is a grandfatherly image. If there is anything remotely resembling “cool India”, Vajpayee does not approximate it. The challenge before the BJP’s spin doctors is to connect an elder statesman with youthful aspirations. The feel-good factor in the economy and a sense of national pride do help in bridging the generation divide. Yet, a gap persists and the Congress is likely to seize on that, perhaps with an aggressive projection of Priyanka Gandhi. To counter it effectively, the BJP team must also be able to demonstrate that it is also readying for a generational shift in national politics. How to effectively blend the wisdom of Vajpayee with the energy of the party will be a foremost communications challenge for the BJP.
Finally, these elections have shown, particularly in the case of Jogi in Chhattisgarh, that voters have no time for either the corrupt or the unscrupulous. Unlike Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, Laloo Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and Mayavati’s Bahujan Samaj Party that rely on caste allegiances, cross-caste parties like the BJP and Congress are vulnerable to charges of disrepute. The shots of Dilip Singh Judeo gratefully accepting wads of currency notes may not have generated derision in Chhattisgarh where the demonology around Jogi was more potent, but it certainly had an impact among the middle classes of India. It triggered a wave of revulsion at the political class and generated cynicism. Since the BJP is primarily a party of the middle classes and those who aspire to be middle class, charges of corruption and disreputable conduct affect it the most. In a general election this could prove to be very damaging and derail the agenda. Having painted itself as a party with a difference, the BJP has to live up to these lofty standards or risk facing a backlash.
The shift to a more responsible, performance-based politics is one of the most heartening features of this month’s assembly elections. It holds out many lessons for the political class but to the people of India the signals are indicative of democracy becoming more vibrant, organized and mature. After Thursday, the feel-good persists.