The most damning charge that can be made against a politician is that he misread the public mood. It would neither be unfair nor cruel to suggest that the entire leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance was guilty of such a lapse. Even after the not-very-accurate exit polls indicated that the verdict of Election 2004 would not be along predicted lines, the NDA leadership clung to the belief that the tally would not fall below 260 seats. A couple of days before the counting, the BJP election cell’s in-house pollster circulated a laminated chart estimating the party’s tally at 194 and the NDA haul at 269. This corresponded broadly to the Intelligence Bureau estimate of 261 seats for the NDA.
Wisdom in hindsight being an inescapable feature of life, it is tempting to pin responsibility for the failure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee to stay on as prime minister on a series of misjudgments and tactical blunders. In the coming months, we are likely to witness a blame game as the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh come to terms with the implications of an unexpected defeat. Since the BJP and its allies still retain a sizeable presence in the Lok Sabha, the introspection is also certain to be coloured by the jostling among the BJP’s second-rung leadership for the post-Vajpayee-L.K. Advani space at the top. Coupled with the anticipation of another general election by 2007, this will make the post-mortem less than totally transparent.
The one issue that is, however, certain to be fully dissected is India Shining. Even as the results were pouring in on May 13, India Shining and “feel good” became the butt of ridicule from triumphant Congress leaders and the pundit fraternity owing allegiance to the RPI — Ruling Party of India. The slogan has been described as elitist, and arrogant. One luminary described it to me as by far the worst idea in history.
Since the gains of the Congress were also matched by the most spectacular performance of the left in Kerala and West Bengal, it has also become fashionable to equate the India Shining debacle with a categorical rejection of economic reforms. “The highways of India cannot afford to bypass the slums,” was the conclusion drawn by a political analyst whose antipathy to the NDA was ill-concealed. In a similar vein, a very senior leader of the BJP was forced to conclude that the songs of praise from the Confederation of Indian Industry mattered less than reaching out to the last person in the last row.
Since initial impressions tend to be enduring, it is likely that India Shining will be counted as one of the political disasters of our times. The political class and the media appear to have made up their mind that the evocative slogan did not coincide with Indian reality and the BJP leaders who went to town with that mantra ended up conveying an impression of arrogance. India Shining, it has been suggested, mocked the less fortunate and triggered a backlash. It has also been argued that “feel good” was exclusively an urban phenomenon that ignored Bharat.
Any credible analysis of the impact of Shining India cannot be based on the herd mentality of the political and pundit classes. It may be necessary to look at what the first Nuffield study of British polls called “an election in flight”.
The evidence provided by opinion polls (discredited as they are) is revealing. Polls conducted in mid-January by ORG-Marg for India Today indicated that the NDA would win between 330 to 340 seats. An internal poll by G.V.L. Narasimha Rao of DRS for the BJP put the mid-January tally for the NDA at around 280 seats. In early-March, around the time the Lok Sabha was dissolved, a NDTV poll estimated that the BJP-led alliance would cross 300 seats. In all the polls, Vajpayee was miles ahead of Sonia Gandhi as the choice for prime minister.
It is not necessary to believe the opinion polls in toto. What is important is that when it was decided to hold an early election, the ground situation was very favourable to the NDA. In short, the belief that it was India Shining — a euphemism for the NDA’s economic policies — which lay behind the NDA’s decimation, cannot be empirically verified. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that the Vajpayee government was politically at its strongest when it was being assessed on its claims of governance. The BJP leadership was absolutely right in assuming that there was no worthwhile anti-incumbency against the Centre.
Consequently, the assertion that Vajpayee was rushed into an early general election much against his own better judgment does a disservice to the veteran leader’s instincts. The BJP leadership decided on January 22 on an early election because it was confident of winning. That confidence was totally warranted.
The first dip in the NDA’s fortunes was noticed in early April when an India Today poll indicated the NDA tally would be 282. Ironically, Vajpayee’s popularity graph was still rising and his lead over Sonia was an awesome 26 per cent. The steep fall in seats was attributed to the arithmetic of anti-NDA alliances in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar and Jharkhand.
The possibility of the NDA not securing a majority was first noticed by the opinion polls barely a week before the first round of polling. Between the second half of April and May 10, it was a case of the BJP and NDA going steeply downhill and a corresponding rise in the fortunes of its opponents.
Examining the sequence of events, the shortcomings of the NDA, it would seem, lay not in its record of governance but in the nuts and bolts of the campaign. The process began with its over-confidence that thwarted its alliance with Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra, the Asom Gana Parishad in Assam, Bansi Lal’s Haryana Vikas Party in Haryana and Sone Lal Patel’s Apna Dal in Uttar Pradesh. These misjudgments cost the NDA at least 25 seats. The problems were compounded by the party leadership’s inability to take a hard decision against sitting members of parliament who had become unpopular in their own constituencies. The assumption was that the appeal of Vajpayee would paper over the cracks.
Finally, despite the appearance of being hi-tech, the BJP mounted what must go down as one of the most inept campaigns. Their publicity campaign was unmemorable and marked by high presence and low recall. A disproportionate amount of time, energy and resources was expended on puerile SMS and phone campaigns and a self-defeating advertising campaign for Muslims which even included a picture of Pervez Musharraf clasping Vajpayee’s hand. Since the party organization was kept out of the campaign planning there was no scope for any mid-course correction. For a party that was hitherto known for its ability to extract maximum mileage out of every rupee it spent, the BJP set new records of wasteful expenditure in 2004.
The decimation of the party in the urban centres, its traditional strongholds, is a commentary on how the BJP blew its chances.
In the final five weeks of the campaign, everything that could go wrong went wrong. The BJP exhibited all the signs of the ruling party syndrome — arrogance, opulence and sycophancy — that was last witnessed in Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress in 1989. The sari tragedy in Lucknow epitomized the rot. This was an election the Congress did not win but the BJP lost. India was shining but the saffron poll managers were not. What was achieved in five years was blown away in five weeks.