The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) needs to win more than 230 seats in the next general election to ensure Narendra Modi can continue as prime minister of India, with support from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) allies.
Fewer than 230 seats could ensure an internal power struggle given that (a) Modi may need to take moral responsibility for a poor performance, and (b) there will be a need for many more regional parties who may have their own preconditions for support.
It is believed that the BJP is tending toward 215-225 seats, which means there is a need for a series of coordinated actions to push the party toward the magical 272-plus majority mark. So what can the BJP do?
There are 10 cards that the BJP can play to ensure Modi continues as India’s prime minister after the 2019 elections.
1. Charisma card
Narendra Modi remains the only game in town in terms of national political leaders. Every aspiring challenger has been systematically dismantled – inside and outside the BJP.
The prime minister has a cult-like following among his supporters. The big factor to bank on: “Who is the alternative? If not Modi, who? If not the BJP, who?”
Even state elections are fought on the PM’s name. The cycle of history has turned back to the 1970s and Indira Gandhi. So there will be more of the individual and less of everything else.
While there is disappointment, it has not yet reached the point of anger where people change. The key question is: Is this charisma good enough to bring out many voters who switched to the BJP in 2014, or will they stay at home? The focus will be on specific selectorates – especially rural women and first-time voters.
2. Congress card
Elections are a game of choice – voters have to pick from the options available. For most voters in India, that choice remains between the BJP and Congress. So all that the BJP has to do to look good is to remind people of how bad the Congress party has been for India. So expect the attacks on the Congress to keep increasing, which of course is the right thing to do. What may be put in the background is the BJP’s own record of delivering prosperity since it came to power.
3. Corruption card
Hand in hand with targeting the Congress is the perception created by the BJP government in the past few years that it is fighting a war on corruption. Of course, in India, corruption never goes away – it is just made invisible since it becomes centralized, rather than distributed.
How else do the political parties fund their campaigns? Each national party will need 100 billion to 150 billion rupees (US$1.5 billion to $2.3 billion) for the next Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament) election. Where do you think that money is coming from?
The BJP will push harder on this anti-corruption plank – jailing a few prominent politicians or businesspeople for corruption could embellish the party’s track record, which has taken a perception hit with some of the recent developments.
4. Alliance card
Locking up pre-poll alliances is important. Every seat won by an allied party is a seat that does not go to the opposition – thus ensuring a plus-2 advantage. No one knows this better than the BJP from its 2004 experience. While Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, Janta Dal (United) in Bihar, Telegu Desam Party in Andhra and Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab (along with some smaller parties) will all most likely continue their support, that may not be good enough to give the perception before the election that the BJP is the only winner in the next election.
While it makes a lot of sense from the BJP perspective to lock in pre-poll alliances in the few states it is not very strong in, if the regional parties think the BJP is unlikely to get a majority on its own, then they may want to wait it out until after the election. Depending on the BJP’s tally and the number of parties that it will need to form a government, they will be in much superior negotiation position, especially for parties from some of the larger states.
5. Division card
A little-known fact about elections is the importance of split votes and tacit local coalitions. Every election has candidates and parties who are well compensated for the only job they have to do – divide the vote so that the preferred party’s candidate’s threshold for winning becomes lower. This is a fact of life in the first-past-the-post nature of Indian elections. In the most recent Gujarat assembly elections, such parties as the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) did that very well and helped push the BJP candidates over the winning line in a few seats.
This becomes important in the context of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, with its 80 seats. The BJP won 71 of those seats in the last election, with two additional seats going to an ally. To ensure minimum downside, it means that the BJP needs to prevent consolidation of the anti-BJP vote – ideally a three-way or four-way fight. Mayawati’s BSP thus holds the key in UP. She will not ally with the BJP directly and may not win too many seats on her own, but by putting up strong candidates in all the constituencies, she will definitely make it easier for the BJP to win many more seats.
6. Candidates card
A standard technique is to win over or buy out likely winning candidates in specific seats from other parties. No politician likes to stay out of power for a long time. Given that the BJP’s principal national challenger is the Congress, it will make all efforts to splinter the Congress at the state level by acquiring Congress candidates in seats the BJP thinks it is unlikely to win.
After all, there is not much ideologically difference between the two parties now – command, control and coercion are the central pillars of their governing philosophies. But Congress candidates tend to be local entrepreneurs – if they sense the Congress is likely to do well, they will not desert.
Another technique used to battle anti-incumbency in an election is to change many of the sitting representatives. This helps direct the anger to the helpless local candidates. BJP will probably do that in 2019 also – after all, most members of Parliament owe their election to the Modi wave, and not to any great track record of their own. Easy come, easy go.
7. Class card
This is the age-old technique of pitting the poor against the rich. India’s movies did it in the past, and its politicians are masters at it. The message is, “The rich make their money through illegal means and so must be hit. Look, I am taxing and targeting them hard, and will now give that money to you.” This is similar to the demonetization narrative on black money.
The BJP has shrewdly switched its primary base from the upper-class and middle-class section to the poor, who are larger in number, tend to vote and are more loyal. So expect more rich-bashing.
In this, of course, the middle class is the one that is hurt the most. The BJP’s belief is perhaps that their support can be bought with a few sops just before the elections because politicians think that the middle class does not remember much except the most recent goodies they have got. And after all, so goes the belief, “What is their alternative? Who else will they vote for? The corrupt Congress?!” The middle-class vote is for the BJP what the Muslim vote has been for the Congress – always taken for granted.
8. Cash card
The National Health Scheme and Minimum Support Price announcements in the 2018 fiscal budget along with state-level farm-loan waivers are all steps in the direction of putting more money in the hands of the poor and farmers. Just don’t call them freebies – which of course is exactly what they are.
Because the real structural reforms were not done in the first six months of the BJP government, Indians are not on the path to prosperity. So their votes need to be purchased. There are other schemes like Mudra that have cash handouts linked with them. If all else fails, there is always the Jan Dhan Vapasi scheme that can be announced – 5,000 rupees into each of the 300 million Jan Dhan accounts, taken from more taxes on – you guessed it – the rich, middle class and businesses.
9. Community card
Exploitation of the Hindu-Muslim divide for votes is an old story. Congress played the M-card for many decades. The BJP realized that simple caste-level aggregation is not good enough to counter this; it needs to polarize and unite larger numbers at a level above caste – the first of which is religion.
The Ayodhya Ram Mandir verdict will give the BJP the perfect opportunity for this. The party’s Triple Talaq focus is a step toward dividing the Muslim vote. There will probably be more efforts to get people to think not of their caste but of their religion as India gets closer to the 2019 election and the voters get closer to the polling booth.
10. Country card
Nothing unites a country’s people more than an external threat. That there could be a limited-edition India-Pakistan border war used to be talked about a lot until a year or so ago. This has changed because of China’s aggressive entry into the mix.
China can do in India what Russia allegedly did in the US elections – meddling to get the outcome it desires. Doklam is just the first step. Pakistan in effect now has China’s protection, so it may be hard to whip up nationalistic sentiments via the border issue.
One question to ask: These 10 cards can help Narendra Modi continue as India’s prime minister, but will he become India’s First Prosperity Prime Minister?
The article has been re-published with the author’s permission. It was originally published here.