The party’s election machinery will be severely tested in the coming state elections and the 2019 battle.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has an execution problem. And definitely not a communication challenge. So much so that even Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal equity is taking a hit.
The BJP’s bigger problem is that instead of trying to fix the execution gap, it is wading deeper into it. But its biggest problem is that opponents have figured out this weakness and are going for the kill.
Take for instance, demonetisation and the Bhima-Koregaon arrests, both of which unravelled Wednesday. The BJP’s response to each of the issues exposed the problem.
Missing the point
In the Bhima-Koregaon arrests, the BJP leaders are not naïve to not anticipate a backlash when such a high-profile police action under the glare of TV cameras did not stand the scrutiny of law.
Against accusations of throttling democracy and imposing “unofficial emergency”, the BJP’s loyal band of supporters has been at pains to point out how some of the same protagonists were arrested during the UPA regime and there were little protests by the liberal brigade at that time.
However, the point they are missing is that the previous governments had prepared a sufficiently water-tight case, which the courts could not throw out on the first hearing.
Being involved in a conspiracy to murder the Prime Minister is serious stuff. It is unthinkable that the state police would have come to arrest someone without sufficient tactical preparation and technical documentation that would justify a request for even a “transit remand”.
It is indeed a sad commentary that due to the shoddy legal execution, the courts would interpret the move as an attempt to suppress dissent rather than a preemptive action to scuttle an alleged assassination plot.
Black money promise
Demonetisation happened when the Prime Minister’s stock was running high. It took the nation by shock. He said give me 50 days and people were willing to believe him. The opposition was taken by surprise. Most did not know how to react. Some (including the Congress) initially expressed muted support lest they appear unpatriotic. Then the ATMs went dry. The queues outside banks started getting longer. Daily wages dwindled. Suppliers ran out of working capital. Sales across sectors crashed. Customer defaulted.
By the time the RBI was able to ramp up currency supplies and banks sorted out the logistics of reaching notes to the remote branches, the opposition got its act together and economists their voices.
Even then, the vast majority believed Modi could do no wrong. So, the BJP carried the day in Uttar Pradesh elections. What was a mandate for change in the state was simplistically interpreted as a vote that endorsed demonetisation.
Yet, the failure of demonetisation – however flawed the idea might have been to start with and its economic consequences – was in not being able to follow through the black money trail.
So, now that 99.3 per cent of the old notes have come back to the system and reports suggest a huge spike in counterfeit new currency in the market, there is little evidence to believe there is any significant reduction in black money circulation. And, that is even if one accounts for increase in digital transactions and tax collections (for there is no way of knowing how much of that is organic growth and what portion, if any, has been contributed by demonetisation).
One can carry this line of argument for GST too –undoubtedly, one of the biggest economic reforms but totally botched up in implementation.
That such a massive change will face resistance and push backs was always known. But any competent administration will anticipate the problems and pitfalls – preparing for contingencies. Here, the government compounded its woes by its own goof-ups, such as software glitches and anomalies in tariff rate fixation.
The Rafale question
Now, taking a brief detour to Rafale. The Prime Minister has been extra careful from Day One to keep the defence ministry out of controversy. That was evident in his selection of the incumbent.
He kept the position vacant for months (giving dual charge to Arun Jaitley) till he was able to convince Manohar Parrikar, who had a spotless reputation, to take up the job. Even after Parrikar returned to Goa, Modi took his time before handing independent charge to someone trustworthy like Nirmala Sitharaman.
Surely, he would have known that any major defence deal will be vulnerable to attack – because there are so many interests at play (Jaya Jaitly explains this beautifully in her book on how George Fernandes was waylaid by those who lost the deals). So it was just a matter of time before accusations flew, and any intelligent opponent would have chosen that moment with care.
Therefore, a ready “defence strategy” for a “defence deal” should be a part of the SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) of any government. Given the history of Bofors, it was expected that the Congress will try to get even with the BJP on Rafale (a deal it could not complete in its own time losing out on obvious benefits).
But until Wednesday, when Jaitley came out with the first comprehensive response, the government has been batting on the back foot, taking shelter behind the fig-leaf of the “secrecy clause”.
Meanwhile, the Congress, having tasted blood, has gone to town with its version of the story and has a clear strategy to build and amplify it further. Therefore, Jaitley’s intervention may be too little and too late to undo the damage and retrieve the narrative. This too is an ‘execution’ failure rather than just a communication lapse.
Chink in the armour
Perhaps, the BJP’s biggest chink in the armour or the Achilles heel, whichever cliché you prefer, has been its legal acumen. From NJAC to Aadhaar, it has repeatedly revealed a serious competency deficit in the legal department.
No doubt the Congress has been a party of lawyers and has legal genes implanted in its DNA, which it often uses for political purposes. In contrast, the BJP flounders even to find candidates to fill up the posts of top law officers.
The Solicitor General’s position has been vacant for months now and it even struggled to find an Attorney General of stature after the previous incumbent stepped down. Surely, the venerable K.K. Venugopal, who is in his eighties, would have required a lot of convincing before taking up such a demanding job at this age.
However, the BJP has one execution capability that can beat all competition. And, that is its election machinery. But after the serious beating it has taken on perception, even this will be severely tested in the coming state elections and, of course, the mega hustings of 2019.
Sandip Ghose is a writer and blogger on current affairs. The views expressed are personal and does not reflect those of this employers.