Unity or not, the opposition needs to think national to challenge Narendra Modi in 2019 elections.
In the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, Rajiv Gandhi’s powerful home minister Buta Singh lost his Jalore seat to a nondescript BJP rival. He had done a lot for Jalore, but the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) sadhus campaigned against him on the Babri Masjid issue.
That election saw the BJP’s Lok Sabha tally go up from two to 85. There’s been no looking back since then. How did it do it? There was the context of a discredited Rajiv Gandhi over Bofors, but the BJP’s rise was primarily because of the Ram Mandir issue. Months before the election, the BJP adopted the Palampur Resolution, officially taking up the Ram Mandir issue the VHP had been campaigning on.
Among the amazing things about this rise from two to 85 seats was that the BJP had not won any state election until then.
Then there was the main protagonist of that election, V.P. Singh. He created a new party, the Janata Dal, combining various regional and small parties.
Singh had himself been part of the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet, left mid-way over the Bofors issue, and ran an entire election campaign on corruption and Bofors. He would go from one place to another, taking out a piece of paper from his pocket and reading out an arbitrary number, claiming it was Rajiv Gandhi’s Swiss bank account number. The Janata Dal won 143 of 244 seats it contested.
The government didn’t last long, but it ended the Congress domination and heralded the era of coalitions in national politics. From 1989 to the 2009 general elections, coalitions became the rule. Coalitions are but natural in a country so vast, people argued. Indian general elections are nothing but a sum of the states, everyone agreed.
As the UPA-2 collapsed, becoming more unpopular than any government in recent memory, the BJP would easily have come to power leading a coalition of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). It would have been like the Vajpayee government, which managed a large coalition of regional parties.
Instead, Narendra Modi saw the opportunity to do something bigger. He did a national campaign around his own persona. One nation, one leader is how Modi went about it. It wasn’t a BJP or an NDA campaign, but a national Modi campaign. The strongman of Gujarat became a national trailblazer through a deliberate campaign.
Like V.P. Singh’s Bofors campaign or Advani’s Ramjanmabhoomi campaign, the Lokpal movement of 2011 captured the national attention. It is another matter that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) couldn’t quickly scale it up nationally.
Win states and lose Centre
Most voters see national and state elections differently. Part of the reason why the BJP has seen a decline of roughly 5 per cent vote share in state elections since 2014 is that state elections are state elections. Brand Modi matters but Narendra Modi isn’t going to be a chief minister.
One of the worst media banalities about Indian elections is the reading of national trends in state elections. Every major assembly poll is seen as a ‘referendum’ for the Central government. In truth, every election has its own logic, its own contest, and its own issues.
The Congress party’s performance in the 2007 assembly election in Uttar Pradesh didn’t suggest it could win 21 Lok Sabha seats in the state two years later.
Similarly, the Congress won Karnataka in March 2013, a year before they saw their most humiliating Lok Sabha defeat.
The general elections in 2004 were to be held in September, but Atal Bihari Vajpayee brought them forward to April. He did so because he thought his party was on a high, having won all three state elections in December 2003 – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. To everyone’s surprise, Vajpayee and his coalition lost.
State elections are a poor predictor of national elections because many voters tend to think nationally than parochially in general elections. If a party or a leader offers them a national imagination, they’ll succeed. In UP and Bihar, the BJP and Congress have often done better in Lok Sabha elections than in Vidhan Sabha elections.
In 2019 as in 2014, Narendra Modi will have a different strategy for each state. But that is not at the cost of the main, national narrative.
The AAP forgot all about the national mind space it was occupying when it put all its eggs into the Punjab basket. Once it wins Punjab, the AAP thought, it’ll use it to overcome the handicaps in Delhi and then target another state. The idea was to go state by state, because the nation is a sum of the states.
It had given up on building a national narrative, forgotten about governing Delhi to win Punjab, and couldn’t even win Punjab. After losing Punjab, the party found itself directionless. Had the party continued focusing on a national narrative while fighting Punjab, the defeat in the state would have been easier to handle.
Similarly, Rahul Gandhi has charted the course for 2019 as a series of state elections. He made in Karnataka the same mistake the AAP made in Punjab. He put all his eggs, and all of himself, into Karnataka.
At a Jan Aakrosh rally in Delhi in April, Rahul said, “Let me tell you, in Karnataka the Congress party will win, in Chhattisgarh the Congress party will win, in Madhya Pradesh the Congress will win, in Rajasthan as well the Congress will win, and in 2019 as well the Congress will win the elections.”
But the Congress didn’t even emerge as the single largest party in Karnataka, let alone win the state. Perhaps Rahul should have spent less of his energy on Karnataka, leaving the state to Siddaramaiah. He should have focused on creating and sustaining a national narrative of ‘Jan Aakrosh’ in Delhi.
Going into 2019 elections, the opposition wants to carve out a state-by-state strategy. But Narendra Modi will show voters a national imagination. Unless the opposition starts thinking national, it has little chance of capturing the treasury benches in the Lok Sabha. Those who are counting state by state will be taken aback when a second Modi wave crosses the state borders without blinking an eye.