The Opposition parties looking for clues in the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assembly and Delhi municipal corporation elections on how to take on the BJP at the hustings do not have to look far. There are a plethora of lessons in the results that are tantalisingly simple to identify, if excruciatingly difficult to put into practice.
It is not that the BJP government in Gujarat had solved all the problems of the state and neither was it that the party’s government in Himachal Pradesh was a total failure when it came to this task for the two states to give such divergent verdicts. In fact, in terms of the sustainable development goals index of the Niti Aayog, Himachal Pradesh counts among the top performers in India along with Kerala and Tamil Nadu whereas Gujarat ranks much below several others. It is definitely incorrect to assume that the BJP faced no governance issues in Gujarat, but the fact is that it won even the Morbi seat where 140 people were killed when a hanging bridge gave in hardly one month ahead of the polls.
The BJP knows its narrative and also knows how to sell it. Its prime campaigner, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is perhaps one of the best communicators Indian politics has ever had; its cadre is focused on the ground 24-by-7 and its IT cell is armoured to the hilt. And it never fights shy of what it does — be it pushing an aggressive Hindutva agenda or displaying demonstrative nationalism or selling the low hanging fruit the Modi-led government has been plucking while in power all these years. The party is also careful as to which weapon to use against adversaries. Dynastic politics and carefully selected lapses in governance after Independence are hard for them to deflect.
The BJP, however, has demonstrated its underbelly — when challenged by a focused adversary on performance. The AAP won the Delhi election by proving certain simple points in administration — that it pays to place increased focus on education, health, shelter and drinking water. It frustrated the BJP’s attempt to portray it as a party of the corrupt even after several of its leaders were slapped with corruption charges. It took a leaf out of the BJP’s book and made an asset of the videos of its leader in jail; it harped on how the BJP was out to hunt its leaders down. The people appear to have trusted them, given the party’s track record when it comes to attending to people’s problems.
It is now widely acknowledged that the local Congress unit used lapses in governance to bring down the Himachal Pradesh government. Issues of everyday concern, starting from price rise to pension and jobs in the defence services, were the themes of the elections and not the national agenda. It successfully neutralised the Prime Minister’s oft-repeated and successful formula of the “double engine” growth wagon by pointing out that the BJP’s state government was not up to the mark.
A united Opposition and a narrative that can stand on its own without overlapping with that of the BJP — Modi, Hindutva and nationalism — could be a formidable combination.