Can BJP pull off the 2019 poll battle riding only on Modi charisma?

Internal assessments of the top leadership in the BJP is that the party is capable of strong showing in 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Three things dominate this narrative. The unchallenged charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi which translates into the indisputable message that in the upcoming elections, it will be Modi versus the rest. The other is a battery of alliance partners, most of whom are post-poll partners from the South — the new allies of the NDA. This third is to deflect and turn the nation’s attention away from any pertinent issues the Opposition intends to raise.

Can BJP pull off the 2019 poll battle riding on Modi charisma?The key to everything is the Modi charisma. Major event-driven shows involving the Prime Minister who will inevitably remain an integral part of the BJP campaign, have been planned. They include an anniversary of the surgical strike, publicizing Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s contributions, the Kumbh Mela, vibrant Gujarat and making the Republic Day Parade more visually celebrative than ever.

But will all this alone be enough to carry the BJP through?

Clearly, the first worry is about a hung assembly in the Lok Sabha 2019 polls, hence the effort to notch up as many allies as possible. Besides K. Chandrashekar Rao from Telengana, Jagan Reddy from Andhra Pradesh is also expected to do well in the polls. He is another automatic choice for a post poll alliance. Together, they could contribute as much as 20 to 30 Lok Sabha MPS as NDA alliance partners, thereby shoring up the numbers for the BJP.

The challenge is in Uttar Pradesh where the BJP is facing the most daunting task against the Akhilesh-Mayawati alliance. The UP government is expected to appeal to a strong Hindu sentiment, in addition to announcing a sugarcane package worth over Rs 5000 crores. The breakaway Shivpal Yadav’s party, it is hoped, would cut into the Sajmawadi vote. However, the realistic expectation is that the BJP will not get more than 30 to 40 seats. In Madhya Pradesh, a key state, where Assembly elections are not far away, the upper castes who control votes in the state’s Madhyabharat region, are openly in revolt. They feel that the BJP is going way too far to curry favour with the lower castes for votes.

Can BJP pull off the 2019 poll battle riding on Modi charisma?Notwithstanding all these challenges, what is empowering the BJP more than anything else, is the fact that the opposition appears to be in a state of disarray with no evident consensus in sight on who their prime ministerial candidate will be. As things stand, winning the Rahul-Modi battle appears like a cakewalk for the BJP. The party is confident that Modi’s charismatic presence, his speeches and general persona will remain unmatched compared to any Indian Prime Minister in recent years. But, they also realize that when the chips are down, mere speeches and tired cliches about ‘India Shining” cannot secure victory for them in the eyes of an increasingly, discerning and disgruntled public.

There is, say BJP supporters, a lesson in Vajpayee’s loss. It is difficult to win on a positive vote of governance. The feeling is that voters prefer mainly those who are critical of the establishment. In the 2014 elections too while Modi was presented as an alternative, what provided a shot in the arm were the mounting spate of corruption allegations against the Manmohan Singh government. In the distant past, V.P. Singh assumed power on the strength of his Bofors campaign.

Can BJP pull off the 2019 poll battle riding on Modi charisma?The positive it is being realized does not sell any longer. The Indian electorate, fed on a regular diet of promises, only wants more. Currently, the nation is none too happy with the prevailing situation of daily escalating fuel prices, the terrible fallout of demonetization, GST, to name just a few issues. In the Rafale case, the Congress’s attempt is to make it another Bofors.

In Bofors, the issues picked up steam even in the rural countryside. As a consequence, the north was swept by the Bofors effect. Is Rafale creating a similar resonance? Probably. Keeping that in view, Congress party, leaders have launched state and district wide publicity programmes on the Rafale scandal.

Can BJP pull off the 2019 poll battle riding on Modi charisma?Finally, the general view is that perception matters more than anything else. Of the three states going to the Assembly polls by December, the BJP hope is that they score wins in two of the three—Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The BJP is happy with encouraging signs of Congress infighting in two of the three states.

The BJP under Modi is clear that it does not want to repeat the mistake of that inglorious, in-your-face brand of hype during Vajpayee’s ‘India Shining Campaign’. Just a feel good or good story will not sell. Which explains the rhetoric-driven BJP campaign where the dictum is attack, deflect and distract, even if it consists only of highlighting lapses of the Congress party, made more than five years ago. The attack strategy includes a consistent no holds barred attack on the Gandhi family. There is an obvious attempt to deflect from the real issues raised by the Opposition—rising prices, fuel prices, GST and demonetization.

Can BJP pull off the 2019 poll battle riding on Modi charisma?It’s a tough ask but can only the Modi euphoria carry it through? In the recent Assembly polls in Gujarat, the last minute surge in BJP votes was attributed to a blitzkrieg Modi campaign. The belief is that the Modi factor may actually decide the fate of at least 100 seats in the north.

With the party not coming up with a viable sellable idea for the BJP and an undefined script that depends only on a non-engagement narrative strategy with critics and the opposition, this might well be an uphill task.

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