The jumlas are falling flat this time

In both the North and the South, Narendra Modi’s BJP seems to be losing its grip

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not been able to sway the crowds to his tunes in this election (photo: @narendramodi/X)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not been able to sway the crowds to his tunes in this election (photo: @narendramodi/X)

Jagdish Rattanani

It is never easy or safe to read the mood of this huge, diverse nation—particularly in the midst of a national election that is well spread out, this one running for over 40 days and seven phases.

With that caveat, it must still be said that there is more than a whiff of distaste beginning to gather around the BJP, even if light to moderate in intensity at best, depending on who is making the analysis.

At this stage, though, with two phases of the election behind us, it is difficult to say whether and how this sentiment may build, or whether the pattern can grow into a gathering storm that blows off the possibility of Narendra Modi getting a straight third term.

The sentiment, if it is to swell, will have to stand against the overwhelming money power behind the BJP campaign, and its consequent reach and impact.

The BJP’s visibly heavy spends do border on vulgar, the Rs 8,250 crore it got from the (now declared illegal) electoral bonds scheme deployed to overwhelm the electorate. Yet this heavily slanted money power can also harm the BJP itself, because while it enables unparalleled reach on the one hand, it also serves to highlight the party’s negatives on the other—not least its loud, overbearing, cocky persona that may not help when seeking votes.

The BJP has the largest share of private helicopter bookings for its leaders, not counting the prime minister’s travel itineraries. The party has outspent the Congress 4:1 on Google search ads and 3:1 on Facebook ads, according to Reuters. It deploys these ads as part of a psychological warfare to plug its superficial narrative, which is that the BJP will improve its tally from the 303 seats of 2019 to 400-plus.

It is difficult to see how this might be possible unless the ruling alliance holds its old ground and also covers new ground in areas where it did not do well last time—say, the entire southern region or parts of the eastern region.

In the South, the NDA alliance in 2019 won 30 out of 130 seats in the five states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Telangana, but 25 of them came from Karnataka. However, Karnataka now has a Congress state government noted for progressive initiatives, boosting its standing and campaign energy, and so it is highly unlikely that the BJP will reach its 2019 tally of 25 out of the 28 Lok Sabha seats in that state, for one.

There is a BJP-led hype that the party is doing well in Tamil Nadu, where it drew a blank last time and is now putting up a stiff fight in the urban areas. But the BJP campaign, positioned as an ideological challenge to the Dravidian movement, is unlikely to find resonance in a state where all regional parties trace their origins and ideologies directly or indirectly to the Dravidian movement of Periyar.

The DMK has also been able to put up a strong campaign targeting the Prime Minister in particular and calling him out repeatedly for having institutionalised corruption. The BJP may well draw a blank here again.

Thus, with no scope of growing in the northern region, where the BJP maxed out in 2019, and no new ground from elsewhere, it becomes almost impossible for the BJP to improve its overall 2019 tally.

In fact, the party can slide downwards a significant way from its selfstated benchmarks, given the new realities in states like Bihar and Maharashtra. In Bihar, the moniker of ‘Paltu Ram’ appears to have latched on to chief minister Nitish Kumar of the JD(U) for his back-andforth in and out of the BJP fold. It is difficult to see how the JD(U)–BJP–LJP troika of the NDA can deliver 39 of the 40 seats they bagged in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

Tejashwi Yadav of the RJD is leading an energetic campaign, directing his fire not plainly at Nitish Kumar, who Yadav refers to as the “respected chief minister”, but at his inner circle that the RJD says has used the chief minister for their own narrow ends.

This lends itself to the unstated suggestion that Nitish Kumar has become a pawn, is not in control and is being manipulated by the BJP, which has failed to meet Bihar’s demand for a “special status”—a consistent ask by Bihar’s people of the Centre and a demand that has disappeared from Nitish Kumar’s vocabulary since he returned to the BJP fold.

In Maharashtra, the forced splitting of the Shiv Sena and the NCP has hurt Maharashtrian pride and built a strong undercurrent of anger against the BJP, whose actions suggested that Gujarat was being used to manipulate an elected government in Maharashtra.

The BJP leadership used Surat in Gujarat (and later Guwahati) as a ‘safe city’ to which it whisked away MLAs while it engineered the split. Maharashtra and Gujarat were one state until an agitation gave birth to Maharashtra, with Mumbai as its capital.

Downtown Mumbai has the Hutatma Chowk, a martyrs’ memorial for those who died in the struggle for a separate Marathi-speaking Maharashtra state when Morarji Desai was the chief minister of the what was then the Bombay–Gujarat combine and would come to be called ‘Bombay state’.

In the 2019 and 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP and the Shiv Sena were fighting from within an alliance that sought 41 of the 48 Maharashtra seats. Expect the BJP to pay a heavy price here, however, against a united Opposition of the Congress, Sharad Pawar’s NCP and the original Uddhav Thackeray part of the Shiv Sena.

Amravati MP Navneet Rana, who has now joined the BJP, openly said at a public rally that there is no Modi wave at work this time. There are, however, also reports of the Congress receiving an enthusiastic response in several other states; but the downside is the negative impact of the ugly CPI–Congress spat over Wayanad and the uncertainty around Amethi.

On the other side, the BJP’s face, Prime Minister Modi, looks tired and lacklustre. Like a fix that you need more of over time, he has begun overusing religion (even by the BJP standards!), with calls and cries that border on the vaudevillian.

At one meeting, he asked his audience to put on their mobile torches during the day to send light, even as the sun’s rays were being mirrored on the idol of Lord Ram at his ‘birthday’ celebrations in the temple at Ayodhya. At the same meeting, he offered this triple slip: “Modi ki guarantee yani guarantee pura hone ki guarantee (Modi’s guarantee means the guarantee of fulfilling the guarantee).”

But we can let that pass—put it down to stress, fatigue or a theatre of the absurd in the midst of a festival of democracy that we hope India will continue to celebrate in the future.

(Jagdish Rattanani is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal. Courtesy: The Billion Press)

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