Elections 2009: What the BJP Did Wrong

As we look back at the past six months, here are two key things which stand out:

  1. 26/11 and the assembly election results of Delhi and Rajasthan completely turned the momentum away from the BJP. Till then, its twin planks were terrorism and the economy. Both got neutralised in the past six months – or perhaps, the BJP was not able to convince voters how it would handle the two areas differently and better. Even as food prices have increased and jobs are being lost, the message that the BJP is the better alternative did not get through. The negative campaign around terrorism in the Delhi assembly elections was seen by the electorate an attempt by the BJP to exploit a vulnerable situation.
  1. The campaign itself had the right ideas (good governance, development, security with the need for strong leadership), but the message went off-track for multiple reasons.
    1. LK Advani (LKA) was not seen as strong and decisive in the two opportunities that he had to make a mark: the Jaitley-Rajnath argument, and the Varun Gandhi moment. This in some ways undermined the main plank of the campaign.
    2. The “weak PM” argument backfired when Manmohan Singh (MMS), along with Sonia, Rahul) hit back with a vengeance, and Ayodhya and Kandahar were brought up. MMS played the role of the “bechara” perfectly. The BJP did not have a counter to that – and it could not possibly have been that the party would have expected the Congress to not respond.
    3. Most importantly, the BJP let the old fears re-surface with its decision to not drop Varun Gandhi even after the advice from CEC (Gopalswami). In contrast, the Congress decision to drop Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar was seen as positive (and gained in Punjab.) Basically, the Varun Gandhi incident coming on the back of what happened in Mangalore (and the ensuing media coverage) turned away moderate Hindus and youth (approx 40mn new voters) in urban areas for whom harmony matters more. For many, between the slippery road of religion and the slippery road of dynasty, the former is a definite No-No. LKA should have used the Varun moment to make a decisive statement on the inclusiveness of Hinduism, and taken the discussion completely away from the “secular-communal” issue – just like what Obama did with his race speech in Philadelphia at the height of his campaign.

There are many other factors which can also be thought of:

  • Disconnect with the voters: What explains the huge gap between expectations (160+ seats) and reality (120 seats). The party – and its cadre – are seen to have lost touch with on-ground realities in many parts of the country, and the disconnect with Urban Middle India is especially deep. (Of course, it could be argued that the Congress too did not expect its result. But that is not the answer.)
  • Selection of Candidates: This issue is more important than it is given credit for. If the party thinks it can thrust someone a month before voting day and they can win, there is something wrong. In many cities and states, the BJP lacks leadership and suitable candidates. It didn’t even experiment this election – and it was the Congress that fielded different, younger candidates.
  • Media management: This has always been a challenge for the BJP. An important segment does tend to watch the English channels more and get influenced. The BJP gave them the Varun Moment.

In some ways, the out-of-the-box, disruptive thinking that the BJP needed to do this election did not happen. It started off as an underdog and ended as one. In some ways, nothing changed between the start and finish, except that the UPA cleaned up some of the states the BJP was not present in. (That was predictable in the sense that even if the Left or AIADMK had done well, the Congress would still have managed to get them. So, in some ways, 100+ seats for the UPA from these states were always in the bag for the UPA.)