Elections 2009: What Next for the BJP

Every crisis presents an opportunity, and that is what needs to be thought of now. BJP at 116 is on a road downwards even though the decline this time was only 21 seats. The time to rethink and reinvent is now. There needs to be a sense of urgency.

The BJP now faces a clear fork in the road. Either it has to become more Hindu-oriented and thus aim to win the majority Hindu vote, or it needs to discard its religious overtones and become a clear right of centre party. The former is not going to be easy since that is where the roots of the party lie, and the latter will end up making it look almost like a clone of the Congress without any cadre support.

The BJP needs to take the moderate approach with a tinge of inclusive cultural nationalism. It needs to come out with a strong statement that India belongs to all, and not just the Hindus. It needs to take on the “secular” word everytime it is mentioned in the context of the Congress. It needs to remove the aura of untouchability that has been created – for some voters and potential allies. This is perhaps the most important challenge facing the leadership. BJP needs to combine its good governance message with a strong message about an inclusive India to start re-connecting to the growing Middle India, because that has historically been the BJP’s strength.

There are other things that the BJP needs to start working on:

  1. The BJP must forget about allies in most states and build on its own. It has to start thinking of itself as a real, national party with a presence of its own in every constituency of India. Allies are ephemeral. Even if they fight elections together, there is no guarantee that they will stay on after the elections. Also, with allies, the party is hobbled in building its own base.  Orissa was a classic case and Bihar could head the same way next year when assembly elections take place.
  2. Establish a presence in the four key states where it doesn’t exist – West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. In the two Left states of WB and Kerala, it has a 7-10% vote share which can be grown. Mamta is not really the exciting alternative that the people of WB are looking for.
  3. Focus on Uttar Pradesh to build the base. This is going to be hard, and needs a leader and lot of work on the ground. A lot of time has been lost. But the good news is that the politics of UP is shifting from caste and identity to aspirations (as Shekhar Gupta also wrote in his recent Indian Express article).
  4. BJP needs to bring out its next-gen leadership – and develop leaders at various levels (local, state, national). The old guard needs to hand the torch and to the next level, and mentor it. This includes building leaders from minority communities and establishing a dialogue with them with the central message being around governance and development.
  5. Effort needs to be also made to ensure nurturing of good candidates who do work at the grassroots, engage and connect with the voters constantly, and are seen as honest and genuine. The MPs who have won must keep the dialogue going on a formal basis with the voters.
  6. The BJP needs to play the role of a constructive opposition. It should appoint a “shadow cabinet” so it can start training and showcasing its leaders, and also keeping the real spirit of Parliamentary democracy and debate alive.
  7. It has to build an Institutional memory. The data, learning and contacts from this election must be leveraged.
  8. The BJP needs to start a membership and funds drive to collect small amounts of money from a lot of people, rather than just relying on the big donors (many of whom are going to be disappointed and frustrated with the result). With a small contribution will come the offer of help from the people, and that is why this is so important.

Most important, the BJP needs a strong leader who is given a freehand for the next five years. This is no time for consensus thinking which will put the party in a state of analysis paralysis, or create factions. The greater goal for the country must override individual ambitions.

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