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Why Being Realistic Isn't Being Defeatist--Can We Win 2019?

‘The BJP isn’t unbeatable, but we have our task cut out for us.’

14/03/2017 11:50 AM IST | Updated 14/03/2017 12:27 PM IST
Babu Babu / Reuters

The votes have been counted and the results are in. As with a lot of you, I too spent the first half of Saturday glued to the television screen, watching the first trends coming in and then those trends convert to results. I think it's fair to say that almost no one saw these results coming, but that's the amazing thing about the Indian voter—just when you think you have them all figured out, they go and confound expectations again. So whether it was the overwhelming performance of the BJP in UP, the underwhelming performance of AAP in Punjab and Goa, or the tragic 90 votes for Irom Sharmila, it all went against the grain of popular speculation.

The voter would like to know what we plan to do differently and better if we want her vote to transfer from the BJP to one of us.

That having been said, I'm not writing a piece to analyse these results and break down caste equations and vote-swings or to explain them. There are people far better informed than me to do that. I'm attempting to expand on a couple of tweets I put out as the trends turned to results. I mentioned the need to reorient our strategy from a negative one to a positive one, and I said at this rate we might as well forget 2019 and start planning for 2024. The response to those tweets, particularly the latter one, has been on expected lines. For many, it's an attempt on my part to cosy up to the BJP; for some, it's just me being defeatist; and for some, it was a realistic assessment of where the opposition finds itself today.

Let me start by stressing that nothing I said was directed at any one individual or any one political party. In every single tweet, I was careful to use the collective "we" and "us" because I believe I too have a responsibility as an opposition leader (albeit one who paints on a much smaller canvas) to take this fight to the BJP, rather than waiting for them to get complacent and start making mistakes.

In Prime Minister Modi, the BJP has a formidable leader. He's arguably the most effective communicator of his generation... [he] never misses an opportunity to get his message across.

I've long held the view, and by no means is this rocket science, that voters like to be treated as intelligent individuals who know what they want and aren't averse to switching support if someone offers them a better alternative. This is why I said what I did about doing more than just criticising the Prime Minister. For the first couple of years, it's fair game to tell the voter what we think he is doing wrong; but three years in and with only two to go, the voter would like to know what we plan to do differently and better if we want her vote to transfer from the BJP to one of us. Do we have a better economic policy? What do we plan to do about the agrarian distress? Naxal violence is still a grim reality—do we have a plan for dealing with it? Job creation remains a major area of concern—what will we do to kickstart jobs for the growing numbers finishing school and college? There are a number of things that we are criticising PM Modi for, and the time has come to present an agenda for the future that addresses these issues in the hope that the voter will trust us to carry that agenda forward.

My tweet about forgetting 2019 and planning for 2024 got even more attention and generated considerable heat. I was asked to mind my own business by a number of people in important positions wielding influence far greater than mine. Except that what happens to this country is my business, as it is the business of 120 crore individuals, so I will have my say and if there are people out there who don't like it, that's just too bad.

By hook or by crook they were able to make up the numbers [in Manipur and Goa]... I don't know what stopped the Congress from succeeding in a similar power-play.

Let's look at why it has become more difficult for the opposition to unseat the BJP in 2019. UP is the most populous state, contributing the greatest number of members to the Lok Sabha. Today, UP is a BJP stronghold, and let's not kid ourselves about that. More than that, look at who we are up against. In Prime Minister Modi, the BJP has a formidable leader. He's arguably the most effective communicator of his generation, a person who seems to love nothing more than the rough and tumble of mass contact and never misses an opportunity to get his message across. Anyone who can sell the bitter pain of demonetisation as a sweet tonic that cures all ills is a master salesman who would probably be able to sell sand in the Sahara and ice to the Eskimos. The effective communication skills of the PM are supplemented by an election machinery that is second to none. The foot-solider of the RSS, paired with the media machine and deep pockets of the BJP, will take some work to beat.

Adnan Abidi / Reuters

Just look at the fleet-footed response of the BJP in Goa and Manipur. As distasteful as their actions may seem, we might as well accept that all is fair in love, war and politics. While the rest of us were still digesting the results, the BJP switched gears and moved to make up the numbers. What they lost in the polling booths, they made up in the back-rooms and on the tarmacs of airports. By hook or by crook they were able to make up the numbers, and after having been voted in to second place in both states, with their sitting Chief Minister losing in Goa, they have converted a 3-2 result in to a 1-4 result. I don't know what stopped the Congress from succeeding in a similar power-play. They were only two members short in Goa and three in Manipur. They should have been able to play this numbers' game in their sleep.

Today, Prime Minister Modi is seen to represent the poor and he's done it without alienating industry. He strikes a chord with the youth when he talks of their future. The hard-core nationalist platform was always the BJP's, and now he's usurping forgotten idols of the Congress, such as Sardar Patel and Lal Bahadur Shastri.

Finally, I have been hearing spokespersons of the BJP going on and on about how Rahul Gandhi is their biggest asset and how they would like to see him elevated to Congress president, how he is their good luck mascot and things on those lines. It's like déjà vu, because while in the NDA, I used to hear people like the Late Pramod Mahajan and others around PM Vajpayee say exactly the same things about Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. They would pat each other on the back and say, "As long as it's Mrs. Gandhi against Vajpayeeji, nothing will end their hold on power." Well, we all know what happened in 2004, don't we? The BJP isn't unbeatable—it's just that we have our task cut out for us.

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