A look at how BJP attempted to transform itself in the middle of the Bihar campaign.
“A wounded party president could be more dangerous than even the Prime Minister” averred a highly placed Gujarat BJP leader who is also closely monitoring the Bihar elections after the ‘not so impressive’ performance by the saffron alliance in the first two rounds of Bihar elections. Indeed, all the signs of a wounded lion striking with vengeance in Bihar have been there for the last week or so. What probably has helped is the availability of a long festive gap between the 2nd and third phases which has provided the right opportunity for the BJP to regroup.
After the conclusion of the second phase of Bihar polls when both data and the ground reports had shown that NDA’s strike rate had mostly underwhelmed (if not disappointed), we had given a clear nine point agenda for the BJP strategists to adopt in order to stay in the race in the future phases of Bihar elections. Although it is very difficult for a big political organization like BJP to change course midway unlike smaller and nimbler regional outfits, one must admit that the saffron outfit surprised us with the speed with which it brought about some of these changes. Let us consider four core areas in which BJP attempted a transformation in the middle of the Bihar campaign:
A] Bringing RSS onboard: This was a major campaign deficiency that we had noticed in the first two phases and had also specifically pointed out the need for Sangh workers to indulge poorer Dalit sections of the Bihari society. This is in fact a strategy that had worked wonders in the Uttar Pradesh LS polls in 2014 when many small local Dalit organizations and Sangh workers would utilize the Ambedkarite symbolism to educate voters about the need to vote for Narendra Modi which eventually led to a near sweep by BJP at the cost of Mayawati whose BSP won zero MPs.
Many Sangh workers and sympathizers under the able guidance of Dattatreya Hosabale (who is widely believed to be the second most important thought leader in RSS after the Sarsanghchalak today) were seen working hard to reach out to Dalit voters using pamphlets celebrating Ambedkar’s leadership across Bihar over the last fortnight which has reportedly eased some of the ‘reservation’ fears of backwards in the state.
B] Focusing on the OBC credentials of Prime Minister Modi: One of the big strategic errors committed by the BJP was to let Nitish Kumar’s strategists get away with their rumor campaign on “reservations” issue just 2-3 days before polling began on the 12th of October which had essentially split the Bihar demographic into a backward v/s forward battle unwittingly. We had demonstrated using our demographic-tech tools and ground data to show as to how this rumor campaign had been electorally effective while BJP had failed to leverage the OBC status of the PM in an important heartland election.
BJP finally woke up to their mistake and over the last fortnight PM Modi’s EBC leadership (Extreme Backward Caste in Bihar because Teli/Ganchi community to which the PM belongs is classified as EBC in Bihar) credentials were highlighted to build a significant emotional cord with the most backward voter community who will play an important role in deciding the eventual winner of Bihar.
C] Addressing the perception battle: One of the core areas of trouble for BJP in the first two phases was that it was losing the messaging battle to a rookie strategist like Prashant Kishore who had managed to build a “mahol” against NDA’s victory chances. We had warned that such a trajectory could be dangerous to the morale of the saffron cadre in the future phases of elections.
Behind the scenes Amit Bhai Shah has probably worked hard over the last fortnight to bring about some kind of a rapprochement among various factions of BJP in the state. More importantly, the saffron party has effectively utilized the messaging reach of the local Hindi media which is quite evident from the positive coverage that Modi and BJP have received over the last week among Bihar’s top selling newspapers (this is in fact a good strategic template that BJP needs to evolve further over the next few months to win the perception battle across India by sidelining the established English media houses which are anyway hostile to the idea of Modi). Both these measures had ensured that at least to some extent BJP cadre remain united and get an even playing field to fight the battle in Bihar for the next three phases.
D] “Reservations” battle and fresh strategy for Dalit/EBC votes: This one issue of “Reservations” had created all the problems for BJP-NDA in the first two phases. In fact, so intense were the emotions of backward voters that even a Mahadlit icon like Manjhi was not spared any sympathies by his own loyal fanbase. One of the remedies we had suggested was to have a “fresh strategic approach” to woo Dalit and EBC voters in the future phases of Bihar elections.
BJP seems to have finally woken up to this problem with alacrity as was evident by the Prime Minister’s pitch in Buxar on “religious reservations” hurting Dalits and EBCs the most. This was an important intervention by Narendra Modi himself which could yield great results at the ballot boxes (or EVM machines to be precise) for the saffron alliance especially if the message is amplified by the ground cadre at the village level. In any case, full marks must be given to Modi for having tried to rescue a difficult situation for the party which was fighting a very vicious rumor campaign by the opposition on the “Reservation” issue.
Apart from these four core factors, the one central problem that did continue to remain unaddressed was the top-down approach of the BJP which is slowly running out of gas now and probably needs some fine-tuning, but then this is a structural issue which needs a longer term solution rather than a quick fix in the midst of an election. What BJP needs to do is to create a more horizontal organizational structure which can work with NaMo on the top along with various state, district and block level party leaders and workers contributing their collective might to an election campaign rather than totally depending on Modi for all the flow of momentum current.
Bihar went to polls in the third phase on Wednesday with this strategic shift playing at the background. These 50 seats spread across 6 districts comprised of NDA-BJP strongholds and Nitish-Lalu-Congress combine were in any case struggling to match the saffron prowess. BJP on its own had contested 34 seats in this phase leaving out only 16 assembly segments for NDA allies. Here are our 6 observations after this phase of elections;
BJP needs to rescue Bihar, for despite the media attempts of painting Nitish Kumar as a development icon, one must remember that effectively Nitish would be a lame duck CM remote controlled by the likes of Lalu Prasad Yadav if the secular alliance manages to get past the 120 seat mark. Bihar, one of the youngest states in India, has managed to steer towards a development paradigm over the last decade and if it once again slips into the militant caste politics narrative at this crucial juncture there would be a danger of the state ending up as a laggard like it did throughout the 90’s. How the two lions of Gujarat manage to march towards Patna over the course of next week will decide the fate of a young Bihar trying to rediscover her ancient moorings of a progressive civilization.