On the 10th of November, the accepted logic among the BJP circles of Gujarat was that the ruling party is facing some resistance but would still scrape through in almost all the city corporations barring probably Rajkot. Less than a fortnight later, on the actual polling day on 22nd November, the picture had completely changed as the saffron party was even struggling in its citadel of Ahmedabad.

Although projecting local body elections in India is a nearly impossible business for the best of pollsters, whatever little numbers we were able to gather last Sunday suggested that the ruling party was trailing badly in 3 city corporations and was even struggling in others. This is indeed a rare phenomenon in the Gujarati political landscape of the last 3 decades as BJP has come to dominate the urban parts of the state with near total superiority. For instance, last time BJP had won all the 6 city corporations with consummate ease. If this was the case of the cities in Gujarat, the real saffron nightmare has actually started unfolding in the villages of north Gujarat and Saurashtra where the Patidars have turned vehemently against BJP while other social groups are noncommittal at best. Over the last 3-4 days, whatever little fight the ruling party cadre were putting up seems to have dissipated in thin air and the polling day numbers are suggesting a virtual drubbing in the 31 district body polls as well as 56 municipalities and 230 village panchayats. By all accounts BJP has probably once again become a victim of self-inflicted last minute drift.

From Gujarat we have to travel north-east towards Bihar to further understand this last minute drift. In late September, even as Bihari voters were making up their minds, there was a surge of anxiety among the Dalit and most backward community voters who had started fearing a return of Lalu-Raj in Bihar which essentially served as the symbol of village hegemony by the powerful Yadav community. We here at 5Forty3 and the only other trustworthy pollsters in India, CSDS, had projected a clear 4% lead for the NDA in late September and early October by conducting an extensive study of the Bihari demographic landscape.

In fact, the only mistake that the Mahagathbandhan strategists made in the run-up to Bihar elections was to hold a big joint rally in Patna’s Gandhi Maidan on August 30th where the Yadav muscle power was in full display and Lalu Prasad stamped his authority by speaking last and exhorting his followers to show their might. After that rally, the MBC-Dalit segment of voters became more restless and had started to tilt towards BJP-NDA. Indeed, Prime Minister Modi’s Bhagalpur rally just two days after the Mahagathbandhan fiasco of Patna attracted maximum participation of backward youth who wanted to find expression through their saffron assertion. Nitish Kumar’s electoral strategists realized their mistake and for the rest of the election season they never held a single joint rally – yes, not a single joint rally of all the allies till the swearing in ceremony of last week. What Prashant Kishore achieved by this measure is a clear brand separation between Nitish Kumar’s development politics and Lalu’s muscular OBC assertion.

Meanwhile, just days before the first phase of polling on 12th October, “Reservations” had become a wildfire in the villages of Bihar. BJP was completely caught unawares by this “Reservations” issue and had no counter offensive strategy to offer a fight. Nitish Kumar’s strategists had started a whisper campaign on the reservation issue with nearly brilliant precision. For instance, scores of social media messages exalting the upper castes to finally find their voice against reservations were doing the rounds on WhatsApp and Facebook which built an atmosphere of assertion among Thakur, Bhumihar and Brahman youths in the villages who started to openly propagate a theory of a “level playing field” (vis-à-vis Reservations) if BJP were to come to power in the state. This in turn created a great deal of heartburn among the backwards and Dalits who, caught between a rock (of Yadav hegemony) and a hard place (of the Reservations ghost), found little incentive to go out and vote.

The example of Gaya district serves as an important pointer to understand these last minute changes. A fortnight before polling began, our ground data from Gaya had suggested a huge consolidation of votes in favour of NDA and Jitan Ram Manjhi had indeed become the rallying point of the Backward-Dalit support to the saffron alliance. Yet, by the day of polling on 16th October the picture had completely reversed as BJP-NDA were not even in contest in 5 out of the 10 seats of Gaya district. For instance, even in Wazirganj, a seat allocated to a down and out Congress party, there was massive consolidation of all the non-upper caste votes against BJP and the presence of a strong Yadav candidate put up by Jan Adhikar Party (JAP) of Pappu Yadav simply made no difference to BJP’s fortunes because of the last minute wildfire of “Reservations”. Eventually Congress won this seat by more than 12000 votes while JAP secured a paltry 1700 votes. Similarly, in Tekari assembly segment, we found that even out and out Manjhi fans and Mahadalit voters chose to vote for an upper caste candidate of JDU simply because they were too scared of the impact of “tinkering with reservations” in case NDA were to come to power. At the end of the day, NDA barely managed to win only 3 out of 10 seats in Gaya while the Mahagathbandhan secured 7/10 seats (70% in a big district is a huge achievement) with most victory margins being 20k plus.

BJP, a party famous for its strong cadre base and the ability to bring voters to the polling booths had faltered in consolidating its increasing support and had in fact managed to reverse its leads in a matter of days if not hours before polling!

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Indeed, we did see glimpses of this newfound saffron disease even in the Delhi elections at the start of this year where BJP completely melted down in the last 2-3 days before polling. Our own surveys had shown that Kejriwal’s AAP was leading by 2-4% just days before the Delhi assembly elections but this lead had turned into a mammoth 20% plus on the day of actual polling.

What we are witnessing in Delhi, in Bihar and possibly even in Gujarat is a particular electoral affliction – the last 72-hour syndrome – which is proving fatal for the BJP in the polling booths. This is not a deep-rooted demographic change and neither does it indicate any major structural deviation from the United Spectrum of Hindu Votes (USHV) political paradigm of 2013-14 which ultimately propelled Modi to power. The long-term demographic trend of USHV is indeed intact, for now at least.

Saurashtra and Gujarat territories, for instance, created a whole new record in film business when Suraj Barjatya’s latest offering ‘Prem Ratan Dhan Payo’ collected a whopping 5.25 Cr rupees in these territories in the first week which is a quantum leap of 40% compared to the previous best total of 3.75 Cr. Rajashree Productions make these big joint family fantasy sagas in an era when nuclear families are not just a norm but also a practical reality. Millions of undivided Gujarati Hindu families went out for a ‘PRDP picnic’ which reaffirms the inherent Hindu demographic identity of Gujaratis despite their temporary anger against the BJP in the local body polls.

Similarly, “Reservations ghost” may have created a temporary scare among the average Bihari backward voters but neither has there been a dent in Manjhi or Paswan’s popularity among Dalits nor has Modi’s position as the biggest icon of a united Hindu vote suffered any major damage. In fact, we did see that BJP’s performance started to improve as polling progressed in Bihar after the first 2 phases and once the fear of “Reservation tinkering” subsided. What is more, our exit/post poll data showed that NDA’s support among backward voters also increased after the first 2 phases.

Yet, this last 72-hour syndrome has had a huge impact in 3 different geographies of this year’s electoral calendar so BJP needs to address it fast, lest it creates long lasting damage in the coming year or two when the party faces other important elections. There are 3 key underlying pathologies to this 72-hour syndrome;

  1. BJP’s surprising lack of understanding of the mobile info era and even more importantly the inability to creatively leverage information transmission tech tools which is clearly hampering the saffron campaign in the last mile. For instance, why was the party so unaware of the opposition’s whisper campaign on “Reservations” using tools like WhatsApp and why could it not preempt the same by creatively deploying and leveraging the ‘Most Backward’ status of the Prime Minister?
  2. BJP’s strategic incompetence in countering an electoral atmosphere that incentivizes last minute socio-political consolidation of opposition forces at the polling booth level. For instance, in Delhi, AAP workers were able to completely consolidate all the non-BJP voters (including a large section of Congress voters) in every polling booth in the last 3-4 days. Similarly, after weeks of bickering in Gujarati villages, the Patidaars decided to even consolidate behind Congress candidates to defeat BJP in the last 2 days.
  3. Internal quarrels of BJP’s local leaders virtually splitting the cadre base and preventing the full turnout of the base. For instance, in Bihar, we could clearly see that Dalit-MBC participation in elections did not match that of the Yadav-Muslim-Kurmi voters simply because of lackluster performance of the saffron cadre in its efforts to convince their set of voters to go out and vote.

All these 3 pathologies causing the last 72-hour syndrome have arisen due to lack of strategic depth in the BJP campaign and could have made a huge difference to the party’s fortunes this year had they been effectively addressed. The million-dollar question is will BJP change tracks and treat this malaise or will it simply drift apart and run in circles without ever realizing what the problem is. The answer to that question will probably decide how long the Modi empire is likely to last in the modern Bharat Varsha.