Countering AAP: What BJP should do – Virendra Parekh

Virendra Parekh“BJP should quietly focus on its core—in fact, its only—support base: Hindus. Hindus constitutes 82 per cent of the population. Even if half of them come your way and actually vote for you, you will sweep the polls. While BJP is loath to call itself a party of Hindu nationalism, the fact remains that Hindu nationalism is its raison d’être and Hindus alone can put it in power it they want to.” – Virendra Parekh

Aam Aadmi Party LogoThe entry of Aam Adhmi Party (AAP) with a bang is fast changing the political scene of the country. People from all walks of life and all statras of society are joining it in thousands by the day. Sensing the groundswell of public response to its brand of politics, the party has lost no time in announcing its national ambitions—the latest reports say it will contest 400 Lok sabha seats and raise Rs. 400 crore from big and small donations to fund its campaign. Media is going ga-ga over it. Reigning scion of a political dynasty has informed us that the race for the PM is no longer a two-horse one. All parties are forced to revisit their calculations and strategies. Expectedly, their public reactions are dictated by convenience and profit. Internally, there is a sense of discomfort at the prospect of having to cope with this unknown quantity.

BJP FlagOf all the parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has greatest reason to be rattled by the new and unexpected development. Its objective of forming a Narendra Modi-led government at the centre, which appeared quite within its grasp just a few weeks ago, now looks distant and uncertain. The BJP rightly fears the split in anti-establishment votes in areas and among sections which it expected to gravitate to itself almost as a natural course. In a fractured polity like India’s, loss of even a small percentage of votes could party dearly in terms of seats. If it wants to see Modi as India’s prime minister it must win upwards of 220 seats to become the dominant partner in a coalition. Anything less would induce allies to set terms for their support.

This is a precarious scenario which will certainly be exploited by BJP’s arch enemies—Congress and AAP. Congress, having given up all hope of returning to power on its own, has now focused on its second-best objective: anyone-but-Modi. In an all-out bid to keep Modi-led BJP out of power at any cost, it will egg on and facilitate AAP to spoil BJP’s chances to the maximum and confine BJP’s seat tally to 180 or below. As things appear to be today (looks can be deceptive as much in politics as elsewhere in real life), this is not very difficult. AAP managed to win 40 per cent seats (28/70) in Delhi with a vote share of 30 per cent. If it wins only 40-45 seats in Lok Sabha that would be enough to sink Narendra Modi’s dream of leading a government at the centre. It works out to less than 10 per cent of the total.

It would be a tragedy for the country if this possibility, which can no longer be dismissed out of hand, becomes reality. The stakes in the forthcoming elections are enormously high not just for the BJP but for the whole country. For the first time since Independence, the country is presented with a genuinely non-Congress non-Nehruvian alternative which is both credible and creditable. The outcome of the elections will determine not only who will form the government but the ideology, political philosophy, economic policy and civilisational direction that the country will take in the next decade. It is a golden opportunity to throw away the Nehruvian garbage that has ruled and ruined this country for most of the post-Independence period.

Bhagwa DwajaThe Hindus in particular have to be extraordinarily alert. What is at stake is nothing less than the fate of Hinduism and the pride and power of Hindus in the only country they can call their own. It may be too late for them to reverse the drift to subservience (if not oblivion), if this opportunity is missed.

An easy option for BJP is to trust its luck and wait for AAP to discredit itself with its ineptness and contradictions. It is only a matter of time.

The populist measures announced by AAP so far purportedly to fulfill its election promises are short-sighted, half-baked and ill-conceived. The decision to supply 20 kilolitres of water free to every household will leave high and dry the large sections which are not covered by water pipeline network. It will also encourage meter tempering and corruption by those whose consumption is close to the threshold. On power, instead of forcing the companies to reduce tariff it has announced subsidy at the cost of the state exchequer. Both the measures, while costing the state heavily, would leave out large and vocal segments who were in forefront of its campaign. Their discontent would become manifest soon. AAP’s promise to regularize unauthorized colonies and slums will give free hand to land mafias and squatters including Bangladeshi infiltrators to encroach on public land, put up all sorts of structures and claim regularisation in the name of aam aadmi.

AAP’s platform of anti-corruption and responsive governance has universal appeal, but it cannot overcome conflicts of interest and approach. Its opposition to FDI in retail has been hailed by the traders, but criticized by upper class new comers like Captain Gopinath. Between strongly unionized and pampered workers (auto drivers, bank staff, teachers) on strike and the hapless citizenry, whom will AAP side with? When high net-worth individuals donate big sums to the party, will they expect nothing in return?

As AAP has ideologically positioned itself against political establishment as a whole, it will find it difficult to work with other parties to secure common objectives. The disdain will be mutual. In Delhi, Congress put up with the humiliation of supporting AAP on the latter’s terms to deny BJP power. In the post-election scenario, other parties may not be so obliging. Imagine Jayalalithaa’s reaction to AAP’s conditions for accepting her support! In fact, unaligned regional parties may feel more comfortable dealing with BJP than AAP.

Wheel of FortunaThe point is that the challenge of AAP may not be as strong as it may appear at first sight. However, the Goddess of Fortune rarely blesses those who rely solely on her to solve their problems. The BJP can ignore AAP’s challenge only at its own peril. It has to change its strategy in double-quick time if it wants to recapture and build upon the lead that it enjoyed earlier.

First, stop blasting Congress. It is no longer necessary. The BJP and its star campaigner must realize that lambasting Congress is like a flogging a dead horse. The unbearable price rise and stinking corruption has decimated popular support. In the little time that it still has in office, it may try to refurbish image of its Shahzada, but cannot make any real difference to the lives of the people. So, when you frontally assault Congress, its first family and the Shahzada, people are restless. It is not that they disagree, but they want to hear something else, something which is related to their own lives.

Secondly, BJP has to be very careful in attacking AAP, which is a sanitized version of Indira’s Congress in terms of economic ideology and political philosophy. There are many weaknesses in AAP’s actions, policies and thinking. But as a party which has been in office for less than a month, it enjoys a measure of public sympathy. If you attack it for not fulfilling election promises, it can say that will be done later. For everything that AAP does, spell out clearly what else you would do and why it would be better.

Thirdly, BJP should quietly focus on its core—in fact, its only—support base: Hindus. Hindus constitutes 82 per cent of the population. Even if half of them come your way and actually vote for you, you will sweep the polls. While BJP is loath to call itself a party of Hindu nationalism, the fact remains that Hindu nationalism is its raison d’être and Hindus alone can put it in power it they want to.

There are two very important Hindu issues that the BJP can raise without inviting opprobrium: one, ending the government control of and interference with Hindu temples and second, teaching of Hinduism in government-aided educational institutions. It would be a good idea constitutionally because it would be plea to end discrimination based on religion and politically because non-Hindus will not be affected by it.

Modi speaking at a rally.On the other hand, no amount of distributing skull caps and burquas or sadbhavna yatras will win BJP a single Muslim vote. Muslims perceive them for what they are: vote catching gestures. In wooing Muslim as Muslims, BJP can never compete with the likes of Congress, Trinamool Congress or Samajwadi Party. If it wants Muslims to vote for it, it should appeal to them over the heads of mullahs and maulavis and address their secular aspirations at par with others and without singling them out as a group.

Modi's Trichy MeetingFor long, BJP leaders have conducted their campaigns in negative terms. That strategy is now due to diminishing returns. BJP needs to announce a series of concrete actions and measures—not rosy but hazy visions of a resurgent India—that will set it apart from other parties and tell its backers what to expect. Abolition of personal income tax is a good example. Other measures could be abolition of planning commission, reduction in number of economic ministries at the centre (why on earth do we need a ministry for food processing, steel, coal or textiles?), clear and unambiguous environment policy, freeing agricultural markets across the country, ban on futures trading in edible agricultural commodities including sugar and edible oils and their replacement with delivery-based forward contracts. It should spell out its approach to dialogue with Pakistan, treatment of jihadis captured by security forces, Chinese incursions into Indian territories, FDI in defence and so on.

Instead of committing itself on all these irrevocably it could seek expert opinion (no mohalla level meetings please) on these ideas and promise to fashion its policies accordingly.

Eyes of all right thinking Indians are on BJP to see how it rises to the challenge of AAP. While the party has shown awareness of the new impediment in its path, it is still looking for a handle to wrench the fresh challenger. Here it is.

AAP has projected itself as a party of the Common Man; BJP should project itself as the party of the Common Sense.

» Virendra Parekh is the executive editor of Corporate India magazine and lives in Mumbai.