Assembly polls: Why BJP is focused on finding a winning mix of populism and pragmatism

The party is banking on the credibility of such “Modi guarantees”

PTI10_04_2023_000145B Goodwill hunting: In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP has benefited from Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s women-centric welfare schemes | PTI

The current round of assembly polls in five states has the BJP and the Congress engaged in a direct, gladiatorial contest of differing approaches. They have no allies in the battle for the three Hindi heartland states (Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh), and both the parties are part of larger, triangular contests in Telangana and Mizoram. The five states together have 83 Lok Sabha seats, of which the BJP had won 65 in 2019―around 21 per cent of its overall tally.

The BJP appears to have nuanced its messaging―from accusing other parties of promoting freebie culture, to talking about its own promised delivery of sops.

With the announcement of the Lok Sabha polls due in around 100 days, the BJP has been ditching conventions, reinventing strategy and setting changes in motion. The party has turned the current round of elections into an extension of the Lok Sabha polls next year, and centred its messaging around Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bid for a third term. “In my third term, I will make the country’s economy the world’s third,” Modi said in a rally in Madhya Pradesh.

In poll-bound states, the BJP is banking on the credibility of such “Modi guarantees”, and has relegated its regional satraps to the background. The Congress, meanwhile, is betting on its old warhorses―Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh, Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan and Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh. The party’s victory in the three states in 2018 was Rahul Gandhi’s best moment as Congress leader. But the BJP still managed to improve its Lok Sabha tally in the 2019 elections, riding high on the Balakot airstrikes and Modi’s charisma.

Cut to 2023. The past one month has made the change in the BJP’s strategy visible, not just in poll-bound states but also in those that will go to the polls next year. In Jharkhand, the party has backtracked on its experiment of picking a non-adivasi, Raghubar Das, as chief minister. Das was recently shifted out of the state as Odisha governor, and adivasi leader Babulal Marandi was made the state party chief. In Haryana, where the Jat vote is moving away from the BJP, the party has appointed OBC leader and MP Nayab Singh Saini as state party chief, replacing Jat leader Om Prakash Dhankar. The BJP had earlier picked M.L. Khattar, a non-Jat, as chief minister.

In Karnataka, the party is banking on B.Y. Vijayendra, son of four-time chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa, to woo the powerful Lingayat community. His appointment as state party chief has prompted charges of dynasty politics, but the BJP insists that the decision is pragmatic and in line with current political needs.

The party’s pragmatism has also been visible in Madhya Pradesh, where it has set aside the convention of not giving tickets to those older than 75. The party has fielded several candidates who are above 75, including two 80-year-olds. In all, 14 candidates are older than 70.

The BJP has also asked its national leaders to contest from constituencies where the party is weak. “Experiments help us stay ahead,” explained a party leader. Unlike previous elections, where candidates were announced just three weeks in advance, the BJP declared 75 candidates three months before the polls.

Turning on the charm: Modi campaigning in Mahasamund district in Chhattisgarh on November 13 | PTI Turning on the charm: Modi campaigning in Mahasamund district in Chhattisgarh on November 13 | PTI

The party has made identical promises in the heartland states and Telangana―free electricity, subsidised cooking gas, housing subsidy, allowances for women, better remuneration for crops and free rides to the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. The party’s promises for the Lok Sabha polls, too, are expected to be the same.

To counter the Congress’s guarantees that helped it win Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh, the BJP is calling its manifesto promises as “Modi guarantees”. The party appears to have nuanced its messaging―from accusing other parties of promoting freebie culture, to talking about its own promised delivery of sops.

Explaining the rationale of using ‘Modi guarantee’ as the party’s slogan, BJP national spokesperson Gopal Krishna Agarwal said, “We have been able to fulfil the promises made [in manifestos]. In Uttar Pradesh, we have fulfilled 99 of 100 promises made. At the Centre, too, we have fulfilled promises. Prime Minister Modi will do everything to fulfil them.”

At rallies, BJP leaders point to the Congress’s unkept promises in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka. “They made false promises without a roadmap to fulfil them. We are committed to fulfil the state and Central manifestos,” said Agarwal.

In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP is relying on women voters. Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has been wooing them with promises of increasing the allowances under popular schemes such as Ladli Laxmi Yojana and Ladli Behna Yojana. Party leaders say women support the BJP, while male voters are vocal for change. The leaders say the BJP has made significant gains in the past few days. Modi’s rallies are expected to persuade the fence-sitters.

“The BJP will be elected with a big mandate,” said state party president V.D. Sharma. “The double-engine government is trusted by the people. Our cadres are there in the booths to help the party.”

In Rajasthan, where the BJP’s chances appear to be the brightest, the party has launched a broadside against Chief Minister Gehlot. Law-and-order issues and corruption allegations have been highlighted. Similarly, in Chhattisgarh, the BJP has kept up its attack on Baghel, and investigating agencies have been vigorously pursuing cases against those close to the chief minister.

The Congress has the advantage of projecting CM faces in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, but the BJP is banking on its well-established cadre strength―something the Congress does not have. If the BJP goes on to win all three states, as many of its leaders expect it to, it would be a major boost for Modi and the BJP. Also, its strategy to make Modi as the mascot in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls would make its subsequent campaign much easier, and provide a template for the ‘Modi guarantees’ to be announced in 2024.

But the 2024 battle would become much keener if the Congress repeats its 2018 victories, while gaining Telangana. The party would also improve its bargaining power in the INDIA alliance. A poor show, however, may expose the chinks in the alliance, which has already widened because of the Congress’s focus on going it alone in the assembly polls.

In Telangana, the country’s youngest state, the triangular contest between the Bharat Rashtra Samithi, the Congress and the BJP has become closer. Surveys indicate that the Congress is gaining ground against the BRS. For the BJP, which had launched a hectic campaign in the state since holding its national executive meeting in Hyderabad last year, challenges appear to be mounting. Though it had won only one seat in the 2018 assembly polls, it had managed to win four Lok Sabha seats in 2019. The BJP has since been increasing its vote share in the bypolls, but the Karnataka results have made the perception battle tougher for the party.

The BJP is also aiming at improving its performance in Mizoram, where the main battle is between the Mizo National Front (MNF), the Congress and the Zoram People’s Movement. The ruling MNF had earlier been part of the BJP-led North-East Democratic Alliance, but the ethnic strife in Manipur has prompted the party to distance itself from the BJP.

In terms of streamlining strategies for the Lok Sabha polls, a lot is riding on the current round of assembly polls. “We hope that people will stand for a strong nation that has the economic power to lead the world,” said Agarwal. “At the national and state levels, there is a strong nationalist party that will deliver on the issues. We are expecting a huge mandate.”