The BJP's Election Strategy Obscures the Local in Favour of the National

The Bharatiya Janata Party's political strategies since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections have been focussed on maximising electoral gain with vacuous rhetoric.

The 2014 general elections was distinct in that they saw the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) elected to power with a dominant majority. After that, the BJP’s electoral dominance continued, as they won assembly elections in state after state (Schakel, Sharma and Sweden 2019). Free and fair elections are the sole marker of a healthy democracy. Political parties, which are the engine of democratic affairs, will always pursue political power. They will also strive to retain it for as long as possible. However, since elections are the only legitimate route to power, political parties tend to focus almost exclusively on winning elections, which should not be the case in a democracy. Liberal democracy  works in favour of the sentiments of the majority. Political parties articulate public opinion and mobilise different social groups, sometimes on genuine issues, and sometimes by fanning their prejudices. 

The BJP’s 2014 general election win led to a majority government at the centre after almost three decades. Prior to that, the  Indian Lok Sabha enjoyed a high level of politicisation and democratisation, where most, if not all, social groups and classes of Indian society participated and ensured their presence through electoral politics (Yadav 1999). But, the results of the 16th Lok Sabha elections have led to scepticism about the fate of coalition politics at the centre. While coalition governments at the centre are taken to be an expression of federalism, the revival of a majority government with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)  seems to have delivered a blow to the federal nature of the Lok Sabha.

The politics of centralisation, and its simultaneous derivative of powerlessness at constituent units, which was an outstanding feature of Indian politics of the 1970s and 1980s (Kohli 2009), seem to have staged a comeback.  

In this article, my contention is that political parties tend to obscure the local in favour of the national, in order to curry favour with the majority at the national level. This tendency is termed as "centralisation" here. Political parties undertake this project employing numerous techniques. India provides a good example for understanding this centralised politics where political parties display such tendencies. This article  analyses the  existing NDA regime at the centre and how it has worked for five years. It argues that the BJP has efficiently centralised the Indian polity by employing a three-pronged technique: policy symbolism, election strategy and the sentimentalisation of the national. These strategies, of course, are not clearly distinguishable from each other, but they can be analytically separated. Through these techniques, the BJP has sought to belittle the importance of local and state-level issues, relating to development and growth, and thus, it has allowed the national issues to encroach upon the share of the importance of local and state-level issues. This constructing of the national, and belittling of local, is inspired by the electoral benefits that are likely to accrue from the ability to retain office uniformly and enduringly throughout India.

Policy Symbolism 

The BJP government after coming to power in May 2014 has launched a considerable number of policies that have been scrupulously named by keeping some electoral and ideological benefits in sight. Policies like the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Skill India, Make in India, Start-up India, Stand-up India, for example, are some of the policies, the names of which carry a certain political value. The common element among these policies is the linking of the name of country with the policies. This, however, is not an invention of the BJP government—there is precedent for majority governments at the centre  adopting these  strategies  to influence a larger number of voters, or to manipulate  public opinion in favour of their government. Every majority ideological regime has specific populist formulas to influence their voters on the level of policy naming and their outcome (Kenny 2017; Varshney 2019). For example, the slogan of “Garibi Hatao” coined by Indira Gandhi’s government was a typically socialist formula. But the symbolism associated with this slogan struck a chord across various communities. Its outcomes, on the economic level, may not have yielded much,  but it also did not lead to communal polarisation, because its underlying rationale was economic in nature. 

The policy names of the current government, on the other hand, rely on symbolisms that are intended to evoke nationalistic sentiments. This tradition of naming of policies is a well-thought-out stratagem. In public consciousness, it creates an illusion of a government working in national interest, rather than in local interest. This tendency of working symbolically also leads towards a centralisation of the polity. Amplification of the national government, and obscuring of the local, in turn, has two benefits to offer that are electoral and ideological. Ideologically, it helps in directing the psyche of the people in favour of the national government. And, this ideological benefit is convertible into electoral gains in favour of the party working at the centre.

De-Territorialisation of Election Campaigns as Elections’ Strategy

The second strategy concerns the election campaigns. This strategy is characterised by relegating the local issues and leaders as secondary in importance. As an extension of this strategy, there is also a readiness to fill the top leadership posts with inexperienced, but ideologically promising people. 

This entire strategy of election campaigns is underlined by a process of de-territorialisation of election campaigns at two levels. First, at the level of issues from the specific locale where election is being contested, and second, at the level of leadership, as an increasingly large number of leaders seem to be campaigning in constituencies that they do not belong to (Economic Times 2018).  

Elections to the state assemblies and other local level elections (like municipal elections) after 2014 are visible examples of this tendency of avoiding the local. For example, the BJP has assigned Union Health Minister J P Nadda to campaign for the BJP in Shimla Municipal Corporation elections, which indicates that the central focus is on winning the election, rather than on local issues of development (Pioneer 2017). Because the top leadership is now engaged in campaigning for the party in different states, the national is highlighted at local elections. Here, we pick two examples to illustrate the articulation of this strategy and its parts. These two examples indicate two levels of local. First is the Uttar Pradesh State Assembly elections where Prime Minister Narendera Modi staged as much as 14 rallies in the build-up to the state assembly elections (Hindustan Times 2017). This exhaustive participation of the prime minister as a star campaigner pushed the local issues as well as the local leaders to the margins of election campaign.

The Municipal Corporation elections of Shimla 2017 are also a case in point where leaders like Prem Kumar Dhumal, the former chief minister, and J P Nadda, the present Union Health Minister, were prominent in the election campaigns and the Shimla-based leaders were conspicuously subdued. Not surprisingly, the local issues were also pushed to a secondary position. In fact, the marginalisation of the local issues is somewhat automatic when local leaders are marginalised. This is understandable when non-local star campaigners promise to influence voters more swiftly, and decisively, in favour of the local candidates. There has also been a tendency of parachuting some leaders post election for the top posts in the government (Yogi Adityanath being one such example) on the basis of their personal integrity and promising ideological credentials. This has also been largely acceptable to the local leaders because of the centralised influence of party and leadership of the BJP. Among others, the chief reason for the absence of any worthwhile opposition by the local leaders to this parachuting seem to be the unprecedented strong position of the BJP, visible in its current unmatched electoral performance, and the dearth of available political options comparable to the BJP—let alone superior options—to which, local leaders can switch to if they decide to oppose such parachuting wholeheartedly. In other words, the extreme successful run of the BJP and unavailability of any viable political party worth joining fore-excludes any meaningful opposition to such parachuting by the party. Thus, this de-territorialisation of election campaigns is a technique that reflects a tendency of a specific form of centralisation wherein issues and leaders—the two main aspect of any election—seem to have lost their rooting.

Sentimentalisation of the National

Yet another technique, which has been employed by the BJP, is  the sentimentalisation of the national. It means using the brand of nation and the national for attaining party benefits. The theme of the nation and national has acquired extreme visibility ever since the NDA-II came to power at the centre. The death and the sacrifice of soldiers, proposals to place tanks in university campuses, and sedition charges on “anti-nationals,” have all been used to promote a sense of patriotism that will be electorally beneficial. The sentimentalisation of the nation has also been used to generate support in favour of the policies and programmes that are being promoted by the government. This sentimentalisation is relied upon at every possible opportunity. The surgical strikes, for example, or demonetisation, all of these instances have been projected a possibility that could have been achieved only under the BJP government. The stronger this sentiment is, the more electoral benefits it will reap. 

Instead of working for a genuine federal polity, a specific type of national is promoted, while the local is robbed of its dignity, and labelled as narrow. Many local issues are avoided, while the national is constructed for the justification, and functioning of the majority government, and its ideological preferences. 

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