The symbolically powerful bhumi pujan at the site of the proposed Ram Mandir in Ayodhya on August 5 marks the beginning of a three-pronged electoral strategy by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Each prong of the trishul has a short-term and long-term strategic objective.
The first obviously is to coalesce the majority vote. The Bihar and West Bengal assembly elections in 2020 and 2021 respectively are the short-term targets. The Uttar Pradesh assembly election in 2022 and the Lok Sabha poll in 2024 are longer-term objectives. All these have the same aim: build on the BJP’s core vote base.
Consider the math. The BJP has 180 million members. Assume an average of two voting adults per family. That translates into 360 million captive voters who are likely to be eligible to vote. (Over 911 million Indians were eligible to vote in the 2019 general election, according to the Election Commission of India, of whom 610 million voted.) Thus the BJP has a lock on over 35 per cent of all eligible voters even before campaigning starts.
But that may not be enough. If the Opposition comes together, the BJP needs a minimum vote share of 42-45 per cent to win a majority in the Lok Sabha and stay in power. The NDA has atrophied: the JD(U) is a pale shadow; the Akalis are in disarray, and the Paswans are too small to matter.
To ensure a clear majority in 2024, the BJP knows it has to also win a share of the moderate Hindu vote that traditionally favours “secular” national or regional parties. In 2019, the BJP won 37.36 per cent vote share. In 2024, it will have to increase that significantly in the absence of strong allies and the possibility of Opposition consolidation.
The construction of the Ram Mandir has been carefully timed: it is expected to be ready to admit its first devotees three months before the 2024 Lok Sabha poll. The optics will worry the Opposition. Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra has already hedged her party's bets by declaring: “Ram is in everyone.” Opposition parties know the emotive impact of the Ram Mandir being constructed “after 500 years of a historical wrong.” The BJP, however, is taking nothing for granted. Hence the other two prongs in its trishul strategy.
The second prong is time-tested: welfare benefits. Modi has turned India into a quasi-welfare state. The poor will receive food grains from over 50 lakh ration shops at between Re 1 and Rs 2 per kilogram from any state in India, not just from the state where the ration card was issued. Free gas cylinders (and subsidised refills) have transformed the lives of rural households. Electricity is patchy but available where it never was since and before independence.
A question of optics
Toilets may have been converted into storerooms in some villages but in many poor homes, sanitisation has vastly improved. Direct benefit transfers of subsidies into Jan Dhan Yojana bank accounts of several hundred million Indians who never had bank accounts has removed middlemen siphoning off cash. Ayushman Bharat health insurance that gives poor families medical cover of up to Rs 5 lakh has been a boon in tier 2 and tier 3 towns where health care remains rudimentary as the Covid-19 pandemic has cruelly exposed.
The combination of Ram and welfare is what the BJP believes will not only deliver it a third term in office at the Centre but victories in the crucial states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh as well as make further inroads into West Bengal.
There is a fly in the ointment though: the faltering economy. Modi knows that polarisation and welfare may not be enough to guarantee victory. The third prong in the BJP’s strategy, however, is the most vulnerable. If the distressed economy doesn’t recover quickly, the BJP could still face the wrath of the jobless on the one hand and over-taxed middle-class professionals on the other.
The weakest link
The Modi government’s macro-economic management has been abysmal. India has regressed on many fronts. The country is more protectionist than it has been for nearly 30 years. Overregulation has antagonised global investors. One company alone, Reliance Industries, has attracted more FDI in calendar 2020 than the rest of India put together.
The economy is likely to shrink by 5 per cent in 2020-21. Unless there is a quick bounce back in the second half of this fiscal, the economy could put a wrench in the BJP’s electoral strategy. The idea that the economy does not matter to the majority of voters is simply not true. A new generation of 18 to 23-year-olds will vote for the first time in 2024. All of them are zoomers, born after 2000. For them, education and jobs matter as much as the Ram Mandir and social welfare benefits. It is this demographic slice of new India that the BJP needs to capture in Bihar, in UP, in West Bengal and in the rest of India. Ayodhya is a powerful force multiplier. But the rising force lies with the young Indian.
(Courtesy of Mail Today)