Why young BJP supporters feel betrayed by Modi

Someone needs to tell the party it does not have a clear message, slogan or even an acronym to charm this section of voters.

 |  5-minute read |   27-08-2017
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There is a lot to whine about if you are a young, urban BJP supporter. In a span of three years, the nationalist party’s champions have gone from vociferously defending it to silently wishing and praying for an ideological upswing.

It probably has alienated more young and urban voters than it gained in 2014. Surely, this hasn’t stopped the BJP from winning elections and maybe that’s why it hasn’t spoken in the language that these voters want to hear.

It’s a harsh assessment but maybe someone needs to tell this to the party’s senior leadership: it does not have a clear message, slogan or even an acronym to charm and gain the attention of this section of voters. The promise of “Achhe Din” and economic progress may have worked in 2014, and that most likely will be replaced by the assurance of “New India” in the 2019 elections. But is that enough?

How many young and urban voters will take this seriously after 2014? What if the BJP has another memory loss and forgets about “New India” just as it forgot about “Achhe Din”?

The truth is that Modi is winning because many don’t dislike him as much as they dislike his opponents.

But what has really changed that has caused such grief and distrust among such voters? Plenty.   

pehlu-khan__082717031638.jpgIt looks preposterous and even improbable that BJP could shed its tag of a 'Hindu nationalist' party and evolve to a party that cares about individual rights.

The arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar which snowballed into a huge freedom of speech issue, the violence by the ABVP activists at Ramjas College because of differences in ideology, the threat of censorship by the CBFC under the former chairman Pankaj Nihalani, the reluctance to arrest gau rakshaks for taking law into their hands, the “flexible ideology of nation-first” agenda, the intimidation to comics, the demonetisation experiment and more recently the confusion over its backing to the right to privacy in the Supreme Court.

Most moderate urban-young BJP supporters have turned from being combative to docile.

Without going into the specifics of each controversy, the BJP does need to take a fair share of blame. Surely, some of these have been blown out-of-proportion, the media could indeed be biased and the Supreme Court may even have over-reached at times. The opposition also needs to be criticised for failing to make use of this opportunity to create an alternative narrative.

But the sooner BJP stops accusing everyone else for its blunders, the better it will be for them. Had it handled many of these with much more maturity and sensitivity, maybe it would have been taken much more seriously and faced less hostility.

Now, what could the BJP possibly do to change its fortunes among this set of voters?

What change in policy positions can it make? If one looks closely at the above mentioned controversies, one could jump to a safe conclusion about what matters most to the young and the urban: personal liberty.

Over time, many affluent educated, young professionals based in urban centres have started to vehemently demand absolute free speech, the freedom to commit to relationships with whoever they desire, the freedom to pursue (or not to pursue) religion and the freedom to do, watch and eat as they please.

Their politics now revolves around maximising individual freedom and distrusting the state. And the BJP is having a hard time to grasp such a shift in politics.

Their scepticism about the state does not trickle down to economic policy and many would classify themselves as progressive liberals (or progressive libertarians) — meaning that they have become extremely libertarian about personal issues while being progressive about economic policy.

But in its unabashed opposition to liberals in general (whom the BJP sympathisers consider as their sworn enemies), the BJP has decided to not include many of liberalism’s guiding tenets in its philosophy.

The BJP can of course ignore the bit about economics, but it does need to change course over its thinking on personal issues.

It’s easy to dismiss these demands as elitist, but a clear commitment to liberal values will not only help the BJP to cement itself as a more decent outfit but also help paint itself as a modern political party. Even for those who do not skip a beat over issues of personal liberty, it will become easier to be associated with such a party.

At this stage though, this looks preposterous and even improbable that BJP could shed its tag of a “Hindu nationalist” party and evolve to a party that cares about individual rights.

To be sure, what if it doesn’t follow this unsolicited advice? Will it lose elections?

Maybe not, but not everything is about winning elections.

The Congress is complicit and may even be worse but that doesn’t justify the BJP’s stance to not take the lead and impress upon its citizens the importance of such principles.

It’s all the more depressing that not even one BJP leader comes to mind who can talk or cater to such an audience - someone who can bridge the yawning gap between the party and the young urban voter.

Until the BJP makes a serious effort to initiate a dialogue, do an image makeover and carry such a message to these voters, its standing among them will remain where it is - in the doldrums.

Also read: Why achhe din are not 25 but 100 years away



Arihant Panagariya Arihant Panagariya @arihantp

The writer is a lawyer working in the field of public policy in Mumbai.

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