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3 things BJP must do to repeat 2014 feat

By Vikas Sv

The notion that combined unity of regional parties can take on the mighty BJP is gaining momentum and the poor show by the saffron party in the recent by-elections has only strengthened it. In the recent past, the BJP has won just two Lok Sabha by-polls while losing out on seven. Although by-elections are by no means reflection of the mood of voters across the nation, what they have done is to embolden the opposition.

Representational Image

The opposition now seems to have noticed chinks in the BJP's armour. The belief that once unassailable BJP can be defeated if right alliances are formed at the right time is slowly firming up.

Congress' alliance with JD (S) in Karnataka was able to keep the BJP out of power. The Mahagathbandhan of Congress, RJD and JD (U) was able to stop the BJP juggernaut in Bihar initially, its a different matter that Nitish Kumar later quit the grand alliance and sided with BJP. Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) joined hands and defeated the BJP in the by-elections for Phulpur and Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seats. Last week, RLD snatched the Kairana Lok Sabha seat away from the BJP with the backing of regional parties.

What the BJP now needs is an image makeover so that it can counter the perception that the opposition is trying to build around the saffron party can be shaken-off. Talks doing round are that BJP may still emerge as the single largest party in 2019, but it may not be able to win as many seats as it did in 2014 (i.e. 280 plus).

Among other things, the BJP ought to focus on the following three areas if it wants to repeat the 2014 feat:

Reaching out to Dalits and minorities:

BJP image has taken a beating due to recent incidents of Dalits being thrashed, cow vigilantism and loose remarks by some BJP leaders. The violent protests by Dalit groups against the apparent reluctance and delay by the government in filing a review petition in the Supreme Court against its March 20 order that called for changes in the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, has also added to BJP woes.

Some BJP leaders did try to change this by visit Dalit homes and dining with them, but that clearly seemed to have backfired. During one such visit, reports emerged that food was ordered from outside, another leader said that there were mosquitoes in Dalit homes. Even BJP MP Savitri Bai Phule, a Dalit, said that leaders visit Dalit homes was a show-off.

When it comes to minorities, the BJP must rein in leaders like Sangeet Som, Vinay Katiyar and other such leaders known for making anti-minority remarks. Unnao MP Sakshi Maharaj, who seems to have gone quiet these days, has also made headlines by blaming Muslims for India's population growth. Moreover, the opposition is also leaving no stone unturned to project that the BJP is polarising the society and the environment under Modi government is not safe for minorities.

The BJP must remember that Dalits and minorities, who traditionally do not vote for the BJP, played a key role in 2014's thumping win. So it is time that BJP comes up with a solid plan to reach out to these groups and make amends.

Consolidating Uttar Pradesh:

Uttar Pradesh sends 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha and is the most electorally crucial state. The BJP bagged 71 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats from Uttar Pradesh in 2014 and even PM Modi had repeatedly said that UP was responsible for his party securing a majority in 2014. Surveys and political pundits are now hinting that the saffron party may not be able to repeat the same feat in 2019. Kairana and Noorpur by-polls saw RLD and Congress joining SP and BSP ranks to defeat BJP. Kairana defeat is the third Lok Sabha by-poll loss under chief minister Yogi Adityanath. The only by-election BJP has won post-2017 is in Sikandara, before the Opposition firmed up an alliance.

Kairana and Noorpur losses came barely a few months after the BJP was defeated by a united opposition in the Gorakhpur and Phulpur Lok Sabha bypolls in March. Gorakhpur, in fact, was a particularly embarrassing defeat given it is chief minister Yogi Adityanath's own turf. Yogi, who had to resign as MP from Gorakhpur seat when he was appointed UP CM, had been winning from the seat for 5 consecutive terms.

The reasons BJP gave for the recent losses were that voter turnout was low and that "by polls and different from general elections", but deep within they know that they have to come up with a strategy to take on the joint opposition which is working towards consolidating Dalit, Jat and Muslim votes.

BJP can still be confident that if it gets its strategy and caste calculations right, it can halt the rival coalition. To begin with, the party's main focus will be on ensuring its core voters come out to vote for it in 2019. In addition to this, BJP must find a way to build a narrative that it is not anti-Dalit or anti-minority, which, given the recent events, may not be easy.

Lastly, a lot depends on how Yogi governs Uttar Pradesh from now on as his way of handling the affairs has come under severe criticism. It is time that Yogi shuns the image of being an ambassador of Hindutva and emerges as an administrator who can do something good for the state. The challenge here is that very less time is left before the general elections and it remains to be seen what directions Modi-Shah may give Yogi so that he can instil confidence among people that he indeed was the right choice for CM.

Even if the BJP works on all these, winning 70 plus seats again in UP this time seems highly improbable, so the goal must now be to win at least around 60. Even for this to happen a lot of things must fall into place. BJP would also be hoping that the Opposition alliance will fall through during seat-sharing talks and due to inherent differences among the cadres.

Shun 'North Indian party' image:

In many of the non-Hindi speaking states, the BJP is seen as a 'North Indian party', especially in the south. Karnataka is perhaps the only southern state where the BJP has a significant presence. Tamil Nadu politicians have openly accused the BJP of imposing Hindi on them, which of course is a decades-old debate. For the BJP to emerge as truly pan Indian party, it must do away with pushing North Indian brand of Hinduism. For example, BJP made so much noise over beef eating, but did they even realise that beef eating is not 'taboo', as projected by the saffron party, in many Indian states. 'Hindus never eat beef' is a North Indian concept, and in northeastern state and for that matter even in Kerala and parts of Tamil Nadu, beef eating is not considered a sin.

During the campaign for Karnataka elections, Siddramaiah did try to create a North-South divide by branding the BJP as a north Indian party. Modi, however, hit back saying, "A perception has been created that BJP is a north-India party, a party of Hindi-speaking people. Gujarat isn't Hindi-speaking, nor is Maharashtra, Goa Assam or the Northeast. The people of Karnataka have given a jolt to the people who have spread a negative perception about the BJP."

It will take a long time for the BJP to come out of this image, so what they can do ahead of 2019 is to tie up firm alliances with southern regional parties before the so-called 'anti-BJP' front poaches them.

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