Lessons from the 2004 Elections

The 2004 election results are out and the “secular” Indian media is hardly able to contain its glee. Front page articles and editorials are rejoicing at this “resounding” win for secularists in India. The venerable Times of India is now educating its readership on the nuances of Italian history. The Hindustan Times, that other fine “bastion of secularism” is revisiting the tender love story that took roots in Cambridge 30-odd years ago. Arundhati Roy, the one-book wonder who has been cheerleading the “hate-India” campaign from her Booker pulpit has announced that the Darkness has Passed before moving on to her favorite cause – being an apologist for terrorists who kill and maim innocent civilians.

But what are these champions of secularism so happy about? Did the Indian voter really “emphatically” endorse the Congress? Let’s see. Here’s what the final vote tally tells us:

  • The Congress won 7 more seats than the BJP in the Lok Sabha.
  • The Congress and its allies combined polled a lesser percentage of the votes than the BJP (34.59% for Cong. And allies Versus 35.25% for BJP and allies)

So despite all the jubilation, there really were no winners in these elections. There were only losers – BJP which scuttled a great chance to consolidate their rule, and the pollsters (who by the looks of it couldn’t even count the fingers on their left hand, leave alone predicting who’ll win the election in a country with a billion people).

But the “secular” media is going to try and spin the results as an endorsement of the spineless policies that marked the first 40 years of Congress rule. Needless appeasement of minorities that pushes them away from the mainstream instead of into it, populist handouts that increase government dependency of the poor and finally a defeatist attitude that seeks to diminish Indian contributions to the world while inflating world contributions to India and its people.

The true lesson that needs to be learned from these results is one that is rather ironic –
People expected more from six years of BJP rule than they did from 40-odd years of Congress dominion. With stalwarts like Vajpayee, Advani, Shourie, Mahajan and others, BJP could not get away by just being better than the Congress – the people expected them to overwhelmingly outperform previous governments.

These results, though disheartening, are by no means a death-knell for BJP. The party has a committed cadre and a deep bench of young, competent leaders. BJP must use this experience as a lesson for future.

  • Do not trust opinion polls in India – no matter how unanimous their predictions. Go into every polling day assuming that you’re trailing. This ensures that your cadre is working hard until the last vote has been cast. If your party workers assume they are winning, they just stop working as hard. This is probably counter-intuitive but this is the most plausible explanation for why opinion polls in India are always almost wrong. If your opponent is predicted to lose they just become more determined and are able to bring out their cadre in force. Also Indians by nature love underdogs – it’s better to go in as an underdog than as a favorite.
  • Stay with your core constituency. BJP started out as a party that sought to redress the injustice meted out to the majority Hindu community in the name of political correctness. This is what got them to power in 1999. Yes, it is ok to reach out to other constituents, but never ever forget your roots. People expected BJP to resolve the Ayodhya issue, be firmer with Pakistan, and bring the minorities into the mainstream. By diluting its stand in these key issues, the party turned itself into “Congress-Lite.” It turned off its core voters and was not able to poach enough non-core voters from other parties.
  • Stop the culture of cult-worship. Vajpayee is probably one of the greatest statesmen alive in India. But enough with making him a cult. This again reinforced the impression that the BJP was following in the footsteps of other dynastic parties. Instead, the BJP should have followed a more grass-roots approach – the goal being not to promote one above-life-size leader but to support 574 members who were potential candidates for the Lok Sabha.

Never ever tell people how they are feeling. “Feel Good” and “India Shining” are great PR campaigns to get foreign investment into India. They are terrible slogans to get votes. Thanks to 40-odd years of misrule, we still have 300 million people below the poverty line who can neither read nor write. How is a person who’s not had anything to eat for lunch going to “feel good”? The sad thing is that BJP was campaigning on what they’d achieved rather than campaigning on promises (like Congress did and usually does even if it is the incumbent). But people like parties that make promises – tell them how you’ll fill up their glass if they re-elect you rather than boast about how you filled it half-way already.

It is also important that the BJP regroup and emerge stronger. There are two things the party must do while in the opposition:

  • It must pick key leaders in each state and groom them to become Members of Parliament starting now. Let these leaders work in their constituencies and strengthen the party at the grassroots level.
  • It must continue to fight for policies that it initiated and make sure the progress made in the last six years is not rolled back. It is important that inefficient public sector companies are divested so they are not a burden on taxpayers. It is important that India continues to build its military might and increase its clout in the world community. It is important that India integrate its economy with the rest of the globalized world. And finally, it is important that Indian children be taught the correct history of India instead of the diluted, politically correct version.

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