The AAP has swept Delhi once again. The din has settled down. Most political analysts are of the view that it is the good work done by the AAP government and the ‘freebies‘ it has distributed among people that have made Kejriwal the preferred choice of Delhi electorate for the post of Chief Minister of Delhi, though Modi remains their first choice even today for the post of the Prime Minister of India. But I disagree.
If indeed, that was the case, the AAP would not have come a miserable third in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Delhi. It should have come at least a respectable second, behind the BJP. Even a discredited Congress got more votes than the AAP in that election that was held barely nine months ago. More importantly, the AAP won by a landslide even in February 2015, when good work or freebies were nowhere in picture, and Modi Magic was at its peak.
Clearly, there is something else that has helped the AAP win two consecutive landslide victories. It is the same ‘something’ that helped the BJP win two landslide victories in the Lok Sabha elections, not the otherwise undeniable popularity of Modi.
In my view, at the best as well as at the worst of times, the BJP has about 35% of the total voters in the Hindi-speaking states plus Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka as its committed voters. They will always vote for the BJP, come what may. At the same time, there is another group of about 35% voters in the very same states who are committed anti-BJP voters who will vote against the BJP, come what may, and these voters nowadays tend to consolidate their votes in favour of that opposition party which is in stronger position than others to defeat BJP. The two groups end up neutralizing each other.
The fate of a political party in each election in India these days is determined not by committed voters, but by the remaining 30% voters who may be described as swing voters. These voters do not carry any ideological baggage and make up their minds about whom to vote for only during the two weeks or so of active electioneering, just before the election day. Competing election campaigns of rival political parties generate an election theme and depending on the campaign of each party around the election theme the swing voters make their voting choice.
The stronger the election theme, the stronger is the swing in favour of or against the rival parties. Emotion plays as big a role in their decision making as logic. Any political leader or party that can exploit that emotion and satisfy that logic during the election campaign tends to win over the swing voters. This can be illustrated with examples from some of the prominent elections held in India over the last six years.
The 2014 national election was held under the shadow of perceived policy paralysis and numerous corruption scandals that emerged under UPA-II. Inevitably good and clean governance emerged as the election theme of that election. Modi had perfect credentials to align his campaign of Achhe Din with that theme. He was greatly helped by his excellent oratorial skills in Hindi. The group of 30% swing voters voted en mass for him and he won a grand victory. Few months later, state elections took place in Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand. The BJP sought votes in the name of Modi and endorsement of Modi model of governance became the theme of those elections. The swing voters once again voted en mass endorsing the election theme.
Barely three months thereafter, state elections were held in Delhi and once again, endorsement of Modi’s model of governance became the theme of that election. The Modi magic was at its peak and initially nobody had given a ghost of a chance to Kejriwal-led AAP. But the AAP trounced the BJP. This time, the BJP got votes only from its 35% committed voters and an equal number of anti-BJP committed voters voted against it.
But 30% swing voters had suddenly decided to desert the BJP en mass and switched to the AAP, not because of its track record of 49 days governance in 2013, but in spite of it. This happened as a result of a silent campaign during the two weeks of electioneering that projected Modi as an arrogant narcissist. His perceived arrogance versus perceived humility of Kejriwal became the theme of the 2015 Delhi state election almost overnight.
Modi had committed two blunders during the Republic Day visit of US President Barack Obama to India, which took place at the beginning of electioneering of Delhi elections of February 2014. Firstly, he wore an expensive suit with his name woven into its fabric. Secondly, he continued to address US President by his first name in various public functions while Obama continued to address him simply as Prime Minister Modi.
Since Delhi elections too was being fought by the BJP in the name of Modi, his perceived arrogance began to be evaluated by the swing voters in comparison to the personality of the rival candidate Kejriwal. Before electioneering had started, based on experience of his 49-day government in 2013 and his confrontational attitude, the swing voters had looked at Kejriwal as immature, inexperienced, impatient and non-serious politician. But after Obama’s visit, the humility of Kejriwal, with his IIT and IRS background and his boy next door image, looked to be a great virtue as compared to Modi’s newly discovered arrogance. No wonder, David beat Goliath hands down, courtesy the choice made by the swing voters at the end of the two weeks of election campaign.
Modi, the sharp politician that he is, was soon able to identify the reason for the shock defeat of the BJP in Delhi. He immediately auctioned the suit for over Rs 5 crore and credited the money to Prime Mister’s Relief Fund. At the same time, he doubled his efforts to implement many welfare schemes. Demonetisation demonstrated to the swing voters that Modi was determined to attack the rich and the corrupt. Modi was able to re-establish his earlier image of a go-getter and pro-poor leader. Soon thereafter, the state election for UP was held in 2017. The swing voters returned to the BJP en mass and endorsed the Modi model of governance once again.
But then two things happened. Modi foisted Yogi Adityanath as the CM in UP. The swing voters had voted for economic measures undertaken by Modi, but his choice of Yogi sent out a message that Hindutva mattered more to Modi than good governance. The swing voters got disappointed and this disappointment got further aggravated when the reality of the disastrous consequences of demonetisation began to hit and hurt the country’s economy.
As all state elections were being fought by the BJP solely in the name of Modi, and the endorsement of his Hindutva brand of politics, and disastrous economic policies as the election theme was rejected by swing voters in state elections in Punjab, MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in subsequent elections. The BJP barely managed to scrape through in Gujarat.
Then came the Lok Sabha election of May 2019. It is my belief that the BJP would not have crossed 200 seats in that election if the election theme had remained endorsement of Modi’s socio-political and economic policies during the period of active electioneering. But then Pulwama happened. Modi’s bold response changed the election theme dramatically from the endorsement of his socio-political and economic policies to the endorsement of his muscular leadership.
The Opposition did its own cause great harm when it started asking for evidence of Balakot strikes. The anger at the massacre of our jawans at Pulwama was so huge that every Indian, including the swing voter, was keen to believe that Balakot had happened, Pakistan had been taught a lesson and the massacre of our jawans had been avenged. The news acted as a collective catharsis of sorts for the people of India.
Modi ran his campaign aggressively projecting himself as a strong leader. The Opposition leaders fell into his trap. Many of them, including Kejriwal who questioned Balakot, began to be looked as obstacles in the process of the collective catharsis during active electioneering. The swing voters decided to endorse the muscular leadership of Modi and Kejriwal-led AAP was pushed to the third spot in Delhi in the Lok Sabha election and he himself reached the nadir of his popularity.
However, the euphoria of Balakot did not last long. Within six months of the Lok Sabha elections, state elections took place in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand. Brand Modi suffered reverses as swing voters began to reject Modi brand of governance once again. Then came the recently held Delhi election. Kejriwal was completely out of favour with swing voters till December 2019 and if Delhi elections had been held before December 2019, the BJP was all set to buck the trend of reverses of state elections and emerge victorious in Delhi, as the election theme was most likely going to be endorsement of Kejriwal brand of politics.
By his various acts of omission and commission, Kejriwal had begun to be seen as negativity personified by the swing voters. But in December 2019, the CAA-NRC issue erupted like a volcano. Kejriwal’s brilliant political strategy of not getting into direct confrontation with the BJP on this issue and talking only about his work helped him immensely in shedding the image of negativity. This time, it was the turn of the BJP to fall into Kejriwal trap. By adding toxicity to their election campaign, BJP leaders only helped Kejriwal emerge as a leader who had learnt his lessons and re-emerged as a popular leader who exuded positivity.
The BJP’s perceived rabidly communal politics versus Kejriwal’s newly found positivity became the election theme. The swing voters decided to vote for Kejriwal en mass. A landslide win for him was assured in a matter of weeks. What Pulwama-Balakot did for Modi, CAA-NRC issue has done for Kejriwal.
It may be noted that though good work done by Kejriwal did help him in projecting a positive image, yet what helped him more was his carefully-crafted election campaign that helped him shed his negative image splendidly. Political parties need to realise that in present times, the two weeks of election campaigns are crucial to winning an election. Good work alone is no guarantee to win an election. It helps in generating an election theme that is favourable to a political party, but a campaign without a winning strategy will most likely result in dismal performance.
As for the freebies, these are a double-edged weapon. States should deploy it with utmost care. A rich city-state like Delhi can afford to dish out many freebies, but in poorer states, freebies can lead to an economic ruin of the state and political suicide of the ruling party. No political campaign can help a party win an election in such a situation. After all, sudden developments like Pulwama-Balakot and CAA-NRC do not take place naturally before each election. Continued good governance by the ruling party is always a safe bet to generate a favourable election theme to attract the swing voters during the active election campaign.
That brings us to the extremely important role played by a professional political campaign manager. But there is only one Prashant Kishor in the country, and he will help only one party in each election. Rival political parties will have to look for someone else. But they should be careful while choosing their campaign managers. Wrong election campaigns can do more harm to a party than good. In 2004, the BJP projected India Shining as the election theme and built its campaign around it. Vajpayee had most certainly put India on a road to Shining India destination during his tenure, but the country had not yet reached there. The theme was premature. The swing voters rejected it.