Is Amit Shah a better challenger than defender?
A defining feature of the elections in the past four years has been the way Amit Shah has redefined the way they are fought. This, complemented by Narendra Modi’s popularity, has arguably been a central factor in the BJP’s dream run.
Tuesday’s outcome has raised questions about the limits of his method of election management. Does it work in all settings? Can organisation be a substitute for governance? And most importantly, is Shah a better challenger than defender?
Shah has focused on expanding the party’s base; selection of candidates after multiple feedback mechanisms; beginning campaigns early; strengthening booth committees and even appointing panna pramukhs in charge of each voter roll; and voter mobilisation on polling day. Make no mistake. This has made BJP formidable -- and the fact that it could convert what was supposed to be an easy win for Congress in Rajasthan into a battle, and almost defend Madhya Pradesh owes something to this ability of the machine.But a few issues have emerged.
Is the excessive focus on internal organisational work actually distracting workers on the ground from listening to the people and reaching out to voters. Ticket distribution is a dilemma for any party. But it is particularly true for an incumbent. If you repeat MLAs, you risk confronting local resentment. If you don’t repeat MLAs, you risk them rebelling and standing against the official candidates. This time around, an analysis by How India Lives for HT showed that the share of candidates repeated by BJP in MP and Chhattisgarh was higher than in the 2008 and 2013 polls. It was lower in Rajasthan by three percentage points. While a detailed analysis of whether those who got repeated have won or lost will take time, it is clear that both strategies have risks. And Shah’s model does not have a clear cut answer for it.
Shah also believes in deeply aggressive campaigning, which primarily attacks the rival. In 19 of the 22 elections post 2014, BJP was the challenger. This worked. But as it defends its record, the focus has to shift on governance achievements. Voters perhaps are jaded by just sheer attacks, which they have heard in the past already. The party’s strategy to defend its record relies on direct outreach to beneficiaries of governance welfare schemes.
That is good, but that is clearly not good enough, for people’s aspirations have moved beyond just welfare to other economic concerns. A formidable organisation cannot neutralise governance failures.
Political scientist Manisha Priyam said, “The narrative was important in these elections- of distress amongst farmers, conjoined with dwindling cash amongst landless labourers. Amit Shah’s machinery could not overwhelm the narrative.”
The machine is formidable. But it is faltering and it needs more than a fresh coat of paint. It needs re-engineering.