India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing a public meeting in Telangana a few months ago. Much of Modi’s speech emphasised BJP’s plans and promises for the state Image Credit: AFP

Many wonder these days — why don’t inflation and unemployment affect the BJP?

No central government has survived high inflation till date. The Manmohan Singh-led UPA-2 coalition was targeted for corruption but surveys showed corruption was only the second biggest concern for the public. Number one was inflation.

Sure enough, across India you can hear people complain about inflation and unemployment these days. But this does not seem to be resulting in a sentiment to vote out the BJP, at the central or even the states where the BJP is ruling.

When Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency between 1975-77, there was high inflation. Yet, all accounts of the Emergency say she lost the 1977 election mainly because of the forced sterilisation programme. Her poor management of the economy — leading to high inflation, unemployment, and lacklustre economic growth — did not prevent her from even returning to power in 1980.

Surveys show that around 25% voters in India make their voting decision in the last 48 hours

Similarly, Communist leader Jyoti Basu’s chief ministership of West Bengal dampened industrial activity in the state, leading to high unemployment and migration. Limited land reforms helped the poor, but there was no growth.

What is common about these examples is that they were all led by personality cult leaders with a weak opposition.

When voters today complain of unemployment and inflation, BJP workers answer the question with rhetorical counter-questions: Can Rahul Gandhi create jobs? Can Congress reduce inflation? Do you really think so?

The voter then shuts up. Ideally, the Congress (or a regional party, as the case may be) should have a worker to answer that question boldly and say ‘Yes, we can. Here’s how.’

But that opposition party worker does not exist. Where he does, like with the Trinamool in West Bengal, the BJP has been pushed back.

Union Ministers of State Dr Jitendra Singh, Kailash Choudhary and other dignitaries listen to the virtual address of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the occasion of the BJP's 42nd foundation day, in New Delhi on Wednesday, April 6, 2022. Image Credit: ANI

In most of India today, you’ll find 10-20 BJP workers in every polling booth of 1,000-1,400 voters. You might find one tired, old, dispirited, co-opted opposition party worker.

Most opposition parties don’t seem to be interested in thinking about strengthening the party organisation. Rahul Gandhi-led Bharat Jodo Yatra for example, could have had an element of making new workers join the party.

The problem is not just at the level of party workers. Even the top leadership does not seem to think they need to persuade voters that they can do a better job of running the economy.

What Narendra Modi always gives voters is a vision for the imminent future: from “Acche Din” (good days) to “Amrit Kaal" (perfect time).

This vision is sold to the public as a process. The public is requested to support Modi in this process of economic transformation, which may have some pain to bear along the way. The opposition has no vision to offer whatsoever.

Speaking to unemployed youth in Karnataka recently, Rahul Gandhi said job creation will need a strategy. But what is the strategy? He said he is not in favour of privatisation of public sector companies. How many jobs did public sector companies create in 10 years of UPA?

If you see what the Congress party has to say — on its Twitter handle or through Rahul Gandhi’s public interactions — it is mostly an attack on the BJP. It is like Samsung saying Apple is bad, without telling us why Samsung is better.

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BJP supporters dance during Narendra Modi's visit to Assam Image Credit: PTI

Power as an end in itself

The lack of faith in positive campaigning is one part of the problem. The other is the BJP’s dominance in the structures of power, from Raisina Hill to the last village. This dominance has resulted in a sense of inevitability about the BJP winning. Capturing this sentiment was the statement spread by BJP workers in 2019: “Aaye ga to Modi hi” (Modi will return to power any which way.)

Indian voters have been conditioned to vote for the winner. Surveys show that around 25% voters make their voting decision in the last 48 hours. They wait to see who the “hawa” is favouring, which way the wind is blowing. Everybody wants to be on the winning side. After all, they’ll need that access to power to get small things done, and make sure they are not excluded from welfare benefits.

With its dominance of power structures, financial superiority and the popular face of Modi on the posters, the BJP has the “hawa” on its side without much effort.

This makes many voters vote BJP despite unemployment, inflation and any other grievances they have with the BJP. At the state level, we have seen many elections where the BJP’s dominance has been challenged successfully. It can be done at the national level too, but only if the opposition has a credible PM face.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi interacts with the Kerala Kasavu Silk weavers during the party's Bharat Jodo Yatra, at Balaramapuram, in Thiruvananthapuram. Image Credit: ANI

A matter of credibility

There is also the issue of credibility. Narendra Modi enjoys credibility with voters. At least his intentions are clear, even if he does not always succeed, is how many voters feel. Opposition parties come across as only chasing power, and their past record does not give many of them the credibility to say ‘I can fix this’.

We see parties like the Aam Aadmi Party waging positive campaigns (‘Delhi model’, free electricity, education and health).

In the Congress party, Rahul Gandhi could have sold himself as the fresh new credible face, but he has failed to do so. In Bihar, young Tejaswi Yadav has seen some success with this strategy, and his pitch for ’10 lakh jobs’ has won him trust — for now.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the twin evils of inflation and unemployment are hurting the BJP today, and it will have to address these concerns before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.