By Amulya Ganguli
Unlike 2014, the economy is no longer the focal point of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) campaign.
While five years ago, the party’s emphasis was on a market-driven pursuit of across-the-board economic growth ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’, the focus has now shifted to nationalism.
There was a slight detour as when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s mentor, wanted the emphasis to be on immediately starting the construction of the Ram temple, bypassing the fact that the Supreme Court was considering the issue.
The RSS even insisted on the government passing an ordinance to facilitate the construction work. The reason for turning the spotlight on the temple on the eve of the elections was apparently the need for boosting the BJP’s prospects via an emotive issue, which, the RSS believed, would galvanise the Hindus.
As BJP MP Subramanian Swamy says, the average Hindu is not interested in vikas so much as on a Hindu renaissance.
But when the BJP demurred, presumably because it felt that defiance of the judiciary might prove to be counter-productive in an electoral sense, the RSS let go of the issue as quickly as it had raised it.
However, its reactions suggested that the organisation was motivated less by religious fervour than by a desire to help the BJP in view of the belief at the time that the party was not as strongly placed as it was five years ago.
What may have persuaded the RSS to toe the temple line were the series of by-election defeats which the BJP had suffered in UP, Bihar and elsewhere, culminating in its defeats at the hands of the Congress and the Janata Dal-Secular in Karnataka, in the three heartland provinces and also in Telangana.
Along with the electoral successes of the national opposition parties, Rahul Gandhi’s shedding of the “Pappu” image, which had been assiduously propagated by his critics, was another matter of concern for the BJP.
It could no longer bank on the afterglow of the party’s 2014 victory, especially since the economy had not shown signs of revival.
Instead, the new phenomenon of jobless growth as a result of increasing automation in the industries, which had been noted earlier by Manmohan Singh, began to haunt those in the corridors of power.
Since the expectation of growing employment prospects as a result of rapid economic growth was the basis of Narendra Modi’s 2014 success, the belief that this promise was not being fulfilled aroused misgivings about the ruling party’s electoral chances.
The BJP’s response was to stop publishing employment data and also to disregard those like the report of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy which pointed to the bleakness of the employment situation.
The standard ministerial response has been to say that if the scene was really so dismal, then there would have been riots in the streets.
In any event, in the palpable absence of an economic revival, the BJP has had no option but to fall back on nationalism as a poll plank.
Hence, the projection of the surgical strike on the Jaish-e-Mohammed terror camp in Pakistan and the shooting down of a low-orbit satellite by a missile as the bold acts of a government which is very different from its supposedly wimpish predecessors.
For the average person, there is merit in the charge that the earlier governments had been squeamish about a military response to the 9/11 outrage or the attack on Parliament in 2001 and had also refrained from testing an anti-satellite missile for fear of being accused of militarising space.
The two events have further boosted Modi’s image as a “strong” leader who would not allow himself to be bogged down by the Hamletian dilemma of mulling for long over all the aspects of a situation and failing to act as a result.
If some of the recent opinion polls have given the National Democratic Alliance under the BJP the lead in the game of numbers, the reasons are undoubtedly the effect of the air strikes and the latest shooting down of a satellite.
The Congress has tried to counter this surge of nationalism by promising a windfall of Rs 6,000 per month for 20 per cent of the country’s poor.
It is now a race, therefore, between the two main protagonists for winning hearts and minds by playing the nationalistic or the economic card.
Will the victor be Modi’s macho image or Rahul Gandhi’s “mother of all sops”, as his profligate bonanza has been called?
Even as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has called the Congress’s offer a “bluff”, the BJP cannot be indifferent to the possibility of the largesse influencing a section of the voters.
In addition, a disadvantage of the BJP’s nationalistic plank is that it is intrinsically linked to Pakistan, a country to which the BJP wants to send all its critics.
Hence the suggestion by some of its leaders that the opposition’s success will be cheered in Pakistan. How many will endorse such a skewed concept is open to question.