A decade ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) assumed it would win the elections on the back of India Shining and called early elections. India Shining was the campaign executed brilliantly by Nirvik Singh of Grey Worldwide. It told Indians that they were a Great Power and a middle-income nation.
The problem, of course, was that we were neither. And the other thing was that the shining aspect was mainly in the BJP’s head. In the three years before the campaign, India’s GDP had grown 4.4 per cent (2000-01), six per cent (2001-02) and 3.8 per cent (2002-03). Hardly the sort of record that should have made voters ecstatic about the party.
India Shining was a hit advertising campaign that didn’t have a product to sell.
But Pramod Mahajan (the BJP’s smartest next generation leader before Narendra Modi) was convinced that the time had arrived for a positive, nationalist election campaign. He was wrong.
In 2009, the Congress could have campaigned on India Shining because they actually had the achievement. In the four years before the election, India grew 9.5 per cent (2005-06), 9.6 per cent (2006-07), 9.3 per cent (2007-08) and 6.7 per cent (2008-09).
But despite this, the Congress chose not to campaign on India Shining. It projected itself as the party of the poor and campaigned on the strength of legislation, such as the right to work scheme, which assured the poor 100 days of work, the Right to Information, which addressed ordinary corruption, and so on.
Some analysts, like Swaminathan Aiyar, believe that it wasn’t this campaign advertising itself as the party of the common man, but the economic growth that actually won the Congress the 2009 election.
It is so difficult to gather data on voting patterns in India that we cannot say if this is necessarily true. In my opinion, the Congress itself has two ways of looking at it. The Sonia Gandhi-led traditionalists believe that it was mainly the laws aimed at the poor that won the day. The Manmohan Singh-led modernists believe that it was mainly the economic growth with some elements of the laws for the poor.
The BJP now faces a Gujarat Shining moment. Should it run a positive campaign around Modi’s fine economic achievements? That becomes inevitable in the event of his becoming candidate for prime minister. I have written before in this space that I do not think he will become prime ministerial candidate, and I still believe this. But let us assume that with his recent elevation into the BJP’s central parliamentary board, he will, at least, become the focus of the party’s campaign.
Many in the BJP, like actress Smriti Irani, do not tire of telling us that Modi is the only man ever in Indian history to use development as the issue, as he did in Gujarat’s elections. Will his joining the party’s national team bring this positiveness to the 2014 campaign? It will be interesting to see because the experience of India Shining will be fresh for many others in the BJP.
The important fact here is that the key asset Modi brings to the party in New Delhi is the urban youth and the middle class voter. It cannot be denied that for large numbers of these, he is an attractive figure, whom they want to see leading India. For them, talk of high economic growth and efficient government is more important than the social sector schemes that the Congress focuses on, which concern the rural and semi-urban poor.
It seems quite certain that the Congress campaign will again focus on its delivery to this section of Indians. These include things like direct cash transfers for food and fertiliser instead of subsidies, and the Right to Education, under which private schools are being forced to reserve seats for the poor. Even if it had wanted to, the Congress cannot campaign on its economic performance because this time, it has not been great, for whatever reason.
This means the space is available for the BJP to project itself, under Modi, as the party of the middle class and also the party of economic development and growth.
Will they grasp it? Or will the ghost of India Shining spook the BJP’s headquarters?
Published in The Express Tribune, April 7th, 2013.