Every election has its set of lessons. The Delhi assembly election results show that Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party is on course for a clear victory. For the losing Bharat Janatya Party (BJP) under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the problem was that its success mantra for elections became its biggest foe.
Here are the five things that the BJP did wrong in Delhi.
1. Curse of best practices model
In my organisational behaviour class, I was taught about the ‘curse of best practices model’.
Since 2014, the BJP under Modi and Shah has built a successful formula for winning elections – we will call it the party’s best practices model. But there are times when an organisation becomes too complacent because its best practices are working well and there isn’t an overwhelming need to tweak. The model gets etched in the template in such a way that it allows no room for deviation or plan B.
That is what happened to the BJP in Delhi. Its ‘best practices’ potion contains — last-stage amping up of Hindutva and anti-Pakistan rhetoric, rolling out of Modi’s oratory, boxing the opposition as anti-nationals, carpet-bombing constituencies with VIP leaders, and doing road-shows. All this fires up the party workers who will work to ‘get out the vote’.
This cocktail worked like a charm in many states since 2014. But it locked the BJP into a tight, unchanging template that faltered in the Delhi election.
Delhi had a strong chief minister in Arvind Kejriwal, who had built a public perception of service delivery. He was projecting nationalism-minus-Hindutva but was also embracing Hinduism. This was unfamiliar territory for the BJP’s success formula. And yet, it did not edit its template in the face of this changed context. After all, it had worked so well in so many elections for Amit Shah.
In software terminology, when a system is tightly coupled, it doesn’t respond to change in external context very well. When a system is loosely coupled, it is able to adapt and change quickly.
But the BJP’s success formula under Modi and Shah is a centralised, tightly coupled system today.
2. Gujarat model-style story
Remember the Gujarat model? The national election took place in 2014, but I began getting APCO emails containing data and endorsement about the investment climate in Gujarat way back in 2012. The narrative was being built that far back. By 2014, Modi was already a larger-than-life figure who had in public perception, turned around Gujarat and made it into a Shanghai-like success – with low crime, high investment, better roads, clean river, prosperous agriculture. He was the man India was waiting for. The beleaguered Congress, which began its campaign only in 2014, could do nothing to dislodge what was part mythology — the Gujarat model.
Similarly, the Aam Aadmi Party government also began its mohalla clinic and school reforms narrative way back in 2018. This went politically unchallenged for too long. The BJP did nothing to counter the AAP’s campaign of happy schools and neighbourhood healthcare early enough. Perhaps it was too complacent, relying too heavily on the Modi magic to yield results like always. Kejriwal was building his own version of vikas-purush (development man) model. The BJP’s sting operations around government schools came too late.
3. Propping the Congress
A sure-shot strategy for the BJP would have been to prop up voting for the Congress party in Delhi and make it somewhat of a triangular contest to chip away at the AAP’s vote bank. This isn’t unthinkable. The BJP had exported some of its votes in the 2017 Punjab election to the Congress to defeat the AAP in the final rounds of polling amid fears of Khalistani separatist revival.
But in Delhi, it failed to do this. The Congress did not put up a fight, its candidates had to fend for themselves financially, and got less-than-enthusiastic support from the party high command.
4. Manoj Tiwari was no match
The BJP got so bruised after the Kiran Bedi debacle in the 2015 Delhi election that it did not even attempt to announce a CM candidate to take on Arvind Kejriwal. It deployed Manoj Tiwari in pockets but not as its CM candidate. And Tiwari was just no match for the middle-class friendly Kejriwal. Instead, the BJP relied on Modi’s governance record and the demonisation of Shaheen Bagh protesters too heavily.
5. Imitating Modi’s playbook
Finally, the playbook. The BJP forgot that its playbook for success was canonised and has been in the public domain since 2014 and is now being emulated by other parties. The AAP knew all the tricks of the game. The party’s IT Cell and meme factory were as active as the BJP’s from the beginning. The way the BJP has diminished Rahul Gandhi’s persona through memes, jokes, and WhatsApp forwards, the AAP did the same with Manoj Tiwari. He never really took off.
The other is about embracing barbs as trophies. BJP’s Parvesh Verma called Arvind Kejriwal a “terrorist”. The latter latched on to it, saying let the people of Delhi decide if he was a bhai (brother), beta (son) or a terrorist. He reminded voters about how he had sacrificed his job as an IRS officer to do public sewa. This is a strategy very similar to how Modi treats the attacks that are mounted on him. In Bihar, when Modi questioned the DNA of Nitish Kumar, the latter began sending DNA samples to Modi’s home address.
Everybody is learning the game.
This article originally appeared in The Print and has been reproduced with permission.