BJP’s campaign has to be about jobs vs UPA’s dole
Since conventional wisdom has it that Indians don’t cast their vote but vote their caste, if Narendra Modi has to get the popular vote, he needs to unite India under a grand idea. While positioning the NDA-UPA contest as a growth-versus-dole one is probably over-simplifying the message, Modi needs to steer the BJP’s ship in a manner quite different from the way it has been over the past few years. In the last few years, when the BJP hasn’t been obstructing Parliament, it has been Sonia Gandhi’s B-team, going along with her supposed pro-poor schemes like the Food Bill and the Land Bill. In a country that is as poor as India is, it cannot be a great idea to ridicule populist schemes, just as it is political suicide to come out openly against caste-based reservation. But if Modi has to wrest power, given his political acceptability is under question, forget about being Sonia Gandhi’s B-team, even being Sonia+ cannot be good enough.
He has to change his party’s narrative to match that of the electorate’s ambitions, to convince them that the NDA has delivered before and that, under him, it can deliver again. The narrative has to be about the NDA’s creation of 12 million new jobs every year it was in power versus the UPA’s 2.5 million in the time it has been in power. While not opposing the Food Bill, it has to be pointed out that the benefit the poor will get out of this per month is probably equal to 2-3 days’ wages were people to vote a government that can deliver them jobs. Even taking today’s employment elasticity—the growth in employment per unit growth in GDP—that is significantly lower than it was during the NDA years, a slip in GDP growth from 9% a few years ago to 5% today means 3.5 million less jobs are being created each year.
In a country where 30% households earn between R1.5 lakh and R3 lakh a year, and 15% earn between R3 lakh to R20 lakh, there is a big enough class of people who would want more jobs in preference to dole —since positioning the debate purely as a jobs-versus-dole one may backfire, the messaging has to be more subtle. Similarly, in the case of caste, rejecting caste reservations is suicidal; reminding people that SC/STs in Modi’s Gujarat earn more than even Brahmins in various parts of the country is a better idea. Modi’s speeches, so far, have in fact positioned him in this fashion—at Delhi’s Shri Ram College, he spoke of the aspirations of the youth; in Goa, he spoke of the lakhs who had lost their jobs as factories remained shut due to lack of gas and coal to run power plants, the result of a government that simply couldn’t get its act together. Modi’s track record in agriculture growth—10% growth per year for 10 years—gives him an advantage while canvassing rural votes. But even in rural areas, it is important to keep in mind, the sharp fall in poverty has been due to people leaving agriculture and moving to industry and modern services. The BJP’s narrative has been ultra-defensive about the growth agenda, Modi needs to change that.