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At BJP National Executive Meet, Line Between Government and Party Blurs

The ‘extended’ national executive meet showcased what will likely be the BJP’s strategy as the 2019 general poll nears.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and other senior leaders at the party’s national executive meeting in New Delhi on Monday. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and other senior leaders at the party’s national executive meeting in New Delhi on Monday. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: Meant to mark the end of the year-long celebrations of RSS ideologue and Bharatiya Jana Sangh founder Deendayal Upadhyaya’s 100th birth anniversary, the BJP national executive meet ended on Monday as yet another grand public relations exercise. The party’s top leadership, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, took turns to highlight what it thought were the Union government’s achievements and to flag future schemes, which curiously appeared to be a repackaged version of existing plans. Most BJP leaders also did not miss a chance to bring the Congress in their line of fire.

Conventionally, the national executive meet is attended by the top leadership of the party. But this year, nearly 2500 members of the saffron party, including 13 chief ministers and all BJP MLAs, MLCs and MPs, attended. The BJP called the event an “extended” national executive meet. The scale of the event had led many sections of the media to suggest that Modi may use the platform to address the criticisms his government has faced over economic slowdown and the rise in the unemployment rate.

However, as most BJP leaders hailed the prime minister’s role in governance and indulged in mutual back-patting, no leader even attempted to take on the opposition’s criticisms. Instead, the BJP relied on its PR-driven political pitch against the opposition to defend the Modi government.

In that way, the party’s focus on getting the optics right was foregrounded again as it chose to mostly ignore the opposition’s criticisms. In separate press conferences, organised even as the executive meet was underway, BJP president Amit Shah, and Union ministers Piyush Goyal, Arun Jaitley and Nitin Gadkari set the stage for Modi’s valedictory speech at the meet.

They made it a point to push ahead the impression that the Modi government’s primary focus is welfare. The party’s attack on the Congress and its proclamation that the BJP is the sole party to have started a full-scale war against corruption during the press conferences, made the party meet appear as a national event. The BJP machinery worked well in advance to blur the line between the government and the party.

BJP leaders dismissed the Congress as a party of dynasties and its scion Rahul Gandhi for undermining India’s development story in the West. While many BJP leaders have often criticised Gandhi as a political failure, their sustained attack on him indicates that the party is not taking his recent comments made at US universities lightly.

The saffron party’s opposition to the Congress also became the basis to project the BJP an as anti-corruption, pro-poor force . It is clear that the BJP, which has been on the defensive over economic slowdown, now intends to project its worth only in comparison to the previous Congress-led UPA governments and not solely in terms of the Modi government’s achievements.

The BJP also said it was planning to launch a large-scale campaign against two of the strongest opposition parties – the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala. Shah discussed the BJP’s tactics against the two parties while talking to the press.

While talking about Shah’s speech, Goyal said the BJP president had made it clear that the Congress has given the country nothing “apart from scams amounting to Rs 12000 crores and a politics of appeasement.”

It appears that the BJP’s tone and tenor, showcased at the national executive meet, with respect to the Congress and other opposition parties could continue until the 2019 general elections. This essentially means that the BJP, apart from factoring in corruption as a political issue, will single itself out as the only only party that is against “minority appeasement.” If the recent assembly elections are taken into account, this strategy may yet again lead to religious polarisation, which the saffron party has consistently banked upon.

Most BJP leaders have set 2022 as the deadline for the Modi government’s important projects. While the government has been doing so for the last year, it was optically significant that the assumption was re-asserted multiple times in the party meet, as if BJP’s victory in 2019 is predetermined.

Against this backdrop, Modi gave the valedictory speech at the meet. He chose to announce the ambitious ‘Saubhagya’ scheme to give free electricity connections to the poor. He also declared his plans to focus on the renewable energy sector. In his trademark style, Modi talked about “equity, sustainability and efficiency in New India.”

And as he discussed other ‘achievements’, like launching the war on black money and corruption, it was almost forgotten that Modi was announcing government programmes on a party platform.

While many would see this as improper and a breach of privilege, the BJP machinery left no room for a question and answer session with the press after Modi’s speech. This is also being seen as a continued attempted to undermine the National Democratic Alliance, a development political commentators have already discussed.

Although Modi has avoided questions by the press in his three years as the prime minister, his speech at the BJP meet drew skepticism on social media. Taking a dig at Modi’s claim that “25% people are without power, living in 18th century” while announcing the new ‘Shaubhagya’ scheme, political commentator Seshadri Kumar immediately compared it to the BJP’s previous position that 95% of the villages have been electrified when Goyal was the power minister.

The Congress, too, did not spare the BJP. “Tomorrow on 26 September, 2017, the NDA government would be completing 40 months in office…Every government can be bench marked on five standards, namely social cohesion, political stability, internal security, economic development and international relations. And on all these five benchmarks, this government has proven to be an utter failure,” senior Congress leader Manish Tiwari told the press.

“Social cohesion is in shreds. Federalism has been repeatedly assaulted by this government. Internal security is in shambles, be it Kashmir or the north east or the Naxalite affected areas. This government has the proud privilege of actually shrinking the Indian economy. No government in the past 70 years has actually shrunk the economic pie as this government has done. All the economic indicators are in a free fall. Demonetisation is the biggest scam which has been perpetrated on 124 crore people of this great land. It has completely wiped out the informal economy. The flawed implementation of GST has impacted job creation, small and medium sector in a very adverse manner. A government which had committed to create two crore jobs annually has not even created 2000 jobs. On foreign policy, every critical relationship that India had carefully nurtured over the 10 years of UPA rule has been absolutely subverted. Beyond rhetoric, this government has nothing to offer to the people of the country,” Tiwari said. He summed up Modi’s performance in one sentence – mera bhasan hi mera prashashan hai (my speech is my governance).

Notwithstanding the spat between the ruling party and the opposition, the biggest takeaway from the BJP national executive meet is that it provided a great platform to boost the energies of party workers ahead of the upcoming assembly polls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, but nothing more. BJP insiders told The Wire that one of the primary functions of the meet was to equip party workers to combat the growing criticisms against the government. As the two-day long meet ended, one got an inkling of the political tactics the party may adopt in the future.

Until now, a high-optics political strategy has served the BJP well. But with a seemingly-resurgent Congress and other opposition parties raising the pitch against the ruling party, it remains to be seen whether India’s biggest political party will successfully tide over these new challenges. Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh will be its first tests as 2019 nears.