Just before 2004 general elections, the ruling NDA led by the BJP was on high. It had romped home in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Spearheaded by Pramod Mahajan, the BJP was riding high on India Shining drive. The Congress, in disarray with many leaders deserting the party, seemed no match for the BJP which had superior cadre base and election machinery. Opinion polls and commentators were predicting a comprehensive victory for the NDA. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the most popular leader, even among Muslims. There was euphoria in the party echelons, though it did not percolate to the level of ordinary workers. Some ministers even postponed certain decisions hoping that they would certainly come back to power.
In this context, I asked a BJP leader about the party’s prospects to which he retorted, “The party is very confident but I am not very sure. ‘You (the government) have built roads, flyovers. Fine! But what have you given me?’ This is the common refrain. The BJP leaders tell me that they will get full majority – but from where?” I took it as an insignificant observation by a cynic because I too was also carried away by the opinion polls and media reports. But this turned out to be prophetic. The BJP hoped that the people will come and vote on Vajpayee’s charisma— but that did not happen. In UP alone, there were more than 100 booths where there were no BJP worker to manage the booth. Vajpayee’s advisors like Sudheendra Kulkarni drove home the message that there was no ‘Hindutva’ vote bank and only way to win was to appease the Muslims. The upper castes who used to be strong supporters of the BJP deserted the party and voted en bloc to BSP and other parties. Sections of Muslims who organised rallies for Atalji did not vote for the party.
The party’s fortunes changed when Narendra Modi who emerged as the ‘Hindutva Icon’ was made the leader. With sound strategy, different sections of the Hindu community coalesced into the party making it a formidable election machine in the Hindi heartland.
There can be no dispute over the development credentials of the three former BJP chief ministers — Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Raman Singh and Vasundhara Raje. Chouhan’s welfare schemes were praised for their effective implementation, which helped him stop the Congress in its march to majority. It is a fact that a section of the workers were not very happy with him. Within the Sangh Parivar, there was a feeling that he was trying to become ‘secular’.
Raman Singh’s schemes helped him remain in chief minister’s chair for 15 years. Raje’s style of functioning alienated a section of the workers who found her inaccessible. She undertook controversial road widening project which annoyed the Hindutva followers who are the core voters of the party.
Although the BJP tried to bring in the ‘Hindutva’ element by Para dropping UP chief minister Yogi Aditya Nath, it did not payoff. Even workers were not impressed by such moves sans sincerity. Even the RSS has hit the streets with the demand for Ram Temple at Ayodhya. So far, there is no word forthcoming on it. There was no enthusiasm among the BJP workers to undertake the campaign.
While the BJP was not very emphatic on Hindutva, the Congress through Rahul Gandhi’s temple visits and ‘Gau Raksha’ schemes in manifesto tried to shed the party’s ‘anti-Hindu’ image to a great extent. By emphasizing that he was janeu dhari Brahmin, he tried to reach out to an influential section in Rajasthan and elsewhere.
However, all is not lost for the party. I still remember a Delhi government employee, a BJP supporter, who after his office hours, used to religiously deliver BJP pamphlets daily to his neighbourhood in the run up 2014 elections. He had taken upon himself the task of bringing 350 voters to the booth to vote for Modi. But this time he is not very keen to undertake the campaign. There are thousands of workers like that who expecting nothing worked tirelessly. For such people, the Ram temple or Hindutva for that matter could be an incentive.