Ruminations: A question of perception

Over analysis is a painful malady that often afflicts politicians and commentators. It usually accompanies some sort of crisis, like what the Bharatiya Janata Party was confronted with after the recent round of 14 Lok Sabha and state assembly by-elections out of which it lost 11.

In its editorial after the elections, called ‘Managing perception’, the RSS mouthpiece ‘Organiser’ suggested that the BJP lost the majority of those elections “on its own”. While it gave no quarter to the opposition, the post mortem said the party failed to measure up on the numbers and in the battle of perception. On the ground this meant the BJP perhaps suffered from over confidence, in terms of perception it was unable to show it was doing enough on Hindutva, and it appeared to have been unable to coax out its core voters in the elections – the middle class.

However, according to the ‘Organiser’, the key appears to be the perception war and on this it said about the Lok Sabha elections, because that is apparently what the by-elections in Kairana and elsewhere delivered a message on: “The NGOs, Naxal supporters, religious organisations like the Church and Ulemas would come out openly in support of this anti-BJP tirade. What would be the BJP’s answer to this perception war fought in the 543 constituencies with different combinations is the real point to ponder over.”


There is no novelty in suggesting that on present indications – caveats are a handy tool when commenting on politics – the Modi government will face a big test in the next Lok Sabha elections. The ‘Organiser’ is right in highlighting perception as a factor in this. UPA-II suffered from the perception of indulging in serial corruption with the trail leading to the Congress first family in some cases. That some of these cases are in danger of collapsing despite four years of NDA rule, like the 2G spectrum allocation case, indicates how perception has often a delicate connection with the truth but an excessive electoral impact nevertheless. The same applies to the Robert Vadra land deal case in Haryana. In a recent interview, Ashok Khemka, the Haryana cadre officer who had red flagged the matter, said that a case had yet to be filed. Meanwhile, Khemka, who had been handed punishment postings and was being transferred at will by the previous Congress government in Haryana, continues to be transferred by the current BJP government in the state – he is presently on his 51st posting. After the last transfer in November, he had tweeted: “Vested interests win”. These are just a snapshot of instances but the canvas is big. It would be interesting to see whether the BJP remains perception-neutral in this context.

For electoral purposes, perception gets a life of its own only when a matter is brought into the public space. Having raised the bar on Hindutva/majoritarian politics, the BJP will have some trouble doing inclusive politics. This can manifest itself in many ways, like the sullen reaction in some quarters to the Prime Minister’s Ramzan greetings. This is natural. The BJP resorted to majoritarianism even when it was not needed. The Uttar Pradesh assembly elections last year are a case in point. It eventually won a massive victory in the seven-stage election but en route the BJP employed the narrative of Hindu majoritarianism as the default option when facing what it thought was a challenge even though it could have easily stuck to its development agenda.

Clever strategy

The attempt at over analysis by the ‘Organiser’, representing the Sangh Parivar view that the BJP lost the recent by-elections ‘on its own’ does not acknowledge the fact that the party was pushed into a cul-de-sac and that this was the result of an opposition strategy that, after a long time, was clever.

In the fight for the Kairana Lok Sabha seat, a closely watched election, the opposition challenged the BJP at its very own game of communal politics by fielding a heavyweight Muslim candidate against the BJP's Hindu candidate. Kairana had a sizeable mix of local factors like non payment to sugarcane growers by the sugar mills and unemployment that were important election issues. But, the shadow of perception from this important western Uttar Pradesh election will run long and likely impact other elections because this was a test case for the BJP style of politics.

The election also reflected the opposition eagerness to change. Earlier, the Congress as the main opposition party in Gujarat and Karnataka had merely joined the BJP discourse with Rahul Gandhi’s temple visits. Now, in Uttar Pradesh, with other heads pooling in with ideas, like Rashtriya Lok Dal’s Ajit Singh, Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav and Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mayawati, it played differentiated politics while not forgetting to take advantage of local issues. This eventually got the government to announce a Rs 8,000 crore relief package for the sugar industry hit by the steep drop in sugar prices – it is doubtful whether this would have happened had the BJP won in Kairana and elsewhere.

Communal politics while being divisive also energises large sections of Indians and rides over development issues. Lord Ram is a unifying symbol but the Ram temple movement is not. The discourse surrounding economic liberalisation had once succeeded in eclipsing communal politics after the Babri Masjid was brought down nearly 16 years ago. The BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar knows that it is the very polarisation over the Ram temple movement that handed it massive political dividend. The temptation not to use it again in the face of a major electoral test will be difficult to resist. A counter narrative added to a perception of the NDA's performance on the ground over four years will set the base for differentiated discourse. The opposition forces need to rally to that purpose. In a roundabout way, Pranab Mukherjee’s speech at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh headquarters in Pune on Thursday may already have prepared the template for that.