THERE ARE SOME witticisms that always remain firmly etched in my mind. In late-1994, there was an Assembly election in Karnataka that Congress hoped to win, mainly because the opposition was divided. On counting day, the Janata Dal prevailed. The reporters—there were few TV cameras then—rushed to different politicians for their reaction. A group buttonholed Pranab Mukherjee, one of the most senior ministers in the PV Narasimha Rao Government. “Why did the Congress lose?” one of the media pack barked at Pranab Babu. Without batting an eyelid, the senior Congressman retorted: “Because they got more votes than us.”
Anodyne answers are perhaps the only real solace when the exhilaration that had been progressively built up over nearly two years ends up in intense disappointment, and in some cases, tears. Confronting defeat isn’t very easy, particularly if you genuinely believed that the outcome would be very different. I am not merely referring to a personal failure to convert what had always been a deficit seat into a gain for the party. The lack of success was more widespread.
BJP entered the election in West Bengal with a lofty target—to convert the three seats it won in 2016 into a majority in the 294-member Assembly. There was a passionate belief among the party’s supporters that this daunting challenge could be overcome and that, by the afternoon of May 2nd, Bengal would be swathed in saffron.
It didn’t happen. Just 77 seats and 38 per cent of the votes were bagged. The ruling party romped home comfortably, even more comfortably than it had ever anticipated. By the evening of May 2nd, our vocal supporters were on the run, targets of the vicious recriminations that seem to follow every bitterly contested election in the state. In the next fortnight, more than 20 BJP supporters and workers were killed, nearly 70,000 or more driven out of their homes and perhaps some 20,000 homes and business establishments destroyed. Preoccupied with the onrush of the Covid-19 pandemic and happy taunting Narendra Modi and Amit Shah for their failure in West Bengal, the media didn’t even bother to cover the scale of the post-poll violence. “These things happen in Bengal,” was the insouciant answer to cover the breakdown of norms governing competitive politics.
The preoccupation with the post-May 2nd violence didn’t leave many of us the luxury to reflect on two things.
First, there was the all-important question of why we couldn’t improve on BJP’s 2019 Lok Sabha performance in the state. In fact, in terms of votes, we were down by around 2 per cent—not a significant fall if you consider the record of other states, but very significant in the context of the collapse of Congress and the Left Front. This is a question that will need to be addressed honestly—even if not in public—in the coming days. The tendency to brush awkward issues under the carpet, as Congress has repeatedly done, will have to be resisted.
Second, there is a more fundamental question that must be addressed. Till the end of the campaign, or at least till the last three phases when the pandemic-related fall in turnout alerted everyone to a problem, every BJP functionary of consequence believed the party would cross the halfway mark. This impression was bolstered by reports from the administrative apparatus and the professional pollsters that are paid handsomely to monitor the public mood. Why did they get it so wrong? Was it a case of last-minute tactical voting against BJP? Or was the party proceeding on wrong assumptions and, consequently, adopting flawed strategies?
These are not insignificant questions. I recall the General Election of 2009 when I was assisting Arun Jaitley in the party’s campaign headquarters in Delhi. Throughout the campaign, we were fed flawed data by the pollsters and were horribly misled. I don’t claim that a more accurate feedback would have altered the outcome but there would have been greater fine-tuning of strategies and a greater measure of anticipation of the challenge from the other side.
These, however, are occupational hazards. Many mistakes are corrected for the future while others persist and become permanent hallmarks of the party. That’s life. What is also a part of life is that no one gives up the ghost in politics. People go into enforced hibernation for two to three months—the lockdowns will aid that process—and then get back to what they love doing. The next time, BJP in the state will have an army of activists who imbibed the lessons of failure.