Why simple election narratives fail

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One challenge for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during the 2024 election campaign has been the inability to find an Opposition front-runner for Prime Minister. Paradoxical as it may seem, the BJP would find it much easier to campaign against a “Shadow PM”.

Since 2014, the BJP has centred its Lok Sabha strategy on showcasing one man in a presidential-style campaign. This is a simple narrative and it leverages the existence of a star campaigner. But it requires a target — an Opposition “shadow PM” who can be denigrated and ridiculed in comparison. In this election, there isn’t one such strawman.

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In the absence of a “shadow PM”, the aforementioned star campaigner has been forced to engage with voters on local issues, where regional parties are capable of making more coherent and emotive arguments. The Opposition is also better organised in that there are a bunch of regional parties fighting on their own turf, with the Congress prepared to be the junior partner in a series of bilateral alliances.

Hence, the BJP’s star campaigner has often resorted to personal attacks rather than engaging with substantive stuff. For example, he’s criticised the chief minister of one state by claiming the CM doesn’t know the names of district headquarters. He’s also reportedly called the chief of another regional party a “fake child”.

The last two general elections had clear, simple narratives, which were well-crafted and well-presented by the BJP. In 2014, the narrative was “dynamic reformer who will cleanse corruption and drive growth”. Never mind the reality, the narrative resonated. In 2019, it was “defender of national security”.  Again, a resonant narrative.

That is why the BJP was able to win twice in “waves”. It increased its vote share by 15 per cent between 2009 (22 per cent) and 2019 (37 per cent), and the seats it held from 116 (2009) to 303 (2019). 

In 2024, the only simple narratives are centred on unemployment and economic distress, and the BJP isn’t in a good position to claim that it has the solutions, having been in power for 10 years without being able to tackle these. 

India doesn’t lend itself easily to simple narratives due to its diversity and wild disparities. It has more recognised languages than any other nation and a massive range of climatic and geographical variations. The economic and Human Development Index (HDI) differentials are also stark.

The only near-comparison in terms of diversity is the European Union (EU), which consists of 27 separate sovereign nations spread across a continent. Even the EU is arguably less diverse than India, and it certainly has less economic disparity and fewer HDI ranges. Just take the two criteria of per capita and literacy as proxy for disparities.

In FY23, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) estimated Bihar (the poorest state) had a per capita of around Rs 48,000 per annum, while Goa had a per capita of Rs 4.7 lakh — roughly a differential of 10:1 between the top and bottom states. The national per capita was at around Rs 1.48 lakh.

Among EU nations, Bulgaria is the poorest, with a per capita of $16,900 and Luxembourg is the richest with a per capita of $131,380. The average per capita is $36,000 for the EU. The literacy rate across the EU is close to 100 per cent. The highest literacy rate in India was claimed by Kerala in the 2017 National Statistical Office  Survey at 96 per cent, and the lowest, Bihar, was at 71 per cent.

There are similar large variations in life expectancy, infant mortality, total fertility rate, and so on. The infant mortality rates in Sikkim, Nagaland, Mizoram and Kerala (all below 5/ thousand) are comparable to Germany, whereas infant mortality is above 40 in Assam, UP, and MP, around the same levels as Sudan.

The implication is that policy initiatives crafted to suit a simple national narrative are not very useful. An initiative that targets infant mortality the same way across India would be absurd, for example. Many extant welfare schemes carry similar elements of absurdity.

Electoral waves can be created by simple narratives. But India doesn’t need a strong centralised government working with simple narratives. It needs coalitions with representation from regional parties across states and regions to effectively handle the inherent disparities. 

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