BJP’s Election Strategy: Data is the New Opium

Subodh Verma

IN Homer’s epic Odyssey, the Greek hero Odysseus comes across a tribe of ‘lotus eaters’ who remain in a state of blissful forgetfulness after eating psychotropic plants, probably poppy pods or blue water lily. In the 19th century, Lord Tennyson revived this charming vision in his poem ‘The Lotos-Eaters’. Such was the popularity of this idea that essayist Thomas de Quincey even wrote a book called Confessions of an English Lotus Eater, describing his own experiences when high on laudanum.

Why this foray into obscure literary history? Because recent political events have resurrected the vision of the mythical lotus eaters of yore.

The BJP has claimed that its schemes have benefitted 22 crore (220 million) people and, along with its 11 crore (110 million) members, this should put them within striking distance of another spectacular win in next year’s general elections.

Party President Amit Shah has been drumming this into the heads of BJP workers across the country, charging them with meeting all these ‘beneficiaries’, having tea with at least 20 of them and generally consolidating their support. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has interacted with such ‘beneficiaries’ through his NaMo app. He even addressed rallies in which such people were specially invited.

In sum, this 22+11 crore base is now the cornerstone of BJP’s strategy for the coming general elections. Of course, there is the possibility that Shah is simply hyping up the 22 crore number without seriously thinking that they will vote for BJP. In fact, in a recent interview, he seems to have said that “even if half of their family members vote for us….”. So, there is some self-correction going on.

But the lotus-eating category in which all this falls is surely unmistakeable, even for a common not-too-educated Indian. Who has ever heard of all those people who are part of the gigantic government programmes voting for the government? If that was the case, Congress would be still ruling India!

The numbers themselves are questionable, something that mainstream media has been reluctant to dissect. Shah or his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has not given any break-up, as is their wont. They just pull out these numbers, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

If you check out a section of the Narendra Modi website called Infographics, you will find a mind-bending array of numbers ranging from how many LED bulbs distributed (29.83 crore), how many direct benefit transfers taking place (20.14 crore), toilets constructed (7.25 crore), Mudra loans given (12 crore), ante-natal check-ups done (one crore) and so on, endlessly.

Surely, these can’t be added up! There must be an overlap – a family that got a toilet could also have taken an LPG gas cylinder under the Ujwala scheme. Adding up will mean duplication or even triplication.

Then there is the question of whether you are going to count the family members as beneficiaries or not. Technically speaking, family members will also be benefitting. So, are they included in this 22 crore or not?

Strangely, there is even a dispute about the 11 crore membership figure. According to various news reports, Shah and various BJP leaders have been claiming BJP membership from nine to 14 crore at different places and times. On September 8, Shah reportedly said that in his tenure, BJP membership increased from eight crore to nine crore. But earlier, in July, he had said it was 11 crore. Meanwhile, Kashmir BJP leader Ali Mohammed Mir had claimed 14 crore in April while BJP Mahila Morcha leader Vijaya Rahatkar had gone with 12 crore with three crore women members.

This confusion apart, even this so-called membership is suspect. In November 2014, BJP had launched a membership enrolment drive that included a mechanism by which you can become a BJP member by just giving a missed call to the given member. Later reports indicate massive confusion as – in one case – a resident of West Bengal called an online retailer’s number to register a complaint and found himself enrolled as a BJP member!

With this kind of membership, can it be assumed that these ‘members’ will all vote for BJP, leave aside their family members? And, will these members even campaign for the party? If not, then the house of cards will collapse. Or, you are a lotus eater.

Setting aside the condescending way in which the suffering people – who are being given what they are entitled to – are referred to as ‘beneficiaries’, the experience of all these schemes and programmes shows that they are not as successful as Shah et al are scoping them out to be. Whether it is the high cost of LPG refills or non-functional toilets (due to lack of water connection), or bribery in housing schemes, or alleged distribution of Mudra loans to cronies, or bank accounts lying empty, or people working in the rural jobs guarantee scheme not getting wages for months – the list of faults and lacunae is as endless as the numbers BJP is high on. So, it is very doubtful that all the ‘beneficiaries’ of schemes will be overjoyed and rush to press the lotus button on EVMs.

Then there are those who have been either left out or failed to get benefits despite enrolment. This would include families of at least 14 people who died of starvation in Jharkhand, half of them because they were refused rations. There are millions more who struggle to get food even today due to non-coverage or irregular supplies through ration shops. Similar is the case of those who are turned back by the MGNREGS officials – about 1.3 crore in 2017-18.

And lastly, the biggest question: there are no jobs, farmers’ incomes are dwindling, workers and employees are on the streets demanding minimum wages, there is deep and endemic economic distress in the country, so are all the schemes and programmes sufficient to ameliorate this crisis? The answer is obviously that they are not. Otherwise, why should everybody be up in arms?

Like the lotus eaters, the BJP is living in a fool’s paradise, a state of altered consciousness having lost touch with reality. And, if this is their election strategy, then they have a shock awaiting them next year.

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