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For a brief period in April and May, many in the Hindu middle class spoke of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as though it was the Congress party. As in, they used language they usually employ in road rage. They were not only Hindus, but Hindus who were economically ascendant, optimistic and culturally secure in their environment—the core base of the BJP. In homes and on the streets, people blamed the ruling party and its leadership for thousands of deaths in the second wave of the pandemic. Rough words were used, some on camera.

All this was unprecedented, and it made the BJP’s rivals hope that the pandemic may ruin it, just like the anti-corruption movement created conditions for the destruction of the Congress. But will it, really? If not this, what exactly can defeat the ruling party in the near future?

The BJP has stirred unflattering emotions in Indians before, and the party has not only survived them, but even thrived on them. Now, in the middle-class reaction to the BJP government’s handling of the pandemic, there is one quality that should worry the party—brand stickiness.

When Indians say, “All politicians are all the same," it is not only a resigned rebuke, but often good political analysis. There are no true differentiators between political parties, especially when they are seen as groups of people and not as organizations claiming esoteric things.

Almost all parties can be accused of corruption, communalism, violence and harbouring criminals. Yet, they are separated by what accusations stick on and damage them, and what never do. Charges of corruption and inefficiency tend to stick to the Congress, even though all parties can be accused of those. Charges of “communalism" and authoritarian disrespect for freedom of expression tend to stick to the BJP, even though it is laughable to assume other Indian parties are not guilty of those. Charges of anti-business practices and pandering to the poor stick to communist parties, even though there is no single region in India where a small entrepreneur or major corporation would claim things are easy for them or efficient. And, of course, the charge of “anarchy" sticks to the Aam Aadmi Party, and the way some of the business elite make this accusation, you would think they are used to Scandinavian standards of governance.

Political parties are also differentiated by what never sticks to them, what causes no electoral damage regardless of the validity of the charges. Broadly, communalism does not stick to the Congress, even though its individuals have faced serious charges of violent communal politics. Corruption does not stick to the BJP or AAP. Also, accusations of impeding economic growth rarely seem to affect any party in Tamil Nadu or Kerala.

The success of the BJP, so far, is a consequence of the fact its poor reputation in some aspects of human virtues has only helped it politically, while the poor reputations of other political parties and the brand stickiness of those reputations have dragged them to electoral defeats. India might be a corrupt nation, in many ways, but no political party has ever won because it is corrupt. The BJP, however, can win an election on its reputation of favouring Hindus.

Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, even when the BJP government had clearly erred, or its policies backfired on account of poor execution, it emerged mostly unscathed. It cancelled large-denomination currency notes overnight and ended up denying millions of Indians access to their own cash for many days. Yet, its popularity was high enough to survive that.

So, what has the pandemic changed?

The BJP’s handling of the crisis seems to have created a new category of negative branding, and today this branding is entirely associated with the ruling party. The branding is of a specific form of incompetence in dealing with a calamity. It suggests that in the face of a serious national emergency, the party will not be able to manage the situation efficiently. All Indian parties can be accused of this, no doubt, but it is likely to stick to the BJP in a way that could extract a particularly heavy price.

It is useful to remember that at the peak of the second wave, people were not enraged by any of the other parties that controlled whole states. In fact, some of them, as in Kerala, were admired for their handling of covid. This is partly because the Prime Minister had projected himself very clearly at the start of the pandemic as India’s man in charge, and, earlier this year, when it appeared that we had survived the crisis, he declared victory. Thus, when the second wave came, he could not escape it.

So this has potential to injure the BJP’s prospects in the immediate future, but will it?

I feel the party will survive the pandemic, just as it survived the chaos after ‘demonetization’, but for very different reasons. When it cancelled high-value currency, its popularity was very high. Also, when cashless chaos took hold of India, there was a strong perception among the poor that the upper classes had lost more because the rich, obviously, had more money.

The BJP’s popularity probably stands diminished today, but the party, government and its leadership will survive their handling of covid because such calamities do not happen frequently. Also, except for a few regional parties, there is no political force that can absorb the current disenchantment with the BJP. And that is a complete waste of a new brand stickiness.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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