NDA’S 2024 task clear, INDIA bloc fumbles in the dark

The BJP seems to have its task cut out for the national elections. But the Congress finds the going tough among bitter allies.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

As much of a platitude as it is, there is no gainsaying that state elections conducted less than six months before a parliamentary poll is treated as a teaser before the finale. However, this belief does not wash in the prevailing political milieu of India. In December 2018, the BJP lost the assembly polls in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh but bounced back—and how—in those very states in the May 2019 Lok Sabha election. The dynamics changed in every election. What voters endorsed in the state election they repudiated in the parliamentary poll.

The BJP leaves nothing to destiny. Narendra Modi seems to visualise, decree, and craft his and his party’s kismet, faltering at times, with Amit Shah there to shape and execute the blueprint. The optics of victory captivate the BJP but the parlour and studio chatter is of little consequence. The verdicts are significant for other reasons. For the cadre-driven BJP, it is incumbent on the leaders to keep the corps perpetually motivated and buoyant. In 2018, the perception was the defeat—to the Congress at that—had disheartened the BJP’s boys and girls and it would entail Modi’s charisma and credibility as well as an emotionally loaded issue to get them back in action. That happened with the cross-border strikes of April 2019.

The BJP has reconquered the Hindi heartland, leaving the Congress with Himachal Pradesh (which has four Lok Sabha seats) and Bihar (40 seats) and Jharkhand (14 seats) in the region, but as a considerably minor partner in the state coalitions.

It is not as though the BJP does not have its task cut out. It was a given that the north and the west were its fail-safe covers against electoral vagaries. But even though recent history has not failed the party in these regions, Modi seems focused on Maharashtra and Bihar. Maharashtra, which has 48 Lok Sabha seats, the largest after Uttar Pradesh, is in the throes of a churn after the BJP audaciously brought down the Shiv Sena-led coalition with the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress, split the Sena-NCP alliance, co-opted a bulk of Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar’s parties and installed another dispensation where it not only shares power, but calls the shots.

The experiment was fraught with uncertainty because the breakaway Sena and NCP groups visibly resent sharing power with each other and begrudge the BJP playing the Big Brother. The inflection points will doubtless come when the Lok Sabha seats are parcelled out. The BJP will aim to get the most. Will the allies’ displeasure reflect in electioneering or will the BJP’s central command paper over the dissensions as it is prone to?

In Bihar, the BJP—which inducted smaller parties founded on caste identities into the NDA bloc, including a splinter group of Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party—is up against the formidable grouping of the Janata Dal (United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal, comprising the upper crust of backward castes such as the Yadavs and Kurmis as well as economically backward and most backward sub-castes. The JD(U)-RJD themed the BJP’s reluctance to conduct a national caste census in its campaign. While a caste census might not have worked in the less Mandalised states of MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the BJP is wary of its impact in Bihar, the crucible of backward caste empowerment in the north.

The BJP will of course have to double down on its efforts to regain ground in West Bengal, hold on to its pre-eminence in Assam and hope for a breakthrough in Odisha. In the south, its endeavour will essentially revolve around putting the Karnataka defeat behind and going for a kill in the parliamentary polls, capitalise on the vote share increase in Telangana and strike smart alliances in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The BJP has to tie up loose ends and augment its pan-national identity by getting the South and the East on board.

The Congress is out on a limb after its losses in the Hindi belt. At the nub of the Congress’s predicament is the plight of its central leadership, whose inadequacies get magnified by every success the BJP posts. Rahul Gandhi has frittered away the goodwill that his Bharat Jodo Yatra earned. In politics, voters are just as benevolent as the last vote polled by a leader. It’s doubtless that the Congress’s Karnataka victory translated into its Telangana gain, facilitated by hard work and clever strategies. But then the Congress faced a regional party in the southern state and not the BJP. What good then is the claim to be the only pan-national force that can potentially subjugate the BJP? In terms of parliamentary representation, the south’s share is far less than that of the North and the west.

As the Congress president M Mallikarjun Kharge convened a meeting of the INDIA bloc on December 6, it was apparent that the non-Congress constituents have girded themselves to tell the Congress a thing or two. On Monday, National Conference leader Omar Abdullah questioned the rationale and relevance of the opposition coalition after the Congress ceded ground to the BJP. Mamata Banerjee seemed uncertain about showing up, while Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav was already riled up after a face-off with Kamal Nath over seat-sharing in MP, which the Congress stubbornly refused. The INDIA coalition was originally intended to share Lok Sabha seats, but given the Congress-SP acrimony, Uttar Pradesh looks futile. In any case, a Congress-SP alliance never worked in the few experiments that were carried out.

Congress sympathisers sagely advised the leaders to revisit the drawing board. Does one exist? In the recent polls, the ‘high command’ was practically invisible but for sporadic campaigning by Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi. The regional leaders crafted their own style of approaching the elections, which appeared slapdash rather than meticulous. The leaders in MP and Chhattisgarh, for instance, copied the BJP’s Hindutva-plus-welfare template with minor tweaks, but can a copycat ever surpass the real McCoy?

The regional parties have limited terrains as local compulsions dictate their strategies; the DMK’s rant against sanatan dharma—which cost the Congress in the north—being an example. Its leadership shaky and a large swath of its base hollowed out, the Congress seems in no position to lead INDIA. But are the Gandhis willing to be led?

Radhika Ramaseshan

Columnist and political commentator

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