The tortuous course of elections 2024

Ground realities kept shifting through the electoral process. Discontent with incumbents was manifest in the head, but the heart seemed to be asking for something else
The tortuous course of elections 2024
Express illustration | Sourav Roy

With exceptions, exit polls in India are not known for exactitude. The projections aired on June 1 were riddled with inconsistencies, arising largely from erroneous seat counts, for which no ex post facto explanations were offered except to celebrate the “data”. But if we treat the numbers as a bellwether of the final outcome, what do they portend—especially when read in tandem with some detailed and excellent reports from the ground?

The BJP is expected to retain its near-hegemonic status in its traditional swaths in the north and west. It made an aggressive push in the east (outside the north-east) to step up its presence in West Bengal and claim Odisha from its friend-turned-frenemy, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). The Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the BJD are not easy meals to be devoured, but the BJP relentlessly fought both. 

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It says a lot for the BJP’s divination to take nothing for granted when it sensed that the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) in its original form—led by the formidable Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray, who demonstrated that he is no pushover—had to be brought down to clear the playing field for itself. It splintered the Shiv Sena and NCP (the third prong, the Congress, is inconsequential) and hoped the ensuing legal tangles for claiming the original nomenclatures and symbols—the prerequisite of party politics from a voter’s perspective—would confuse the picture and throw the major players in a quandary as rather than take the opposition’s narrative to people, they would have to expend time, energy and resources in explaining the basics. That’s exactly what seems to have happened in Maharashtra, which brings in 48 seats to the Lok Sabha and has never been hospitable to the BJP; it had to hold the hands of a regional party to stand on its feet. The rebooted MVA failed to disseminate its new names and symbols except for the Sena, whose cadre was strong in places.

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Maharashtra classically illustrated the practice of ‘Chanakya neeti’ and the precept of winner takes all, without in fact being a winner in real terms. Odisha is another example of the game-plan now honed to near-perfection by Amit Shah, the home minister. BJD president and chief minister Naveen Patnaik—one of the most successful legatees—should have realised there are no permanent friends in politics. For long, Odisha was not on the BJP’s radar, except when it tried to communalise the Adivasi-dominated Kandhamal in 2008 by pitting the tribes against Christian missionaries. The BJP gained nothing from what seemed like a misadventure in hindsight.

To the Odisha BJP leaders’ chagrin, central BJP leaders gave an impression that they were content to yield the state to Patnaik in lieu of his support on critical legislative issues in parliament. When it was clear that the BJP could not hope to rule India by yoking itself for posterity to the north and west, Modi and Shah went full steam for the east (the north-east was under their belt with ‘friends’) and targeted Odisha. The BJP spied an opening when Patnaik anointed a former bureaucrat and confidant V K Pandian as a virtual successor (though he later denied the move). Pandian is Tamilian. The BJP used his southern provenance to strike a regional chord, which worked with the BJD’s rank. It was a decision that might cost the BJD and help the BJP.

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How the east beckons, unlike the south that remains patchy for the BJP. In West Bengal, under the energetic and belligerent Suvendu Adhikari, the BJP takes no prisoners; it goes for the kill. The BJP had a headstart with the episode at Sandeshkhali where women were allegedly molested by a local TMC strongman who was reluctantly arrested. The TMC later released a video to debunk the BJP’s allegation, but the damage was apparently done.

It is not the Hindutva ideology that permeated the soil of Odisha and West Bengal as much as disenchantment with the incumbent provincial leaders. Patnaik and Mamata have had long innings. But the withering away of the Left in Bengal and the Congress in Odisha kindled optimism in the BJP as a prospective alternative, although the hope is not based on any proven achievement in these states.

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The INDIA bloc was birthed in confusion and was up against every conceivable odds a coalition could be against: the absence of a leader, an enfeebled Congress, shaky partnerships in Delhi and West Bengal, an ambivalent Left that sought to befriend the Congress in Bengal and abuse it in Kerala, and a record of losses in the state elections in the north. Where the Congress was up against the BJP in straight fights, it was a foregone conclusion who the winner was.

However, to INDIA’s credit, it overcame some of the impediments and fashioned its own narrative, which did not fall into the BJP’s provocative Hindutva and Modi-centred rhetorical trap. Within the ambit of the Congress’s 25 guarantees and Rahul Gandhi’s economic pitch, INDIA’s campaign focused on unemployment, inflation, farmers’ travails, electoral bonds and the threat to the Constitution that it alleged could eventually lead to scrapping or watering down statutory reservations.

That the BJP was stung by the stress on the Constitution was obvious when its president J P Nadda distanced his party from the RSS, which periodically insinuates that quotas must go.

In a normal ambience and on an even playing ground without institutional partisanship, such issues would have persuaded an electorate hungry for jobs and saddled with rising prices. It speaks of the times we live in that emotions founded on high-decibel propaganda and illogic should get the better of the voter’s ability to think through issues. Large swaths on the national canvas are witnessing what Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh went through in recent elections. Discontent is manifest in the head, but the heart asks for something else.

A renewed mandate for Modi and the BJP could put paid to the ambitions of the regional forces that strove for a space in INDIA and outside. If the plight of the BJD, YSRCP, AAP and even the TMC is a barometer, the survival of the state parties is at stake.

(Views are personal)

(ramaseshan.radhika@gmail.com)         

Radhika Ramaseshan | Columnist and political commentator

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