Shikha Mukerjee | Does single-minded Congress bode ill for INDIA allies?

The Asian Age.  | Shikha Mukerjee

Opinion, Columnists

It’s true that when votes are fractured, outcomes are unpredictable.

INDIA alliance. (PTI File Image)

Elections are obviously a testing time for political competitors. The intensity increases when the possibility of dislodging the incumbent seems easier than ever before. Confined within the relatively smaller arena of states, Assembly elections tend to appear more ferocious as fights between desperate rivals.

Some outbursts by a few partners within the INDIA alliance, fortified by speculation that all is not well and the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance is a non-starter as a challenger to the BJP in the forthcoming mother of all Lok Sabha elections in 2024, could be one of two things. One possibility is that the INDIA bloc was a balloon that is now leaking air and will soon collapse, and the other is that all is well with the alliance, even if there is no seamless adjustment of seats between the parties within the INDIA bloc.

The first possibility would make the jittery BJP ecstatic; the second possibility will make it even more nervous as it faces the qualifying races for the 2024 final that have already started in the five states of Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Telangana. If the apparent stresses and cracks within the INDIA bloc grew to the point where mutual distrust between competing parties turned into a classic internecine war of annihilation, it would be reasonable that the BJP, as the principal beneficiary, would be relieved and rejoice.

Anything that hinders the consolidation of the INDIA bloc would rescue the BJP from its knee-jerk concessions necessitated by the compulsion of political circumstances. In Chhattisgarh, the superstar campaigner of the BJP suddenly announced a five-year extension of the 5 kg per person Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana for 800 million people who need free rations to stave off starvation, or as Narendra Modi put it, “went to bed hungry”. The other revealing involuntary admission is by the BJP’s election mastermind, Amit Shah, also in Chhattisgarh, on the caste census: “The BJP never opposed a caste census but decisions have to be taken after giving it a lot of thought.”

After trashing the Bihar caste survey, this abrupt change of stand is indicative that “Kamandal” politics of the inauguration of the under-construction Ram Mandir at Ayodhya is under pressure from Mandal politics of the poor and civilisationally deprived.

That the majority of Indians need the government to step in to keep them fed is a bitter moment of facing the truth; the economy, contrary to the dressed-up data released by the Modi government, is in dire straits, short term and in the medium term. However much the BJP may deplore “appeasement politics”, the need to take control and perhaps even credit for a caste census in the future is another clue to how uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. The third initiative by the BJP to promise, albeit in the indefinite and distant future, increased representation for women by reserving one-third of seats in the Lok Sabha and in the state Assemblies, is a concession that garnering support from women voters could decide the fate of the party in this round of elections.

Two concessions during the campaign and one before the election ball was set rolling adds up to a lot of pressure that the Modi government needs to handle to unseat Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan, Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh, K. Chandrasekar Rao in Telangana and retain power in Madhya Pradesh as well as keep MNF’s chief minister Zoramthanga in Mizoram glued to its side. The Congress is obviously the principal opponent everywhere.

The twist in this tale of binary politics, however, is the presence of regional parties seizing the opportunity to dig themselves into new territories, turning the electoral battle into multi-cornered fights. The assumption hitherto has been that all multi-cornered fights from within the ranks of the parties in opposition to the BJP hurts the Congress. Party boss Mallikarjun Kharge has named the Prime Minister, home minister and the investigative agencies as additional contestants in every constituency where the Congress, its friends and the BJP are engaged in combat. The BJP, it seems, needs every weapon in the government’s arsenal to try sustain the myth of its invincibility.

It’s true that when votes are fractured, outcomes are unpredictable. The prevailing wisdom is that divisions within the Congress and splits in the Opposition votes will work for the BJP. It is as likely that regional parties as an alternative to the BJP and the Congress can shave away support to the BJP, lowering its chances of getting past the winning post.

If, however, parties like the Aam Aadmi Party and Samajwadi Party team up with the Congress to back government formation in the poll-bound states, it would jeopardise the BJP’s post-poll result plans, if it has any, of inveigling susceptible winners from the other side. It would then strengthen the INDIA bloc and increase the BJP’s uneasiness, as it would promote the idea of a united Opposition working to oust Narendra Modi and defeat the BJP.

Recent opinion polls, and these can be tricky in anticipating exactly how voters will decide, indicate there is no strong wind blowing in the BJP’s favour. When votes are fractured, there the outcomes are unpredictable. The polls also suggest that even after Mr Modi firmly inserted himself into the regional battlefields, uncertainty has not declined for the BJP. The voters are also not definitely anti-Congress or anti-INDIA. On the contrary, voters polled by various surveys are fully aware of what the INDIA alliance is, even though they say they don’t think it is working according to a well-defined and easily grasped plan.

From what Mr Kharge has said publicly, it is evident that he is working overtime to drive his party to victory and keep the INDIA bloc together; conversations are ongoing, including with the disgruntled Akhilesh Yadav and Nitish Kumar. The INDIA bloc, as he explains it, will reconvene after December 3 when the election results are out.

Any anticipation that the INDIA bloc is likely to fall apart, because the Congress, unusually, has concentrated its efforts on winning in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Telangana, is an ardently desired wish of the BJP. It implies that INDIA partners now regret the formation.

Till the 2024 general election, speculation whether the INDIA bloc fails or succeeds will be rife. As a bloc, it is a potential threat to the BJP’s tested playbook for winning elections. It is unlikely that the Congress or regional and smaller parties will jeopardise the best opportunity they have by working against each other and so gift the BJP a huge advantage.