Pavan K. Varma | Why 2024 promises to be an exciting election

The Asian Age.  | Pavan K Varma

Opinion, Columnists

The relentless targeting of Opposition leaders has created fear, panic, anger and a “solidarity of victimhood” among them.

Opposition parties' meet, in Bengaluru. (PTI File Photo)

The fact that almost the entire political canvas divided into two groups to meet on the same day, July 18, in the lead-up to the 2024 parliamentary elections, was a first in the history of democratic India.  The goal of the two groupings was different — for the Opposition, the attempt was to strive for more unity amidst often irresolvable diversity, because a divided Opposition helps the BJP; for the BJP, the need was to bring in more diversity to meet the challenge of a possibly united Opposition, by expanding the NDA, and welcoming back allies whom it had earlier considered dispensable.

Opposition leaders have finally realised that, notwithstanding their differences, they must either hang together, or each will hang separately. The BJP is itself responsible for creating this perception. The relentless targeting of Opposition leaders through the misuse of central investigating agencies, has created fear, panic, anger and a “solidarity of victimhood” among them. Secondly, the blatantly unethical manner in which the BJP has destabilised opposing governments through defections enabled by money power or the threat of punitive action by the ED, CBI, IT, etc., has convinced the Opposition that the BJP will go to any length in the pursuit of political hegemony. Thirdly, the use of the Hindutva card, and the visible religious polarisation promoted by the ruling party to consolidate Hindu votes for electoral dividends, has forced its opponents to find an alternative and more inclusive agenda to counter it. 

The BJP, on its part, has reluctantly understood that it will need allies to bolster its strength if the Opposition unites. Normally, one would have thought that a BJP narrative of ‘Modi versus the Rest’ would suit it. Narendra Modi’s consistent personal popularity, his party’s and the RSS’s ground-level organisational strength, and a clear narrative of Hindutva, hyper-nationalism and verifiable welfarism, had given the BJP a certain sense of invincibility. But, today, facing a third-term anti-incumbency, there is a feeling of greater vulnerability. Hence, the need for the BJP to organise a parallel NDA conclave, for the first time after 2019. Estranged and forgotten allies, such as Akali Dal and Chirag Paswan, suddenly found that that the BJP had dusted out and rediscovered the red carpet for them. 

The fact of the matter is that in spite of two resounding parliamentary victories, the BJP garnered only 31 and 37 per cent of votes in 2014 and 2019, respectively, the lowest ever for any party with an absolute majority. Its geographical support base is also rather narrow, largely restricted to north-west India, and the Hindi heartland.  In south India, where there are over 200 Lok Sabha seats, the BJP, with the sole exception of Karnataka, is almost non-existent. This includes fence sitters like Jagan Reddy in Andhra, and Naveen Patnaik in Odisha. So far, both have cooperated — even supported — the BJP on crucial issues. To some extent, they have no other alternative for their own survival, because a hostile government at the Centre could make life uncomfortable for them. In the case of Jagan, there are so many legal cases against him that he cannot but be compliant for fear of vindictive action by the ruling dispensation at Delhi. But if a viable alternative is seen to be emerging to BJP hegemony, their positions could change, especially since in their respective states the principal Opposition party is no longer the Congress but the BJP. 

Yet, notwithstanding the Patna and Bengaluru meetings, the Opposition has still a great deal to do before it can effectively take on the BJP. The biggest challenge is how to give a gaggle of conflicting parties the semblance of convincing unity, as against the stability promised by the BJP/NDA. A common agenda, or at least a minimum common programme is the first priority. Then a pan-Indian narrative, based on rising inequality, inflation, unemployment, social disharmony, religious divisiveness, misuse of investigating agencies, co-option of the media and undemocratic authoritarianism, needs to be forged, with a mechanism to take it to the people on a pan-India basis. This must be followed by grassroot coordination, organizational coherence, and above all, seat adjustments where interests of each party clash. This may be the most difficult part of the exercise, given old rivalries, and the short time available. There is also the obstacle of individual egos of leaders, and the perennial question: If not Modi, who? 

The key to Opposition unity lies with the Congress. Will it agree to forego its national aspirations — which it legitimately has as a pan-India party — to accommodate stronger players at the regional level? Even more importantly, can it perform better in some 200 seats where the BJP is its principal opponent? This is crucial, since this is the real catchment area of the BJP, where its strike rate against the Congress in the last two national elections was over 90 per cent. Recent Congress victories in Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka are no guarantee of success in Parliamentary elections. In 2018, too, the Congress had won MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. But 2019 showed that citizens vote differently in Assembly and national elections.

For the BJP, the existential question is whether in the face of a more organised Opposition, it will win — like in 2014 and 2019 — an absolute majority on its own, or will its numbers reduce to 250 or below. If this were to happen, it may trigger tectonic changes in the BJP itself. It is no secret that many in the BJP and the RSS are less than happy at the style of functioning within the party, where the writ of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah is absolute, and there is little space left for inner-party democracy. The policy of unrelenting religious exclusion has also its critics, because many realise that while this may bring short-term electoral dividends, it is not in the interests of India — and the Sangh Parivar — in the long run.  Besides, it has to be seen how far Mr Modi is temperamentally capable of running a coalition government, where give and take is essential.    

There are still 10 months left, but 2024 promises to be an exciting election.