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  Opinion   Columnists  05 Nov 2023  Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay | Many worries for BJP as ‘semi-final’ vote looms

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay | Many worries for BJP as ‘semi-final’ vote looms

The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi-NCR. His latest book is 'The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India', and he’s also the author of 'Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times'. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin.
Published : Nov 5, 2023, 11:38 pm IST
Updated : Nov 5, 2023, 11:38 pm IST

The ultra-nationalistic narrative emerged as the overarching narrative, clearly missing at this stage.

The BJP’s worries have found reflection in a series of haphazard steps taken by the party or the government. (PTI File Image)
 The BJP’s worries have found reflection in a series of haphazard steps taken by the party or the government. (PTI File Image)

With over 8.5 lakh voters spread across 40 Assembly constituencies in Mizoram, and the electorate in 20 of the 90 seats in Chhattisgarh, turning out to vote on Tuesday, November 7, it is prudent to keep in mind and old truism: people vote differently when turning out for state Assemblies and parliamentary elections. Certainly, the verdict that will be known on December 3, days after polling is completed in every state, will be no natural precursor to next year’s “big” round. Notwithstanding this, certain developments during campaigning for Assembly elections in five states need to be examined. While these occurrences may not resurface, wholly or partially, it would be naive to believe that these developments will not cast a shadow over the 2024 parliamentary polls.

The first inescapable symptom is Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for whom election campaigning is almost second nature, largely staying away from campaigning. Although he has not given a complete miss to the bigger states -- Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana and Chhattisgarh -- he may address several meetings as electioneering gains momentum, his decision to stay away from Mizoram cannot be ignored.

Since 2014, Mr Modi even turned out to campaign for party candidates in civic polls. Very recently, the government advanced a peculiar reason for seeking examination and recommendations for holding elections simultaneously for the Lok Sabha, state Assemblies and panchayats: Union and state ministers are unable to devote time for governance as they were frequently away for election campaigning. Critics asserted that if anyone stayed away the most from office for campaigning, it was the PM himself.

It’s not difficult to fathom why Mr Modi gave Mizoram a pass. Since May, ethnic clashes in Manipur continue uninterrupted and the Central as well as the state government exhibit no genuine effort to restore normalcy. With accusations flying against the current regime for fanning majoritarian forces, questions lurk on the BJP’s continued electoral support in the Northeast. During the Monsoon Session of Parliament, the Opposition parties rallied behind a no-confidence motion against the government. The motion expectedly, was not passed, but not before Mizoram’s ruling MNF extended support to it even though the party remains a member of the BJP-led North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA). Recently, Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga refused to share a platform with Mr Modi during campaigning, leading to the PM’s decision to cancel his planned visit and instead sent defence minister Rajnath Singh to address the rally.

Mr Zoramthanga did not mince words. He asserted Mizos were angry as the BJP did not prevent sections among Meitis from burning churches and killing Christians. He added that the MNF agreed to partner the BJP in NEDA because of its opposition to the Congress.

The MNF stance raises question marks on the continued BJP hegemony in the Northeast, established after 2014 by striking strategic alliances with regional parties. Alongside anger among numerous ethnic groups who support these parties, Mr Modi’s advocacy of the Uniform Civil Code added fuel to the fire. The BJP won 14 seats from the northeastern states in 2019, besides two more by allies. Barring Assam, the turf has turned bumpy for the party. When the going is tough, every seat counts, is an old home truth.

Mr Modi’s electioneering was curtailed in this round because he did not wish risking voters rejecting his call. He campaigned intensively in the Karnataka polls in May. In a short span of seven days towards the end of electioneering, he addressed 19 public rallies, besides taking out six roadshows, virtually one a day for several hours. Still, the Congress secured a comfortable majority and the BJP numbers fell woefully short, indicating that people were not swayed by his persuasion.

Although factors behind electoral choices of voters in state elections are different from the parliamentary polls, it cannot be overlooked that the BJP’s current challenges appear similar to its troubles in 2018. Back then, the electoral tide appeared to be against it. The party lost several prestigious byelections, besides being voted out in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Yet, within months, the party swept all the three states during the Lok Sabha elections. However, the trend was reversed after the Pulwama terror attack and subsequent retaliation by the Narendra Modi government on terrorist facilities in Balakot. The ultra-nationalistic narrative emerged as the overarching narrative, clearly missing at this stage.

Moreover, the BJP is battling another phantom issue from the past but which has been triggered by an astute adversary: Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. His government’s decision to conduct a caste survey and release the initial data has brought to the fore identity-based divergences between Hindu castes. The reaction so far has not been spontaneous as after V.P. Singh’s decision to implement the Mandal Commission report in 1990. Yet, worries remain over the carefully cobbled together unity across caste lines on the basis of Hindutva politics getting fragmented. Intra-caste competitiveness could soon rear its head, especially after the release of socio-economic data to supplement caste figures.

It is too early to say whether or not the Congress will benefit by promising Bihar-like surveys in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh -- the Rajasthan government beat the EC’s model code and announced the decision to hold such a survey before the polls were called.

But coupled with the ongoing agitation by Marathas in Maharashtra for reservations under a separate category and the long-simmering demand of Jats in Haryana and eastern Rajasthan, caste fissures that were on the backburner for close to three decades have the potential to crack the BJP’s identity-based social base.

The BJP’s worries have found reflection in a series of haphazard steps taken by the party or the government and this includes the hastily summoned Special Session of Parliament. The government needlessly raked up the issue of one-nation-one-poll and then allowed the matter to be pursued as any other routine procedure. Likewise, the Women’s Reservation Bill was passed in both Houses but without drawing a definite timeline regarding its implementation. The BJP is now clearly banking on Hindutva to provide a rich harvest and all-out efforts are being planned to enthuse voters with the inauguration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya.

Even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has been drawn in and the sarsanghchalak, Mohan Bhagwat, has asked people to hold similar programmes at their places of residence. Because of its sharply polarising ideology, any Lok Sabha election that becomes an aggregate of polls is always to the BJP’s detriment. Unless Mr Modi manages to sketch an overarching narrative or an issue comes to the fore, as in 2019, the BJP will be worried about backsliding from its previous tally.

Tags: prime minister narendra modi, bharatiya janata party (bjp)