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  Opinion   Columnists  23 Apr 2024  Shikha Mukerjee | BJP dominance in political discourse sees adjustments

Shikha Mukerjee | BJP dominance in political discourse sees adjustments

The writer is a senior journalist in Kolkata.
Published : Apr 23, 2024, 1:56 am IST
Updated : Apr 23, 2024, 1:56 am IST

The BJP adapts its messaging, responding to opposition criticism with new assurances and clarifications.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public meeting during a public meeting organised as part of BJP campaign for the Lok Sabha elections, in Amroha. (PTI Photo)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public meeting during a public meeting organised as part of BJP campaign for the Lok Sabha elections, in Amroha. (PTI Photo)

Intriguingly, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s dominance over the political discourse by establishing the frames of meaning and the order or even disorder of things, including interpretations and contexts, seems to be undergoing a not-so-subtle change. Instead of telling the voters that there is only a singular order of things and the rest is irrelevant, the BJP is reacting to the relentless, consistent Opposition attack on its intentions and actions. New guarantees are popping out that were never on the list.

The two most significant are, first, the guarantee that the Constitution will not be rewritten and the word “secular”, over which controversy has raged for decades between the BJP and the secular Opposition, will not be amended and erased. The other not quite guarantee, but nevertheless a confirmation of commitment, is on democracy. The second guarantee that has been added as the election process unrolls is reservations and quotas for tribals on the scheduled list.

The chinks in the BJP’s armour are not all on account of the ferocity and multiplicity of a unified Opposition’s counter offensive. It is in trouble with its vote banks among the Kshatriyas or the Rajputs, a caste that is spread across several key states in the Hindi heartland. The assiduously cultivated tribals by the RSS Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram as a vote bank are also vocal in questioning the BJP’s intentions on removing reservation quotas. Whether a Narendra Modi government in its third term will extinguish reservations is not material; tribals are suspicious of what will happen in the future.

In recent public speeches and in one-on-one interviews, the two major campaigners and masterminds of the BJP, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, have been at pains to tell voters that the Opposition attack is unfounded that a third term for the regime would usher in an end to democracy and discarding the existing Constitution. There are, however, missteps that the party has taken, over nominations to certain caste categories and statements on reservations by the RSS that appear to have queered the pitch of the campaign. The coverup may or may not work, but its necessity suggests that the BJP, despite its organisation and masterminds and backrooms, has problems.

This may not be the same as conceding that the Modi government and the BJP are accountable to the voters and the Opposition for everything that has been said and done, it is, nevertheless a concession that seems almost conciliatory. From a party and a leader who declared in 2014 that India would be liberated from the yoke of Congress rule, recall the slogan “Congress Mukt Bharat,” the need to clarify, explain and placate suggests a climbdown. As examples of how much more the BJP is committed to the Constitution, Amit Shah in the course of an interview on television the day he filed his nomination in Gandhinagar, talked about implementing the non-justiciable Directive Principles of State Policy as enshrined in Part IV such as the ban on triple talaq and its promise to bring in a Uniform Civil Code.

The 2024 Lok Sabha election campaign of all the parties in the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance -- the Congress, the Left, the DMK, the Trinamul Congress, the Samajwadi Party the Rashtriya Janata Dal and others -- has centred around the danger to the Idea of India as the founding generation constructed it from the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, intent on establishing a Hindu Rashtra, hollowing out democracy and institutionalising autocracy. By reacting to the attack and making a public declaration, a “Modi ki guarantee”, that the Constitution would not be changed, the BJP is no longer dominating the discourse; it is reacting to an alternative discourse.

The strength of the alternative discourse may or may not be reflected in the final seat tally on June 4, but its existence is undeniable. The other issue on which the BJP’s reaction to the Opposition is significant is electoral bonds. It suggests that the Opposition’s dogged pursuit -- Rahul Gandhi labelling it as extortion to the entirely personal attack by DMK leader and Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin’s branding of Modi as “Vasool (fund recovery) Raja” -- has paid off probably because it has

captured voters’ attention to the extent that clarifications and explanations are strategically necessary to reassure some sections of the public.

The clarifications have ranged from Mr Shah’s aggressive reaction that if it was extortion, then the electoral bond funding to the Congress and other Opposition parties was also extortion, and Nirmala Sitharaman’s follow-up that revisions would be made to the electoral bonds scheme after consultations and reintroduced in the BJP’s third term.

For a party that railroaded the Opposition by suspending a total of 146 Members of Parliament in the 2023 winter session, expelling Rahul Gandhi, passed 65 per cent of the 221 new laws with less than three hours of discussion, including the abrogation of Article 370, triple talaq and the three farm laws, the BJP’s newfound faith in consultative politics is tweaking the narrative to nullify Opposition criticism of the Modi government as autocratic.

Pitches to win a third term are notoriously difficult: the first five honeymoon years are a distant memory and there is a buildup of frustrations or disappointments over the total 10 years. Unveiling visions of “Viksit Bharat” 23 years down the road will not obviously satisfy the voter who is subsisting on five kilogrammes of free foodgrain every month. Youth who joined up under the 2022 Agnipath scheme of short-term recruitment in the Army are preparing to plan for a future outside the military as they near retirement. Voters will weigh these lived realities against the “guarantees” made earlier and new ones offered in 2024 by the Modi government.

It is not just the steady stream of denunciations from the collective Opposition that is contributing to the pressure on the BJP to revise, modify and modulate its campaign. After 10 years in office, anti-incumbency and indifference are factors, especially as Phase 1 of the seven-stage process of the general election indicates voter turnout has been significantly lower across the country, with an average decreases of four per cent.

As polling for the next six phases proceeds, the tweaks and adjustments in the BJP’s campaign will be worth tracking. Will there be more unseen stumbling blocks? In campaign mode, the problem is that the leadership has to maintain a steady flow of words on everything, unlike in Parliament where silence or brevity is possible as a strategic retreat.

Tags: 2024 lok sabha elections, bjp election campaign, prime minister narendra modi