Assembly election: What 2022 bodes for 2024 - Hindustan Times
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Assembly election: What 2022 bodes for 2024

Dec 09, 2022 03:58 PM IST

Gujarat 2022 should serve as a wake-up call for the Opposition, but given its past record, it is unlikely to learn lessons.

In March 2022, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) retained power in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur, and Goa. The next day, Narendra Modi was on the streets in Ahmedabad, celebrating the party’s win but, in effect, setting the stage for the Gujarat elections. It was an echo of the past. In 2017, in the final phase of the UP polls, even as his own constituency, Varanasi, was voting, Modi was praying at the Somnath temple in Gujarat with images beamed across national television networks. In both instances, one round of elections had barely got over, but all eyes were on the next.

AAP, Congress and BJP Supporter Shout for their party candidate. PREMIUM
AAP, Congress and BJP Supporter Shout for their party candidate.

In March 2022, the Congress lost power in Punjab and failed in all the other four states. Six months later, Rahul Gandhi decided to embark on an all-India yatra, announcing to the world that it had nothing to do with elections and was all about ideology. A state where Rahul Gandhi went and pleaded for votes, and then won the highest number of seats (Gujarat, 2017), was not considered important enough to be a proper campaign site.

Also Read | Gujarat polls triumph testament to BJP’s efforts, all-round support: Modi

In March 2022, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won Punjab. Arvind Kejriwal decided this was the moment to expand the party’s national footprint and aspire to fill the vacuum in the national oppositional space. To achieve it, the party ran an energetic campaign in Gujarat, a state where it had no organisational architecture. The campaign was marked not by an ideological challenge to the BJP, but rather, framed as a governance challenge.

This contrast perhaps best explains Thursday’s result in Gujarat and offers clues for 2024.

Read | What’s behind BJP’s huge win? Mostly Brand Modi

For the BJP leadership, elections are a political, ideological, organisational, and personal project — a project that deserves respect, self-correction and deep investment. For the only leader who matters in the Congress, polls are an object of disdain and the electoral process is a distraction from an abstract ideological battle — a project that deserves little respect, self-reflection, and engagement. And for the AAP leadership, elections are purely instrumental and tactical exercises without ideological underpinnings — a project to help expand the leader’s national brand, with ambition often not matched by either organisational ability or a local face or a larger message to underpin it. These approaches offer clues to the strengths and weaknesses of parties in the run up to 2024.

The BJP’s hegemony

Gujarat shows that the BJP’s code of success rests on two pillars.

One, on an everyday basis, build and sustain trust levels in Modi’s intent, integrity and ability to deliver. Recognise that he remains the party’s single most important campaigner. Use him at every single opportunity to expand the party’s presence. Find any source of emotional connect that Modi has with the state — and in Gujarat’s case, this connect is of course unique — and leverage it. And deploy one round of success to build momentum for the next. Just as UP set the stage for work in Gujarat, wait to see how the BJP will use the Gujarat momentum in its campaign in the next set of state elections and for 2024.

Two, weave all sources of the party’s strength — ideological, financial, organisational — with a single-minded focus on elections. Take elections seriously, for they are not just the only instrument to win State power but also add democratic legitimacy to the BJP’s power and agenda. And use polls as an opportunity to tackle the weaknesses that have crept it into the party, expand the party’s footprint, and maintain Modi’s connect with citizens.

The reason Vijay Rupani and his entire cabinet were replaced was because the party’s feedback mechanism was strong and the leadership had the ability to take risks and then the authority to act and enforce discipline. The reason Amit Shah referred to the politics of polarisation was to both consolidate Hindu votes and to win legitimacy for the ideological agenda that the BJP believes in. And the reason Modi was campaigning relentlessly in Gujarat was not because he thought BJP would lose, but to maximise gains and reconnect with his home state during the only opportunity he gets to spend a sustained period of time in the state during his prime ministerial term.

This virtuous cycle — position Modi at the centre of every campaign; energise workers and monitor them; ensure the party machine can leverage Modi’s popularity; take radical, even high-risk, decisions to ensure local factors can’t neutralise the strengths of the machine; and then use every poll to reinforce Modi’s connect and win power — helps the BJP in all states, in varying degrees, and makes it a national hegemon.

Where the strategy falters in state elections — the only site where politics is still competitive in India, for the national stage is unipolar — is when Modi’s national appeal is not a factor, the BJP’s local leadership is weak, the Opposition has a credible local machine or strong local leader and local factors prevail. This was the case in Himachal Pradesh in 2022. And this was the story in West Bengal and Delhi in 2021. But don’t be surprised if the same states throw up a completely different outcome in 2024 when Modi is on the ballot, as they did in 2019.

The Opposition’s three models

On the other side, Opposition parties with aspirations for a national role have adopted two models. At the cost of being simplistic, term it the self-righteous purist model and the opportunistic pragmatist model. The problem is that neither model is working on the national stage — or working on a consistent enough basis on the state stage to be able to pose a challenge to the BJP.

The first is represented by Rahul Gandhi who picks and chooses which elections he is interested in and believes that the most pressing electoral challenges can be postponed to an indefinite time in future even as the Congress’s electoral footprint shrinks and leaders flee to the other side. It is based on what comes across as vague ideological abstractions that voters struggle to translate in terms of what it means for their lives. It is also based on a certain disconnect from the motivations and aspirations of one’s own party workers and voters.

The second is represented by Arvind Kejriwal. Based on the political understanding that the Right of Indian politics can be defeated only by adopting a Centre-Right platform, this translates into what has been described as “soft Hindutva” but is better understood as ideological pliability to the framework already set by the BJP — support for Hindutva causes, silence on minority rights. This can work at times, for instance in Delhi, where the AAP has governance achievements to advertise and shares its vote base with the BJP (the same set of voters opt for the AAP in the state and BJP at the centre). A variant of this can work in states where there is a political vacuum and the AAP can take an ideologically aggressive position since the BJP isn’t a factor (Punjab). But it is hard to replicate in a state where Hindu voters are perfectly at home with the BJP and don’t need the AAP, and Muslim voters don’t trust the party enough to shift allegiances from the Congress. This level of ideological ambiguity, on the back of the absence of a pan-Indian organisation, will also pose a challenge for AAP when the need to scale up and build a national campaign commences.

The third Opposition model is based on specific local circumstances. In states where non-BJP parties have a strong regional leader and ideological and regional connect, and the BJP lacks both a leader and regional connect, the national hegemon struggles. This was the case with Mamata Banerjee in Bengal, MK Stalin in Tamil Nadu, Naveen Patnaik in Odisha, K Chandrashekar Rao in Telangana, YS Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh or Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi. But this model is again constrained by its local specificities. And to be fair, its best proponents, Stalin and Patnaik, do not have national aspirations.

And that is why the cards are so heavily stacked in favour of Narendra Modi as India heads toward the 2024 elections cycle. Gujarat 2022 should serve as a wake-up call for the Opposition, but given its past record, it is unlikely to learn lessons.

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