Narrative to identity: Key factors at play in Lok Sabha elections | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Narrative to identity: Key factors at play in Lok Sabha elections

By, New Delhi
Mar 17, 2024 06:30 PM IST

It has been several decades since a party approached impending LS polls with the kind of confidence that the BJP is doing in 2024

The scale of elections in India is always mind-boggling – a polity of nearly a billion people of diverse backgrounds, faiths, communities and geographies come together to choose their lawmakers in a remarkable display of cohesion and trust. This round of national elections – to be held across 47 days and seven phases over 543 Lok Sabha constituencies – is even more so given the extraordinary events that have convulsed the country over the last five years: a once-in-a-century pandemic that devastated large swathes of India, only to be defeated by the might of modern science; an aggressive neighbour abandoning diplomacy for belligerence; unprecedented global challenges brought by two ongoing conflicts; an ascension as the world’s most populous country, which brings forth associated challenges of managing the demographic bulge.

The Lok Sabha elections, spread across seven phases, will be held over six weeks between April 19 and June 1. The counting of votes is scheduled to be held on June 4. (HT file)
The Lok Sabha elections, spread across seven phases, will be held over six weeks between April 19 and June 1. The counting of votes is scheduled to be held on June 4. (HT file)

Against this backdrop, the third general elections in an era of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dominance will begin. It has been a generation since a party approached impending Lok Sabha elections with the kind of confidence that the BJP is doing in 2024. Not since the heyday of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi has one party appeared so comfortably placed to come back to power (if successful, Narendra Modi will become the first Prime Minister since Nehru to win three consecutive terms and the first since Indira Gandhi to serve three terms). Modi has sought to burnish this edge by setting an impressive target for the BJP (370 seats) and the National Democratic Alliance (400 seats). On the other hand, the Opposition’s Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) project has flattered to deceive after a promising start, haemorrhaging partners and unable to break deadlocks in seat-sharing arrangements in key states. A number of opinion polls conducted over the past month have given the NDA a decisive edge over INDIA.

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But the Indian voter is far too discerning, and the weave of political narratives too complex, for elections to not throw up surprises. To that end, three factors will be important to track.

The first is narrative. The 2014 elections were about seeking change from an ostensibly corrupt regime, and the 2019 polls were wrapped in nationalistic fervour against the backdrop of the attack in Pulwama and the cross-border strike in Balakot. This time, there is no such overarching sentiment enveloping the country, though strongly emotive local issues hold sway in key regions.

The BJP likely realises this, and has attempted to fill this vacuum with aspiration – its pitch for Viksit Bharat, or developed India, by 2047 is a blueprint for a country where upward mobility remains the single biggest source of anxiety for individuals and communities alike. In a milieu where tens of thousands of people, especially young men from smaller cities and hamlets, find their path out of poverty blocked by a compromised system (think of the flashes of sweeping public anger at frequent question paper leaks in government job examinations), the BJP hopes to use the larger-than-life image of Modi and his cross-community appeal to dispel this gloom that can easily tip over into anti-incumbency. Instead, Viksit Bharat not only reminds voters of the NDA government’s track record, it also effectively turns the contest even more presidential because it gives the BJP an opportunity to point out that there is no competing vision for the country’s future emanating from the Opposition.

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This is frankly a weak spot for INDIA because its success is tied to the contest becoming less presidential and more local (or how it used to be between 1989 and 2009). The alliance’s seat-sharing arrangement is only partially successful and its once-avowed strategy of one joint Opposition candidate to take on the BJP is stillborn in large parts of the country. Still, the absence of an overarching narrative – the Congress’s vision of economic and social justice attempts to fill some of this void – doesn’t mean that the Opposition is devoid of emotive issues. For example, Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray will almost certainly make stirring pitches to their constituents in Maharashtra, as will Mamata Banerjee in Bengal and MK Stalin in Tamil Nadu, pivoting on local vs outsider and the region’s distinctive cultural identity. But outside pockets, the Opposition’s search for one pithy narrative is ongoing.

The second factor is identity, a term that encompasses not just questions of caste and faith but also (to a lesser extent) of regional and linguistic pride. The BJP believes it has cracked the identity game, using welfare as the glue to hold together disparate caste groups that otherwise share hostile relations on the ground. The party would seek to leverage the carefully built relationship between each welfare beneficiary and the image of the PM – a phenomenon experts term new welfarism – to drive home its message that unlike caste-based regional satraps who are often seen as protecting their own fiefs, the BJP doesn’t discriminate in basic welfare. There was a sense in 2023 that some of this welfare rubric was fraying a bit, but the party has repackaged its welfare promise as Modi guarantees to great success in the recently concluded assembly elections in three heartland states.On top of this, the party will use its brand of faith-based majoritarianism – which not only fires up its core base but also seeks to imbue pride with its strident, unapologetic Hindutva – with the Ram Temple as its motif.

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The Opposition’s arsenal here is radically different. It believes that the BJP’s caste arithmetic – which adds a section of Dalits and backwards to its core “upper caste” base – can be broken by a new language of social justice centered around a national caste census and radical redistribution of resources. To be sure, a clutch of state polls have hinted that without grassroots mobilisation, there may not be the kind of traction that, say, Mandal commission’s quota promise generated. But the INDIA parties will hope that what it is lacking in religious fervour, it can more than make up with linguistic and regional identities. Regional parties have used this strategy to decent success against the BJP, and over the past year, the Congress has, too, tried to project itself as the federal party, respectful of regional idiosyncrasies.

The third factor is geography. The BJP’s core strength comes from its dominance of northern India, where it mops up nearly all of the 200-odd seats on offer, and especially in India’s most populous province, Uttar Pradesh, where it has not won less than 60 of the 80 seats in the last decade. This time, too, with governments in every state in northern India save two, the party will hope for a rich haul of seats from this region. These are also the seats where the BJP and Congress fight one-on-one, and so this will also be a battle of relevance for the latter.

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For the Opposition, the key region is peninsular India. Although at a numerical disadvantage (because south India only holds 130-odd seats), the INDIA bloc cannot afford to allow the BJP to make inroads in any of its core regions, especially in Tamil Nadu where Modi has invested an extraordinary amount of energy in recent weeks.In many ways, this is the most exciting part of the elections, especially because of the BJP’s efforts at breaching the wall of the eastern seaboard – despite its dominance, one can still drive from Kanniyakumari to Kolkata without encountering a single BJP government on the way – especially in Odisha and West Bengal.

How the geographical battle plays out will likely be decided by the three biggest states after UP; Maharashtra, with 48 seats, is a political blackbox. No major direct elections have been held in the state in recent years despite enormous political (two NCPs and two Shiv Senas compete for the same constituency now) and social (the Maratha quota movement and the consequent OBC mobilisation) churning. Bihar, where the NDA won 39 out of 40 seats, has seen one realignment after another due to Nitish Kumar’s flip-flops. The state’s political history states that when two out of the three main players – BJP, JD(U) and RJD – come together, they dominate. But has Kumar’s wiliness eroded his political capital? And in Bengal, where the BJP posted its best ever results in 2019 with 18 seats only to slump to a humiliating defeat two years later, the Trinamool Congress is fighting for its life in attempting to protect its citadel of south Bengal.

The 2024 elections are crucial not only for what they hold but also because of what they portend. Against the backdrop of a billion people inking their fingers, important debates on campaign finance and political funding are playing out, as are debates on hate speech and the role of technology in campaigning. And as the last polls before scheduled delimitation in 2026, this might be the last elections as we have known them. In that sense, June 4 might not be the end of this election cycle, it might also be the beginning.

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