How the Opposition rediscovered itself and revived its political fortunes in the face of the BJP juggernaut - Hindustan Times
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How the Opposition rediscovered itself and revived its political fortunes in the face of the BJP juggernaut

Jun 05, 2024 02:17 AM IST

Ultimately, Mandate 2024 shows how the Indian voter continues to surprise.

The exit polls predicted a washout for the Opposition and expected the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to better its 2019 performance. But something very different has happened. Many political observers who travelled extensively did warn us about the changing tide, especially in Uttar Pradesh (UP). However, many like me believed that if the BJP could effectively ward off the challenge from the combined might of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in UP in 2019, then it was unlikely that an SP and Congress alliance could do the trick this time. The BJP’s victory margins over its nearest rivals in 2019 seemed too big to scale.

Supporters of Indian National Congress (INC) party hold a portrait of their president Rahul Gandhi and wave India's national flag to celebrate vote counting results for the country's general election, at the INC headquarter in New Delhi on June 4, 2024. Vote counting was underway in India's election on June 4, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi all but assured a triumph for his Hindu nationalist agenda that has thrown the opposition into disarray and deepened concerns for minority rights. (Photo by Arun SANKAR / AFP)(AFP) PREMIUM
Supporters of Indian National Congress (INC) party hold a portrait of their president Rahul Gandhi and wave India's national flag to celebrate vote counting results for the country's general election, at the INC headquarter in New Delhi on June 4, 2024. Vote counting was underway in India's election on June 4, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi all but assured a triumph for his Hindu nationalist agenda that has thrown the opposition into disarray and deepened concerns for minority rights. (Photo by Arun SANKAR / AFP)(AFP)

While Opposition parties, under the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), are well below the majority mark of 272, they managed to win a lot more seats than expected by analysts. The Congress, which was becoming marginalised in national politics, has improved its vote share and seat tally considerably — significant also because it contested close to 100 seats fewer than in 2019.

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The pan-India alliance worked for the Opposition in states such as Maharashtra and UP. These two states account for more than half the seats the BJP lost to INDIA. The Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) and the Nationalist Congress Party (Sharad Pawar), despite their depleted organisational strength, pulled off a surprise in Maharashtra along with the Congress. Similarly, the SP delivered an unexpected performance after a long hiatus (since losing the assembly elections in 2012). The Congress lost more than 90% of the seats in direct contests against the BJP in the last two elections. The BJP would have hoped for the strike rate to continue, but the Congress seems to have won more than one in every four seats this time in such contests. While it may be difficult to empirically establish Rahul Gandhi’s role in the turnaround of his party, he must be credited for a nationwide mobilisation through the Bharat Jodo Yatra, settling the party’s leadership question with Mallikarjun Kharge becoming the Congress president, giving the Congress’s ideological line some clarity and centering the party’s campaign on economic and social justice.

The Congress held on to its 2019 showing in Kerala and Punjab but improved its position in Telangana at the expense of the Bharat Rashtra Samiti (BRS). Performance varies for the INDIA camp members. The Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal improved its 2019 score, while the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in Jharkhand held on to their base. But the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi were not able to pull their weight.

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What explains this Opposition turnaround? An overarching explanation is difficult since state-level dynamics were at play after the last two Lok Sabha elections being dominated by a national momentum. Most states had one clear winner. The BJP has retained its core states in central India, expanded its footprint along the Bay of Bengal coastline, and, with allies, held on to Bihar and Jharkhand.

INDIA bloc continued with the momentum it generated in the initial months of summer 2023 and had it not lost some key allies such as the Janata Dal (United), the results could have been further in its favour. While the Congress can take credit for its performance, it also deserves some blame for not spearheading the INDIA bloc as it should have. Had INDIA bloc announced candidates early, it could have picked up a few more seats. One can also argue that the combined effect of economic anxieties at the bottom of the social pyramid, and the counter-offensive of the Opposition that the Constitution is in danger against the BJP’s clarion call of “abki baar 400 paar” (this time, beyond 400) played a role. The latter may have led the non-general castes to believe that they may lose their reservation status. This may have worked in states like UP, but the question is why did it not work in Bihar?

The exit polls, while predicting a NDA whitewash, indicated that the BJP may lose some ground among the younger voters and poorer segments across Northwest India. The confluence of multiple factors in some states (anti-incumbency against the state government in Haryana, poor candidate choices in UP, losing the anti-graft narrative because of allying with the likes of Ajit Pawar in Maharashtra, among others) could have also turned the tables on the BJP.

Ultimately, Mandate 2024 shows how the Indian voter continues to surprise. While the BJP’s social coalition hasn’t completely unravelled, the party must introspect on the fact that its electoral dominance in India’s key states has been seriously challenged. It must not overlook these results as an aberration. The 2024 elections have carried the worst possible news for the non-NDA, and non-INDIA parties such as the BSP, the AIADMK, the Shiromani Akali Dal, the Biju Janata Dal, the YSRCP and the BRS. This indicates that the Indian polity is heading for bipolarity, and anyone outside this space has a limited chance of doing well.

Meanwhile, Opposition parties should not over-interpret these trends. While the Congress can rejoice that it has achieved its short-term objective of keeping the BJP below 272, its road to recovery is long and arduous.

Rahul Verma is fellow, Centre for Policy Research. The views expressed are personal

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