In 2023, a new road map for India’s Opposition
Nine assembly elections will take place next year, leading up to the 2024 general polls. For the Congress, AAP, and regional powers, a united front best linked to public service delivery may be the only way to put forward an affirmative agenda to counter the BJP
No fewer than nine assembly elections will take place between February and December 2023, stretching from Telangana to Tripura. Collectively, these polls will be the last chance for the Opposition to test the mettle of the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) before the May 2024 general elections.
Any realistic assessment of the next national polls must begin with the premise that the BJP is exceptionally well placed. Make no mistake, the 2024 election campaign began on December 1 with the commencement of India’s year-long presidency of the Group of 20 (G20). The slick roll-out of this milestone included automated texts to mobile subscribers, holograms projected onto national monuments, full-page newspaper advertisements, and an op-ed penned by Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi in all leading newspapers. The coup de grace is that the lotus flower icon just so happens to be both India’s chosen G20 logo and the BJP’s party symbol.
To be fair, Modi’s personal popularity is running well ahead of his party’s. For example, the PM was the beginning, middle, and end of the recently concluded assembly campaigns in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. This may not be enough to overcome local factors in the context of an assembly campaign, such as in Himachal, or municipal elections, as in Delhi. But a leader with a 59% net approval rating, according to Morning Consult’s Global Leader tracker, is an ace in the hole for any party fighting a national election.
So, what about the Opposition? In June 2019, election post-mortems were replete with the woes of a fragmented, leaderless, out-organised, and out-funded Opposition. Any impartial evaluation of the Opposition at year’s end would begin with these shortcomings. But, at long last, there are signs of creative destruction underway in the Opposition ranks.
Let’s begin with the Congress. The Bharat Jodo Yatra has, on the surface, been a qualified success. Even BJP insiders are surprised at the crowds, grassroots support, and compelling photo-ops the yatra has produced. However, one can argue that it has been more successful in rehabilitating Rahul Gandhi’s image than rebuilding the party’s tattered election machine. The yatra’s itinerary is divorced from hard-nosed calculations of electoral politics, an admission its planners have said was by design. Yet, the Congress is theoretically in the business of winning elections, not running a social advocacy organisation.
In the meantime, the Congress’s listless Gujarat campaign has allowed the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to establish itself as a third force while the Congress saw its vote share drop by nearly 15 percentage points in five years. If there’s one established empirical fact about Congress politics over the last four decades, it is this: Once the Congress falls below second place in a state, it never rebounds. The party can scarcely squander market share in a traditionally bipolar state since it is hard pressed to make up those votes elsewhere.
Scratch the surface further and ticking time-bombs abound. The internecine conflict between Congress leaders Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan shows no signs of abating. In Karnataka — perhaps the Congress’s best chance to pick up a major state in 2023 — Congress leaders are not sure how the subterranean struggle between former chief minister Siddaramaiah and party boss DK Shivakumar will shake out.
Yes, the party successfully held a presidential election resulting in the selection of someone whose last name is not Gandhi. But the party high command snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by placing its thumb on the electoral scales to ensure the victory of a favoured insider over an underdog outsider. Shashi Tharoor ran a principled, positive campaign that criticised neither the Gandhi family nor his fellow contestant. For his efforts, it appears Tharoor has been further ostracised, putting at risk an important parliamentary seat in Thiruvananthapuram. With only 53 seats in Parliament, the Congress should be husbanding every competitive assembly segment, rather than tossing aside a seat that it could well lose without Tharoor in the saddle.
Beyond the Congress, the AAP has made its national ambitions clear. With the AAP’s entry in Gujarat, in addition to its hold on Delhi and Punjab, Arvind Kejriwal has firmly entered the 2024 conversation. However, in both Gujarat and the Delhi municipal elections, the AAP underperformed expectations. The party has decided, alternately, to punt on questions of nationalism or try to outflank the BJP on the Right. It’s a shrewd calculation, but one which Muslims firmly rejected in Gujarat. According to Lokniti-CSDS data, Muslims in the state strongly consolidated behind the Congress. Furthermore, it is not clear that this strategy can even win over core Hindu voters.
The AAP’s opportunistic nationalism could also make coalition-building with other anti-BJP parties a heavier lift. After all, it is not clear that MK Stalin’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Jagan Reddy’s YSR Congress or K Chandrashekar Rao’s Bharat Rashtra Samithi will be willing to sign up for a programme that would violate the social contract they have signed with their respective voters.
The Opposition could instead coalesce around a platform of countering absolutism at the Centre, but this ploy could well backfire given no regional satrap in India today has a sterling record of either democratic governance or rule of law in their own state. If anything, the excesses of the Centre are replicated in nearly every single state, irrespective of the party in power.
While nationalism might worsen intra-Opposition divides, a focus on public services could potentially unite them. In state after state, the Opposition’s most reliable appeal has been to emphasise its welfare credentials. Since 2015, this is space the Modi-led BJP has tried to claim as its own. While the BJP’s “new welfare” policies of public provision of private goods (such as toilets or gas connections) have had documented success, they have been less effective in the realm of public service delivery, such as primary health and education.
The prevailing wisdom in political science suggests that political parties in low-income democracies are not credible when it comes to public goods delivery. Despite lofty promises made on the campaign trail, parties have rarely delivered when in office. Constituents know this all too well, which is why they rarely believe politicians who mobilise on these grounds. Parties, aware of this credibility gap, resort to the tried and true practice of segmented transfers to individual households where they can more easily maximise credit-claiming. But what if parties were credible on public services? This is where the AAP could be breaking new ground. The jury is still out on whether its investments in health and education in Delhi will produce the transformational outcomes the party has touted. But what’s notable is that curious voters in far-flung parts of India are beginning to ask questions about the so-called “Delhi model” of governance.
It would be daring of the Opposition to make public service delivery the leitmotif of its general election campaign in 2024. But one thing is for sure: Until and unless the Opposition forges an affirmative agenda that goes beyond attacking Modi and the BJP, its collective post-election analysis in 2024 will look a lot like 2019.
Milan Vaishnav is senior fellow and director, South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC
The views expressed are personal