Terms of Trade | Has INDIA changed the road to 2024?
Short answer: It remains to be seen. For all practical purposes, the next Parliamentary elections are Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s, and not the BJP’s, to lose
In the age of 24X7 news and social media, political campaigns are as much an exercise in branding and marketing as they are in ideology or mobilisation. It is on the former front that the newly announced Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) of 26 opposition parties has generated a lot of buzz. Will the new alliance prove to be a game-changer for the 2024 elections?
Let us begin with an obvious caveat. The alliance, at least at the moment, is nothing more than a billboard. Not only will the partners have to iron out the usual friction in seat sharing between various alliance partners, but it is also almost a given that there will be no alliance between INDIA constituents in some states such as West Bengal and Kerala, and perhaps even Delhi and Punjab.
A more interesting question to ask is whether INDIA entails a wider Opposition unity than what existed in the 2014 and 2019 elections?
It is best to look at this question on a state-wise basis. In Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and its smaller alliance partners including the Congress, Left parties and smaller Dravidian parties swept the polls in 2019 as well. In Kerala, the main contest will continue to be between the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF). In Karnataka, the Congress actually had an alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular) in 2019. It is another matter that the alliance perhaps did more bad than good to both the Congress and the JD (S). The JD (S) might go with the BJP this time. In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the balance is likely still skewed in favour of the regional heavyweights, namely, the YSR Congress and Bharatiya Rashtra Samithi (BRS).
In Odisha, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) continues to remain equidistant from both the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in electoral terms, although if push comes to shove, the possibility of the BJD supporting the BJP in Lok Sabha cannot be ruled out. In Assam, the Congress is likely to face the BJP on its own, as the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) was not invited to the opposition deliberations which led to the formation of INDIA.
In Maharashtra, the intra-party fault lines – both the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) have seen splits with a faction each aligned to the BJP and the Congress – have completely muddied the political arithmetic. In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party (SP)-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) alliance in 2019 promised a much bigger challenge to the BJP in terms of arithmetic than what an SP-Congress-Rashtriya Lok Dal alliance (this was tried in the 2017 assembly elections) can pose. In West Bengal, even if an alliance does happen, the Left and the Congress will have a hard time convincing their cadre on the ground to support the Trinamool Congress (TMC), whose high-handed and violent political tactics were at full display in the recently held panchayat elections. In Delhi and Punjab, it remains to be seen if the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) can arrive at any understanding.
It needs to be reiterated that efforts were made towards this objective (then in Delhi and perhaps Haryana) even before the 2019 elections. The only state where a grand alliance is likely to give a tangible advantage to the opposition is Bihar, as a broadly similar alignment existed in the 2015 assembly elections and the BJP and its allies did very badly in the polls. Of course, in states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat etc. the contest will continue to be between the Congress and the BJP. The short point is, purely in terms of arithmetic there is nothing very drastic which INDIA brings to the table.
What about issues which INDIA might raise in the run-up to the elections? While it is early days to predict whether INDIA will have a joint manifesto or a common minimum programme, it is not very difficult to guess the broad contours of the opposition’s talking points in the run-up to the polls. This will likely include three major points: A host of fiscal palliatives (everything from cash transfers to cheap LPG cylinders and restoration of old pension scheme come here) to complement the incomes of a large number of people, an attempt to resurrect Mandal politics by promising caste census and subsequently higher share of Other Backward Class (OBC) reservations and talk against the BJP’s Hindutva politics. To be sure, it is more likely that the last component will see more rhetoric than promises to reverse some key decisions such as the abrogation of Article 370 and withdrawal of special status to the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Are they likely to make the BJP worried?
On the first, the BJP will make every attempt to outmanoeuvre the opposition by claiming that it has provided more to the poor than the Opposition has. We will most likely see an addition to the 'labharthi' portfolio when the interim budget is presented in February 2024. At least this is what the 2019 interim budget did. Irrespective of the results in 2024, one cannot deny that political compulsions have forced the BJP to significantly dilute its fiscal conservatism.
On the second, the Opposition’s biggest failure, at least until now, has been in not being able to force the BJP to come clean on either conducting a caste census or expanding the quota of OBC reservations. Even the Bihar government’s decision to conduct a caste census has proved to be a damp squib; at least in terms of its political impact, after it was stayed by the Supreme Court. Can INDIA build a mass movement to precipitate things on this front in time for the 2024 elections? Has it even tried to do something along these lines so far? Is it the case that the demand does not enjoy popular traction today, as an earlier edition of this column had hinted?
As far as the third is concerned, the BJP is actually happy to take the challenge head-on and if the post-2014 experience is anything to go by, it has not really suffered because of aggressive Hindutva in elections.
Is 2024 a done deal for the BJP? Elections are still nine months away and it is a long time in politics. There is more than enough evidence from election studies to suggest that a significant section of voters make their choices when elections are closer than they are at the moment. The short point is this question is best left unanswered at the moment.
Is there anything else we can say about 2024 at the moment? The BJP’s rise since 2014 is, in many ways, just about the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Its most irrefutable proof is the vote share premium which the BJP enjoys in national elections compared to state elections (even when they are held at the same time). This is also why even the last round of state elections scheduled for later this year will not give conclusive evidence about the BJP’s prospects in 2024. The Congress won this round in 2018 but was practically decimated in these states in 2019. By deciding against naming a convener for INDIA and with the Congress making it explicit that it is not insistent on the prime minister’s post, the opposition has made it clear it does not want to make 2024 a presidential contest. This also means that 2024 is, for all practical purposes, Narendra Modi’s and not the BJP’s election to lose. Modi's central challenge, at least in terms of 2024, will be to compensate objective pain points of the electorate with a subjective sense that his regime is indispensable for India. Without prejudice to the final result, one can argue that maintaining this balance should become difficult the more time Modi and BJP have spent in power. In other words, 2024 will be decided by voter fatigue or lack of it vis-a-vis Modi's grand narrative of a national rejuvenation.
Everything else, including this week’s optics vis-a-vis INDIA and National Democratic Alliance is just a sideshow.
Every Friday, HT’s data and political economy editor, Roshan Kishore, combines his commitment to data and passion for qualitative analysis in a column for HT Premium, Terms of Trade. With a focus on one big number and one big issue, he will go behind the headlines to ask a question and address political economy issues and social puzzles facing contemporary India.
The views expressed are personal