Who will take on Modi in the 2024 elections?
Will the Opposition script a clear vision that counters the PM’s narrative? Or will a single leader emerge to take on BJP’s juggernaut?
For the last few years, Indian politics has witnessed a long-running saga: KBC or Kaun Banega Challenger (who’ll become the challenger). New contenders emerge each year — sometimes every few months — and others fall away. With just 12 months to go for the general elections, the KBC factor has perhaps entered its most intriguing phase. Will we see a single challenger emerge to take on Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, or will we see an Opposition collective that goes beyond the usual political suspects?
In 2021, Mamata Banerjee was seen as a potential KBC finalist. She defeated the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) juggernaut in West Bengal by showing remarkable grit in adversity. But when she attempted to expand beyond Bengal, she floundered. Banerjee’s strength in Bengal as the daughter of the soil became her weakness outside the state. As the BJP targeted her family and exposed ministerial corruption, Banerjee’s national ambitions were suddenly downsized to protecting her fortress in Bengal.
2022 was the year of Arvind Kejriwal in the KBC stakes. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader’s smashing success in Punjab meant he was no longer a single-state wonder. The Punjab win resurrected Kejriwal’s dream to build a pan-India presence, and he decided to challenge PM Modi on his home turf, Gujarat. The high-decibel campaign evoked an instant response from the BJP: Kejriwal’s key aides were entangled in a Delhi liquor scandal that led to several arrests. Once, the war against corruption was seen as the AAP’s unique selling point; now, it threatened to doom the start-up force.
2023 has seen another fascinating twist in the KBC drama. Over the last few months, Rahul Gandhi was reinvented as the primary oppositional figure to PM Modi. The enthusiastic support for the Bharat Jodo Yatra appeared to have galvanised a dormant Congress organisation. At the same time, the disqualification of Gandhi as a Member of Parliament over a patently egregious criminal defamation verdict conferred the halo of victimhood on him. Gandhi has been unafraid to take on the Modi government but having led his party to two bruising Lok Sabha election defeats, he still needs to inspire confidence in the rest of the Opposition that he can offer a robust alternative.
The truth is that India’s Opposition can’t be centred just around the shifting fortunes of political parties and their individual leaders, especially when there is no level playing field left anymore. So skewed is the institutional balance of power in favour of the ruling party that a vigorous challenge to a larger-than-life figure such as PM Modi appears almost impossible. When, according to a recent petition before the Supreme Court, 95% of cases by the Central Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement Directorate are against Opposition leaders, when electoral bonds give unlimited access to resources to largely one party, when constitutional functionaries are perceived as unwilling to rein in the government, when Parliament is paralysed and sections of the media are compromised, who will raise a red flag against executive overreach?
In 1977, former PM Indira Gandhi was challenged and defeated, not because the political Opposition’s credibility was restored overnight. Most of the Opposition leaders then were in the autumn of their careers. Nor was there any ideological cohesion in the Janata Party-led coalition: The socialists and Jan Sangh hardly saw eye to eye. Nevertheless, an existential crisis brought them together in the light of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and jailing of all dissenting voices. But, crucially, what gave their movement salience was the public perception that the Opposition was fighting a just war.
The Opposition seems driven by a similar existential crisis, but their “democracy khatre mein hai” (democracy is in danger) war cry lacks salience. For now, a fear of a domineering leadership and an unrelenting Enforcement Directorate is slowly uniting disparate forces. But the fear factor alone can’t change the political narrative. Nor can knee-jerk anti-Modism — revolving around personal attacks on the PM’s educational qualifications — become a magnet for wider support. The PM has craftily dubbed the embryonic alliance against him as a Bhrastachar Bachao Abhiyan, or a grouping of the corrupt, protecting each other. How can the Opposition take on PM Modi on corruption when many of its leaders and their kin face graft charges?
The Opposition must first convince the public that they represent an urgent need for a credible political alternative. This can only happen when Opposition parties come together on a common platform and initiate a plan of action with national resonance. For example, the discordant notes struck over Vinayak Damodar Savarkar are unlikely to give a sense of unified purpose. Twenty-first-century India isn’t interested in acrimonious battles over historical figures. Those debates can be left for opinion page writers rather than for political parties seeking a revival.
Can the Opposition define their vision for a better India? In 2014, PM Modi used two words, achhe din (good days), to offer hope for a better future. Nine years on, PM Modi has moved onto a new slogan of Amrit Kaal, promising a road map for the next 25 years. Can the Opposition expose this well-spun dream with hard facts while offering their version of achhe din? Whoever does so could well become the ultimate KBC winner.
Post-script: At a recent meeting of Opposition leaders, a veteran politician detailed how 400 seats in the next Lok Sabha election could witness one-on-one fights between the BJP and a unified Opposition. “To win elections, we need to learn the art of compromise by keeping our egos aside,” he told the gathering. Will this be the new mantra ahead of 2024?
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal
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- Central Bureau Of Investigation
- Enforcement Directorate
- Lok Sabha
- Rahul Gandhi
- Aam Aadmi Party
- Arvind Kejriwal
- Bharatiya Janata Party
- Mamata Banerjee
- Vinayak Damodar Savarkar
- Indira Gandhi
- Electoral Bonds
- Level Playing Field
- Janata Party
- Ht Exclusive