Will it be a Modi hat-trick in 2024?
While the BJP is making the right moves and has its eyes set on the South, the Opposition has failed to develop a counter-narrative or leadership model. This is making the BJP’s route to absolute power easier
Are the 2024 general elections done and dusted already? That’s a loaded question that hints at the ascent of a single-party electoral democracy, but recent political developments suggest that a “Modi-fied” Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is on a relentless roll, even as the Opposition remains in disarray.
The toppling of an Opposition coalition government in Maharashtra is the most dramatic example of the BJP’s build-up to 2024. By seizing the state, with the second largest number of Lok Sabha Members of Parliament (MPs), the BJP has demolished a key citadel around which the Opposition might have hoped to mount its 2024 challenge. The near-total implosion in the Shiv Sena is not just a power struggle within the party, but a coup orchestrated in Delhi by the BJP leadership and executed at the state level. The ruthless operation, conducted with the full might of State power, from partisan central agencies, especially the Enforcement Directorate, to the local police machinery in Gujarat and Assam to a pliant Raj Bhavan in Mumbai, has put every Opposition-ruled state on notice. The BJP will use all means to turn the tables through a mix of inducements and coercion; Jharkhand could be the next target.
Coincidentally, in the week when the Uddhav Thackeray-led government was on its way out, the BJP held a national executive meeting in Hyderabad. Telangana, where assembly elections are due next year, is also on the BJP’s radar. The unrestrained attacks on K Chandrashekar Rao and his family are designed to build a familiar party versus parivar (family) narrative. A similar grassroots leader versus privileged dynast storyline was used to justify the rebellion in Maharashtra. Now, the BJP is looking for an Eknath Shinde-like disgruntled figure who can challenge family-run regional parties in other states.
The distinct ambition is to expand the BJP’s footprint into uncharted territory — seats the party has never won — even if the rewards may not come overnight. Having reached almost a saturation point in the Hindi heartland, the South is the next major growth area. All four recent presidential nominees to the Rajya Sabha are from southern states, a move awash with political symbolism. In the 2019 general elections, the BJP won 29 of its 303 seats from the five southern states, 25 from Karnataka.
Not just a geographical expansion, the BJP is deepening its social base, too: The presidential nomination of Droupadi Murmu, an Adivasi from Odisha, is part of this conscious strategy to strengthen a pro-poor Other Backward Class-Scheduled Caste-Scheduled Tribe alliance that goes well beyond the traditional upper caste Brahmin-Bania stereotype of the party’s support base. Interestingly, the BJP also won the bypolls to the Rampur and Azamgarh Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh, both with large Muslim populations and traditionally won by the Opposition. While the claim that the BJP got a sizeable chunk of the Muslim vote may be an exaggeration, the victories only emphasise the party’s dominance of India’s most politically crucial state.
The contrast between the BJP’s Mission 2024 and the Opposition’s inability to get its act together is striking. The presidential election campaign might have provided an opportunity to present a unified stance, but instead has floundered because of internal contradictions. A few key parties chose to stay away from the initial meeting called by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee to find a consensus candidate who might offer a real challenge to the BJP nominee. Octogenarian Yashwant Sinha was eventually only a fourth choice. Now, Murmu’s nomination has widened the fault lines.
The predicament of the main Opposition party, the Congress, is even more glaring. The post-2019 haemorrhaging shows no signs of ending. Every week, the political bazaar of Delhi is rife with rumours on who will be the next leader to leave a beleaguered party. A chintan shivir (introspection camp) in May was designed to lift morale after the assembly election rout. However, barring re-energising its communication team, there is still little sign that the party is battle-ready. With no clarity on its tangled leadership issue, the party is drifting in choppy seas without an inspirational captain at the helm.
Is there an inevitability to a Narendra Modi hat-trick in 2024? Twenty months is a long time in politics, but it is hard to see what can change political fortunes. Yes, there is not a level-playing field in the contest: The BJP has access to resources, media, and institutional power. But for a fractured Opposition to lament the capture of the democratic process, without even offering a viable counter-narrative or leadership model, is only to make the BJP’s route to absolute power that much easier. Although a one-party dominance system may seem like an inescapable reality, for now, its implications for democracy are deeply regressive: A one nation, one leader, one photo trend could become dangerously entrenched.
Post-script: The BJP’s latest “Operation Lotus” is playing out in Goa. Even in a small state where the BJP won an election just months ago, the party seems determined to create an “Opposition-mukt [free]” Goa. The Congress alleges its Members of Legislative Assembly were offered ₹40 crore each to switch. Pre-election, these legislators were taken to a temple, mosque, and church where they vowed not to defect. Even God appears powerless when faced with a blooming lotus.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author The views expressed are personal