In recent months, the pace of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public engagements has quickened. A hectic schedule has become busier with the prime minister visiting states due for polls later this year, including his home state of Gujarat, and also inaugurating marquee infrastructure projects like the Bundelkhand Expressway (which will connect to Mumbai) in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and opening several new cancer treatment hospitals in Assam. With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) back in the saddle in Maharashtra in alliance with the breakaway Shiv Sena, stalled projects like the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train are gaining critical momentum. Modi’s NaMo App is buzzing with posts of his engagements as also short clips of political associates, ministers and members of Parliament (MPs) recalling instances of their interactions with the prime minister over the years, bringing out experiences that have shaped the leader’s political thinking while providing a human touch to his persona. Those familiar with Modi’s style say that the 2019 campaign never stopped and has only become more hectic, pointing to a mix of project launches, consultations, public addresses and political events that mark his schedule. It might be fair to say that BJP’s canvassing for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls is well underway with a blizzard of publicity and events around its principal vote-getter.
On the other side of the political divide, there appears a palpable lack of cohesion and purpose. The presidential and vice presidential polls, expected to provide an opportunity for the opposition to deliver a contest that makes a point even if numbers favour the ruling side, have failed to stir the public imagination. Significant cross-voting in favour of National Democratic Alliance (NDA) nominee Draupadi Murmu punctured the opposition bid to display unity against BJP. The opposition’s bid to present a nominee who could articulate an ‘alternative’ political vision as opposed to BJP did not come off. Its candidate, former BJP leader-turned-Modi critic Yashwant Sinha, was the fourth choice after Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) patriarch Sharad Pawar, National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah and Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, turned down the offer. Even as the opposition was holding its discussions, a senior Rajya Sabha MP noted that he did not underestimate Modi’s capacity to spring a surprise. The prime minister did precisely that when he picked the soft-spoken Murmu, a former governor of Jharkhand and a two-term MLA, the first tribal woman from her village in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj to have gained a college education. The contest turned more one-sided as Sinha, who had resigned from the Trinamool Congress (TMC) to run for president, could barely cause a ripple with even his backers lacking in enthusiasm. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) backed Murmu after initially supporting Sinha and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik swiftly endorsed Murmu as a daughter of the state. Even Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena broke ranks to support Murmu. Her Santhal origins connect her to a large section of tribals, the third largest after Bhils and Gonds, spread out through much of eastern India. Her humble background, the obviously self-made imprint in her rise from poverty, made her a powerful symbol of empowerment. BJP’s political and ideological opponents have often sought to undercut tribal leaders in BJP as having been “co-opted” by Hindutva and Sinha said Murmu would be a “rubber stamp” acting on command. But such and other criticisms—a Congress leader called her a decent person representing an “evil philosophy”—did not much wash. If Modi sought to make a point about BJP being serious about tribal representation at the highest levels and on inclusion of underprivileged sections within the Hindu political-cultural fold, he did so with some aplomb. Union Home Minister Amit Shah wrote an op-ed arguing that the Modi government has accelerated programmes for the uplift of tribals and their swifter integration in the national mainstream.
The half-heartedness in the opposition ranks is even more evident in the contest for vice president. Congress veteran Margaret Alva, an articulate politician who has had long stints as a Union minister and Rajya Sabha MP, suffered a setback almost no sooner than her nomination was announced. This time, TMC refused to support Alva and went on to argue that her candidature was a unilateral move. TMC Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien said Congress needs to review its style of functioning even as he slammed BJP’s “bigoted” policies. The tenuous unity in the opposition ranks, already damaged by desertions during the presidential polls, took a bigger hit. BJP chose West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar, who began his career in the socialist camp and has been in the headlines for his running war of words with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and TMC. Although TMC leaders said they are not backing Dhankhar, their abstention boosts his chances and weakens the opposition’s efforts to make a political point. As in Murmu’s case, BJP’s decision is guided by hard-headed calculations rather than considerations of loyalty and personal affinity. Dhankhar is a pugnacious politician with an earthy sense of humour often associated with his Jat community. Hailing from Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan, he has considerable experience as a lawyer and politician, having won his first Lok Sabha election as a Janata Dal candidate in 1989. With a professed interest in agriculture, he is a good choice for BJP in terms of the party’s endeavours to consolidate its support among Jats, a peasant community spread over western UP, Haryana and Rajasthan. While Jats have strongly backed Modi in national elections and belied expectations that they would turn against BJP in the UP polls held earlier this year after the anti-farm laws agitation, they have been less supportive in recent state elections in Haryana and Rajasthan. Dhankhar is also seen to have the smarts to chair Rajya Sabha, an important task that goes with the vice president’s office. An easy going, witty manner, as well as a good grounding in law and parliamentary procedure, should help him steer government business.
The setbacks for the opposition come at a time when BJP has gained the upper hand on other battlegrounds too. The dramatic fall of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra put BJP back in the frame in the populous state with a significant industrial and agricultural base and which sends 48 MPs to Lok Sabha. The revolt in Shiv Sena addressed a bleeding sore as the BJP leadership has chaffed at losing Maharashtra despite its alliance with Sena winning the 2019 Assembly polls. Thackeray’s decision to break with BJP and ally with NCP-Congress had left BJP helpless and fuming. Regaining office in Maharashtra has helped instil confidence in party ranks and, even more importantly, sent a political message. The clinical efficiency with which the Thackeray-led government was deposed has led to murmurings elsewhere, such as in Bihar where relations between BJP and Janata Dal-United, or JD(U), leader Nitish Kumar are increasingly under strain. The situation in Jharkhand also bears watching given the tension between JMM and Congress. The developments in Maharashtra came not long after a gratifying victory in UP where Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has emerged as a leader in his own right. The resounding victory fortified Modi’s and BJP’s confidence that they are on the right track and the prime minister has since doubled down on his political-social programme aimed at “saturation” coverage of Central benefits among eligible recipients from the poorer sections. Over the last eight years, Modi has forged a powerful political model anchored in a ‘native’ political-cultural vision but which is not at odds with the forces of modernity (emphasised by promotion of startups and advocacy of reforms). The Hindutva-plus-development mantra seems to fire the party’s base with a mix of emotion and tangible benefits. This means Modi exudes a ‘pull factor’ as much as a disorganised Congress may represent a push factor.
The presidential polls, expected to provide an opportunity for the Opposition, failed to stir the public imagination. Cross-voting in favour of NDA nominee Draupadi Murmu punctured the Opposition bid to display unity
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An important reason why the opposition comes across as a disjointed force is the continuing drift in Congress. The issues raised by the dissenting “G23” leaders who demanded a full-time party president and have been critical of Rahul Gandhi’s decisions have not been resolved. Congress’ internal elections remain uncertain, even as the demand that the working committee be at least partly elected is still to be addressed. Decision-making remains concentrated in Rahul Gandhi’s hands despite his not holding a formal post, with his appointees carrying out organisational assignments—and the same goes for strategy in Parliament. His interactions with opposition leaders are sporadic and the deliberations in Jodhpur where a brainstorming session was held did not put the spotlight on whether Congress’ choice of political issues and attacks on Modi were paying any dividends. The leadership’s analysis of the party’s problems does not appear to have moved much beyond the reasons set out by Rahul when he stepped down as party president after the 2019 Lok Sabha results. The BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ‘capture’ of institutions figures prominently in this narrative while other issues like the failure of Rahul’s campaign on alleged corruption in the Rafale fighter deal are given a miss. In a situation where genuine introspection eludes the party and its leadership is inaccessible, Congress’ claim to be the centrepiece of any challenge to BJP is hotly contested by assertive regional parties. Congress leaders say that such jostling is to be expected and there will be room for meaningful arrangements once the national elections are at hand. The failure of experiments like the Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), and Congress pact in Karnataka and the MVA in Maharashtra are however discouraging portents. Relations between the Gandhis and the government meanwhile continue to be frosty with Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Modi exchanging the briefest of namastes at the swearing-in of President Draupadi Murmu on July 25.
Barring a sudden change in Congress fortunes, the main battle in the next Lok Sabha polls could be between BJP and regional parties. The saffron juggernaut has come up short in states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha and West Bengal. BJP has done well in Odisha and West Bengal in national elections but not so in Assembly polls. On the other hand, BJP has consolidated in the Northeast where it had been a marginal presence, and got the better of Congress in direct contests. The test will come in Himachal Pradesh later this year and in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh in late 2023. Going by BJP’s success in salvaging a losing match in Uttarakhand earlier this year, Congress has its task cut out. Unlike in 2013, when it was able to exploit incumbency against BJP in these states, this time round it is in office in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Regional parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) have cranked up their criticism of BJP for eroding ‘federalism’ and advocating Hindutva. Their concerns partly stem from the diminution of powerful entities like the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) which once ruled the roost in UP.
Modi’s ability to appeal across caste lines and present a ‘nationalist’ agenda has worsted the Mandal giants and even ally Nitish Kumar is feeling the heat. These developments have convinced regional stalwarts of the need to bring up questions related to regional identity to emphasise their political identities. But while state polls can have different dynamics, the prime minister is a formidable opponent in the national sweepstakes with opinion polls (Morning Consult, Pew, Edelman Trust Barometer) showing that, unlike several governments and international leaders who lost popularity during the Covid pandemic, Modi’s image has not suffered. Trust in government and Modi remains high in India and his stature is reflected by the deference shown to him by other heads of government at international gatherings. Although every election throws up a surprise or two, it will take more than routine assertions of a likely opposition alliance to knock Modi off his stride. And counting on another black swan event after Covid and the Ukraine war might be hoping for too much.