Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Dindigul, Tamil Nadu
LAST SEPTEMBER, WHEN UNION HOME Minister Amit Shah visited Bihar’s Kishanganj, he honoured freedom fighters from the region, offered prayers at the over 100-year-old Budhi Kali Mata temple, and broke protocol to get out of his car to acknowledge a group of loud supporters.
Shah stayed overnight at Kishanganj, the lone Congress Lok Sabha seat in the state which it has held since 2009. In what was his first visit to the state after Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), severed ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and joined hands with Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Congress, the BJP leader held a meeting with party MPs, MLAs and other leaders in which he shared his mantra to take on Bihar’s ruling alliance in the 2024 General Election. Only once has BJP won the Kishanganj Lok Sabha seat where Muslims comprise nearly 68 per cent of the population, when Shahnawaz Hussain defeated RJD’s Taslimuddin in 1999. In the 2019 elections, Mohammad Ashraf of JD(U), then an ally of BJP, lost the Seemanchal seat to Congress’ Mohammad Jawed. Shah, who performed aarti at the Kali temple, for which land is said to have been donated by a Muslim nawab, Asad Raza, is unfazed by the demographic arithmetic. Before reaching Kishanganj, he sounded the 2024 poll bugle on the turf of the Nitish Kumar-led Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) with a rally in Purnia, the heart of Seemanchal, lashing out at BJP’s ally-turned-rival for frequently switching sides, listing out the Centre’s role in infrastructure projects and welfare schemes for the region and lauding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership. Dismissing chances of Nitish Kumar becoming prime minister, Shah asked his audience, “Do you want Rahul Baba [Congress leader Rahul Gandhi] or Narendra Modi as prime minister again?”
Shah’s campaign, around 18 months before the General Election, was part of BJP’s strategy to target Lok Sabha seats seen to be ‘difficult’ to win for the party across the country. The party is understood to have identified 160 such seats, increasing the number from 144 earlier, adding some held by former allies, following the party’s break with JD(U) in Bihar and Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. Having tasted victory on opposition turfs that seemed impregnable, BJP is augmenting its goals, challenging itself to take on opponents outside its comfort zones. As a party leader, who does not want to be named, puts it, BJP does not see any seat as ‘unwinnable’. While in some of these seats the party has never won before, in several of them it emerged as runner-up in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Wherever the party is second or a close third, BJP sees hopes of overcoming the hurdle of “so-called unwinnability”, says the leader, pointing out that over the past decade BJP has made inroads into parts of India where its upsurge was seen to be unthinkable.
IN THE PURSUIT of breaching various barriers, BJP is targeting the family bastions of key opponents. This strategy has already been kicked off on the ground, as in Shah’s heading to Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh, former chief minister and Congress leader Kamal Nath’s stronghold over the past four decades, on March 25. BJP has won the seat only once, in 1997, when Sunder Lal Patwa became the MP for a year as elections were announced in 1998. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Kamal Nath’s son Nakul Nath defeated BJP’s Nathan Shah, but the Congress vote share fell by 3.48 per cent while BJP’s went up by 4.04 per cent. Of the 29 seats in Madhya Pradesh, Chhindwara was the only one BJP lost in 2019. All its seven Assembly segments are also held by Congress in the BJP-ruled state which goes for state polls towards the end of the year. Another seat in the crosshairs of BJP’s grand plan is Uttar Pradesh’s (UP) Congress citadel of Rae Bareli, held by Sonia Gandhi since 2004. By 2024, it would be two decades since she has been MP from the seat which was also held by former prime minister and her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi. Amidst speculation about 76-year-old Sonia Gandhi’s retirement, BJP is trying to wrest this lone Congress seat in UP. In 2019, BJP had won Amethi, the other Gandhi family stronghold since 1980, with Smriti Irani defeating Rahul Gandhi by about 55,000 votes, defying the notion that electorates do not shift allegiances in family pocket boroughs. Besides Rae Bareli, the other seat in UP which BJP has never won is Mainpuri, the family turf of Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Mulayam Singh Yadav since 1996. After Yadav’s death in October 2022, Dimple Yadav, his daughter-in-law and wife of former Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, won the seat in the December bypoll. BJP had wrested the other Yadav bastion, Kannauj, with Subrat Pathak defeating Dimple and making his foray into Parliament in 2019. This time, Akhilesh Yadav could return to fight in Kannauj, a seat he has won thrice. In Maharashtra, BJP is trying to buck the trend in the Baramati seat, held by Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar since 1996 and thereafter by his daughter Supriya Sule since 2009. In September, when Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman made a three-day visit to Baramati, a seat in Pune district which BJP has never won, she said she was there to strengthen BJP and not talk about a family.
A detailed roadmap has been drafted by party leaders, including BJP chief JP Nadda, for focusing on seats that pose a challenge to the party, with Union ministers assigned a cluster of constituencies. Party sources said all ministers, barring the top four who have hectic schedules owing to their ministerial responsibilities, are expected to visit the seats and spend 48 hours there at least once a month. In an election campaign bound to revolve around Modi, eventually the prime minister’s rallies are expected to be held in nearly a third of these seats. According to a Union minister, the logic is simple— wherever there is scope for BJP to increase its tally, it should pull out all the stops to do so. This, he says, is also part of the party’s “karya neeti (work ethos)”, aimed at its countrywide expansion.
According to a BJP leader, the party could win at least half these seats. A database acquired after BJP launched an exercise last year—sending 50,000 of its workers over six months to one lakh booths which the party had failed to capture across the country—gives the party a clear picture of why it was defeated in those. The reasons varied—organisational, personality issues or a communication gap. Based on the analysis, covering booths in all Lok Sabha seats, BJP has chalked out its strategy on the ground for the 2024 elections. The idea is to win where the party’s presence is weak, disproving the theory that some seats were unconquerable for BJP, says the leader.
Such seats stretch across India. A party leader says that constituencies in the southern and eastern states like Telangana, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, which were seen to be out of bounds for BJP, are no longer “long-term projects”, pointing out that the party has overcome demographic obstacles in Christian-dominated regions of the Northeast. In Telangana, ruled by K Chandrashekar Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samithi-turned Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS), where BJP won four of the 17 seats in 2019, the party is targeting all the other 13 seats. In Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD)-ruled Odisha, BJP, which won eight of the 21 seats last time, taking the principal opposition space, it is zooming in on 12 seats it did not win. In Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal, BJP, which won 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats replacing the Left as the main opposition, is focusing on about a dozen constituencies, including those which have a significant Muslim population. In Kerala, where BJP still has a long way to go, among the six seats it has identified, it is concentrating on Thiruvananthapuram, held by Congress’ Shashi Tharoor, with BJP in second place.
Wherever the party is second or a close third, BJP sees hopes of overcoming the hurdle of ‘unwinnability’. In trying to breach various barriers, BJP is targeting the family bastions of key opponents. The party has already kicked off this strategy on the ground
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The party is planning aggressive campaigns in states where its alliances with regional parties have fallen apart. After Nitish Kumar broke off, BJP has brought 10 seats into its ambit of targeted constituencies, including Valmiki Nagar, Jhanjharpur, Gaya and Supaul, all held by JD(U). Shah, at a rally in Valmiki Nagar, which BJP had won in 2014, lashed out at the chief minister calling him an opportunist for tying up with RJD and Congress to “fulfil his prime ministerial ambitions”. In 2019, when it was in alliance with JD(U), BJP had won all the 17 seats it contested while JD(U) won 16 of the 17 it fought. In Punjab, where the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) snapped ties with it in 2020 over the farm laws that were later repealed, BJP has identified around half of the 13 Lok Sabha seats. In Maharashtra, where it is now in coalition with the Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena, BJP has raised its target by 10 seats, all of which are held by opponents in the Maha Vikas Aghadi, an alliance of former ally Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena, Congress and NCP.
In UP, which sends 80 members to Lok Sabha, BJP is targeting about half of the 16 seats it lost in 2019. Besides Rae Bareli and Mainpuri, these include Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) stronghold of Ambedkar Nagar and also seats BJP had won in 2014 but lost in the last General Election.
This is not the first time that BJP has identified challenging seats held by its political opponents and launched aggressive campaigns to win them. In 2016, when Shah was party president, BJP had zeroed in on 120 such seats, of which it had fought around 80 in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and won nearly half of those. At the party conclave in Bhubaneswar in 2017, Shah had said that BJP was yet to reach its peak and that its “golden era” would come only when the party had a presence from “panchayat to Parliament” in all states. BJP, which won 282 seats in 2014, increased its tally to 303 in 2019, with an increase in vote share from 31.1 to 37.4 per cent. It also got more support from across social groups, including Dalits and tribals. Its aim now is to take its winning streak further in 2024, targeting more seats outside its traditional support base. A BJP leader said “no party works like this”. Nobody can deny that.