Are the 2024 general elections done and dusted already? A loaded question that hints at the ascent of a single party electoral democracy is now being increasingly answered in the affirmative. Recent political developments suggest that a ‘Modi-fied’ BJP is on a roll even as the opposition remains in a state of utter disarray.
The toppling of the 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 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 top BJP leadership and only executed at the state level. The ruthless manner in which the operation was carried out with the full might of state power – from partisan central agencies, especially the Enforcement Directorate, to local police machinery in Gujarat and Assam to a pliant Raj Bhavan in Mumbai – it would seem that every opposition ruled state is on notice: even where the BJP is not in power, it will not lose an opportunity to turn the tables through a mix of inducements and coercion. Jharkhand reportedly could be the next target.
Coincidentally, in the week where the Uddhav Thackeray-led government was on its way out, the BJP was holding a national executive meeting in Hyderabad. Telangana, where assembly elections are due next year, is clearly on the BJP’s radar, and the no holds barred attack on K Chandrashekhar Rao and his family is designed to build a familiar ‘party’ versus ‘parivar’ narrative. A similar grassroots leader versus privileged dynast storyline has been used to justify the coup in Maharashtra: now, the BJP is looking for an Eknath Shinde like disgruntled figure in other states who can challenge family run regional parties in Telangana and beyond.
That the south is a future target for the BJP is also clear in the fact that all four of the presidential nominees to the Rajya Sabha are from southern states, a move awash with political symbolism. In the 2019 general elections, the BJP won just 29 of its 303 seat tally from the five southern states, 25 of them from Karnataka alone. The southern push reflects an ambition to expand the party’s footprint into uncharted territory – seats that the party has never won — even if the rewards may not come overnight. Having almost reached saturation point in the Hindi heartland, the south is seen as the next major growth area.
Not just a geographical expansion, the BJP is deepening its social base too: the presidential nomination of Draupadi Murmu, an Adivasi woman from Odisha, is part of this conscious strategy. In the 2019 elections, the BJP dominated the scheduled tribe reserved constituencies with a 40 per cent vote share, a gain of more than six per cent. In fact, the BJP did much better in rural India than in urban pockets by engineering an OBC-SC-ST alliance that has gone well beyond the traditional upper caste Brahmin-Bania stereotype of the party’s support base.
Interestingly, the BJP has also won the recent by-elections to the Rampur and Azamgarh Lok Sabha seats in UP, 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 maybe an exaggeration, the victories only emphasise the BJP’s complete dominance of India’s most politically crucial state. That Akhilesh Yadav didn’t even step out to campaign for his Samajwadi party candidates reveals an absentee leadership that is no match for the BJP’s election juggernaut.
The contrast between the BJP’s focused 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 including the Aam Aadmi party chose to stay away from the initial meeting called by West Bengal chief minister, Mamta Banerjee to evolve a consensus on a name who might offer a real challenge to the BJP nominee. Octogenarian Yashwant Sinha was eventually only a fourth choice. Now, Draupadi Murmu’s nomination has widened the faultlines: not only has the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha decided to support a tribal woman but even the Shiv Sena (Uddhav faction) is backing her.
The predicament of the main opposition party, the Congress is even more glaring. The post 2019 hemorrhaging that has seen several high profile exits 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 in May was designed to lift the morale after the assembly election rout but barring a re-energising of its communication team, there is still little sign that the party is battle ready. With no clarity on its tangled leadership issue, it seems that the party is drifting in choppy seas without a captain at the helm. The lack of fighting spirit was visible in Maharashtra – once a Congress bastion – where the state party leaders appeared resigned to the fate of their coalition government from the very outset.
So is there an inevitability to a Narendra Modi hat-trick in 2024? Twenty months is a long time in Indian politics but it is hard to see what can change political fortunes. Yes, there isn’t a level playing field in the contest: the BJP has access to enormous resources, media and institutional power that makes a mockery of the concept of ‘free and fair’ elections. But for a fractured opposition to merely lament the ‘capture’ of the democratic process without even offering a viable counter-narrative or leadership model is to only make the BJP’s route to absolute power that much easier. A One Party Dominance (OPD) 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’ Goa. The Congress alleges that its MLAs have been offered Rs 40 crore each to switch. Pre-election, these MLAs had been taken to a temple, mosque and church where they vowed not to defect. Even God appears powerless before the BJP’s blooming lotus.