One statement and an announcement hint at things to come for the 2024 Parliamentary elections. Amit Shah in a rally in Bihar said that the BJP was not opposed to the caste census. Then, like a classic case of divide and rule, he went on to say that the caste census carried out by the Nitish Kumar government has over-enumerated Muslims and Yadavs and underestimated most backward castes. As per the Bihar caste census, Muslims are 17.70% and Yadavs top the chart amongst the OBC with a 14.20% share. Without mincing words Shah said that while enumerating the caste details the Bihar government has increased the number of these two communities. This is not only an attempt to create doubt in the minds of the people of Bihar but also a clever ploy to tell the other-than-Yadavs in the OBC that the Nitish and Tejasvi government is deliberately favouring Muslims and Yadav and being unjust to other communities. It now remains to be seen if other castes and communities take the hint, but meanwhile it is surely an attempt to create a wedge and hostility between the Yadavs and other castes. It is a dangerous game. The BJP has successfully done the same between Hindus and Muslims at the all-India level, and at the state level in UP between Yadavs and other OBCs, among Dalits, between Jatavs and the rest.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while campaigning in MP, has announced that the free ration scheme which was launched during the pandemic to support the poor who were devastated due to Covid, which was later extended till May 2024, has further been extended for five years. The announcement came in the midst of the Assembly elections. I don’t know if this was a violation of the election code of conduct, but this is certainly an attempt to influence voters. The BJP seems to be on a weak wicket in this election. The PM, who never tires of saying that India is economically growing at a fast pace, and that it has become the fifth largest and the fastest growing economy, must answer why 80 crore people need to be fed by the central government. This was understandable during Covid times when the poor were badly affected, lost jobs, and found it difficult to sustain their families. But it has been more than two years and Covid is no longer a threat. Last time when the government extended the scheme by a year, it was criticised for doing it to influence voters for the Assembly and general elections.
The PM himself has severely criticised the Opposition for distributing freebies. On July 16 in Jalone (UP) he said that the “revadi” culture is dangerous for the development of the country and especially youth should vary of such freebies. On August 2, he again attacked the Congress governments in Karnataka and Rajasthan, saying that “due to freebies, no money is left” and development is suffering. He said, “Today, the entire country is worried seeing how it (freebie culture) has negatively impacted Karnataka. When a party, for its selfish reasons, empties the state’s treasuries, then it impacts the state’s people to the maximum. This impacts the future of our youth.” Despite the PM’s criticism, the BJP has been promising all kinds of freebies just as the Opposition parties are doing. This exposes the party’s double standard.
The culture of freebies has been in existence for a long time. But this gained a new impetus due to the historic victories of AAP in Delhi, followed by Punjab. In three assembly elections, 2013, 2015 and 2020, AAP which was a non-entity has formed three successive governments in Delhi. In the 2015 and 2020 elections, the BJP, despite Modi’s campaigning, was totally decimated. The Congress which ruled Delhi under Sheila Dixit for 15 years, has politically disappeared. It has failed to win a single seat on both occasions. The unprecedented success of AAP in Punjab has also been credited to freebies like providing free electricity etc. The Congress also learnt the trick. In Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, it has promised freebie guarantees to voters. In both the states the Congress has trounced the BJP. In Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot is also trying the same model. As recently as last week Rahul Gandhi has promised free education from KG to PG in Chhattisgarh where the BJP is pitted against the Congress.
In the present assembly elections, the BJP is not comfortably placed. It faces a tough fight in Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh. As opinion polls have predicted, the BJP might lose MP and Chhattisgarh, and in Rajasthan it might scrape through. In Telangana, where a few months ago it was speculated that the BJP might be a strong contender to replace the BRS government, it has now slipped to third place and the Congress is giving a tough fight to KCR. The BJP has negligible presence in Mizoram and it might not open its account in the state due to Manipur violence. And if BJP loses in four states, which is a possibility, then it will be a bad omen for it in the general elections. In the general election of 2024 Modi will be fighting for his third term and he will have to face ten years of anti-incumbency.
This time Modi has to fight a united Opposition and there is a distinct possibility that in more than 400 seats there might be a one-to-one contest between the Opposition and the BJP, which will pose a serious threat to Modi’s third victory in a row. Modi can only become the prime minister if BJP gets a majority on its own like it did in 2019. As predicted by the noted psephologist, Sanjay Kumar of CSDS, in case of a one-to-one contest, the BJP will find it difficult to win more than 230 seats. No doubt, even in that situation, the BJP will be the single largest party. But the BJP will find it difficult to form the government for two reasons. One, the BJP under Modi is not known to treat its allies well. Most of its allies, who were with the BJP for decades, have left the NDA and joined hands with their traditional rivals. The Shiv Sena led by Uddhav Thackeray felt betrayed when the BJP allegedly refused to honour the 50/50 formula to share the chief minister’s chair. Akali Dal in Punjab, TDP in Andhra Pradesh, JD(U) in Bihar, AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, all deserted the BJP. Though the BJP cobbled up 37 parties to counter the I.N.D.I.A alliance, two-thirds of them have almost no presence on the ground. Therefore, the BJP will find it very difficult to get alliance partners to reach the magic figure of 272 to form the government if it misses the majority mark by a big margin.
Second, the Modi government has mercilessly used government agencies to trouble Opposition parties. As I write this, Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh and Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan are facing the ire of these agencies. Every political party is convinced that if Modi comes back to power at the centre, then they all will face an existential crisis and many of their tall leaders might end up in jail. No other prime minister has been accused of using government agencies so blatantly and brazenly to finish off their political rivals.
The extension of the foodgrain scheme for the next five years should be seen in this context. It is to buy the loyalty of the voters for the 2024 general elections. Similarly, Shah’s reluctant acceptance that the BJP is not opposed to the caste census is also an attempt to appease OBCs. Ideologically the BJP is convinced that the caste census will harm its Hindu unity project. When the Nitish govt announced the caste census report, the prime minister called it a kind of sin. Rahul Gandhi and I.N.D.I.A are hell-bent on making the caste census a major issue for the election. And if that happens then it will hamper the BJP’s OBC outreach programme. OBCs have normally voted for the BJP in North Indian states. And if BJP doesn’t endorse the caste census despite its abhorrence to it, then OBCs might abandon the BJP. In that scenario, the BJP will lose many seats in North India and that will be disastrous for the party.
The BJP is in dire straits right now. To win 2024, it must re-look its election strategy. Shah’s statement and Modi’s announcement are parts of that exercise and in coming days many more such exercises will be seen.
(The writer is Editor, SatyaHindi.com, and author of Hindu Rashtra. He tweets at @ashutosh83B)