As I have said earlier, the battle for 2024 is going to be the most brutal, ugly and sinister that India has witnessed since independence. The Bharatiya Janata Party led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi will not leave any stone unturned to win a third term. And, unlike 2014 and 2019, this time the Opposition will not let the BJP get a walkover. It has realised that the battle of 2024 is going to be one of life and death for them and if they are not united and alert, and if they lose this battle, then they will probably not be alive to see another election. The BJP also knows that if it loses the battle then the Opposition led by the Congress will not let them go unpunished. The stakes are too high for both parties to take this war lightly. The defection of NCP MLAs led by Ajit Pawar is just a minor reflection of that war. It will be bloodier in the coming days.
The general elections are 10 months away but battle lines have already been drawn. Fifteen Opposition parties have already met in Patna with a resolve to fight the BJP unitedly, and another meeting has been planned for Bengaluru; though postponed due to the crisis in Maharashtra, it will definitely happen in the near future. The defection of the NCP MLAs is directly linked with this effort at Opposition unity. Modi knows that whenever the Opposition has united in Indian politics, the ruling party has either lost the election or suffered massive losses. Prime examples of that strategy are 1967, 1977 and 1989. On all three occasions, it was the Congress that suffered. In 1977 and 1989 it lost power. Today the Congress is in the Opposition and the BJP is the ruling monarch. The Congress then had an overwhelming presence and the BJP and its earlier avatar Jan Sangh were minor players.
Today the BJP is the pole player but Congress is not a marginal player either. It has governments in four states and in another two — Jharkhand and Bihar — it is part of the government. In many other states, it has a substantial presence in terms of MLAs and vote percentage. Other regional parties including the Congress are in government in more than ten states. Together they are no mean players in national politics. Since they were scattered in many camps and were not willing to face each other due to political and other reasons, the BJP had an upper hand and it was easy for it to gain a majority in earlier two general elections. But the way the Modi government has misused central investigating agencies against the Opposition parties, there is a realisation that, divided, they cannot face the might of the ‘Modi’ state. And if Modi is back again then many political parties won’t be able to survive after 2024. It is this realisation which has forced them to keep their differences aside and explore common ground to create a platform for fighting the BJP.
Today the BJP is in the government but during two-thirds of its existence, it has been in the Opposition. It is very well aware that a fragmented Opposition space always works for the ruling party at the centre. The Congress could be successfully challenged in the past by the Opposition only when it sank differences and fought unitedly. Wisened by its past, it knows very well the meaning and dangers of opposition parties coming together. The BJP has also realised that despite having more than 300 parliamentary seats in the Lok Sabha, the party is precariously placed in terms of vote percentage. In 2014, it had only 31% votes nationally. In 2019, it improved its vote share by 6% but 37% is not a tall order. Whenever the Congress had a majority in the Lok Sabha, its vote share was always more than 42%. In 1989, when the united Opposition trounced the Congress, it had 49% votes and still it could not save its government. A drop of 2% to 3% in the BJP’s vote share can cause a major upheaval for the party. And if the Opposition is united then that possibility can’t be ruled out.
In the 2024 elections four states will decide the fate of the Modi government. Bihar, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Karnataka can be called swing states. In Bengal, the BJP in 2019 unexpectedly won 18 seats but this time Mamta Banerjee is alert and after forming the government for the third time, is hell bent on decimating the BJP in the state. It is predicted that in 2024 the BJP will find it very difficult to retain its seats and may face a substantial loss. Similarly, in Karnataka, the BJP will have a tough time retaining 26 seats out of the 28 which it won in 2019. The BJP has just tasted a humiliating defeat in the state, where it saw massive anti-incumbency.
In Bihar, the BJP was very comfortably placed along with Nitish Kumar. Now Nitish is with Laloo Yadav and in Bihar, as has been the trend, if two of the three parties that is BJP, JDU and RJD are together, then they win the electoral battle. Nitish this time carries an alliance of seven major parties and that makes the BJP very vulnerable. Similarly, the coalition of Shiv Sena led by Uddhav Thackeray, NCP of Sharad Pawar and the Congress has a formidable presence in Maharashtra, and that makes BJP very uncomfortable for the 2024 elections. The Maha Vikas Aghadi had the potential to restrict BJP’s seats in 2024 to a single digit. Maharashtra has 48 parliamentary seats, which is next to UP in terms of numbers, and that makes the state the most important after UP for the BJP if it has to come back to power in Delhi. In 2019, the BJP and Shiv Sena fought elections together. They won 41 seats with the BJP winning 23. But after the assembly elections, Shiv Sena refused to support the BJP; instead it formed the government with the help of the NCP and the Congress and if this coalition had continued in the government then the BJP would have been in a soup in the general elections.
No wonder Operation Lotus was engineered and the Uddhav Thackeray government was dislodged with the help of more than 2/3rd Sena MLAs who ditched the Thackeray clan. Despite the sensational coup, the BJP was not confident that it would repeat its 2019 performance. The reasons are obvious — Eknath Shinde government is an unpopular government and there is major sympathy for Thackerays among the people. If the BJP thought that a split in Shiv Sena would finish the Thackeray family politically then it was sorely mistaken. The BJP has been postponing the Mumbai municipal elections because it is not confident of winning them. The Thackeray family for more than two decades has had a very strong presence in the BMC. The BJP knows that despite the split in the Shiv Sena, Thackeray’s hold has not vanished with the people and if elections for the BMC are held now then the BJP-Shinde alliance might face major embarrassment. Therefore, the BJP planned to split the NCP to weaken the MVA.
The obvious question to be asked is, can the BJP now repeat its 2019 performance in 2024 in Maharashtra? I am not sure. Like the Thackerays, now Sharad Pawar will play the victim card and may gain people’s sympathy. The people of Maharashtra are aware that defectors led by Ajit Pawar have not crossed to the BJP for public good but to save themselves from going to prison. There is a major perception loss for the BJP too, as this exercise lays bare the BJP’s claims of fighting corruption. The fact is that at least four out of nine who were sworn in as ministers have serious corruption charges against them. Chhagan Bhujbal was in jail for more than two years. Devendra Fadnavis had promised to send Ajit Pawar to jail but now he will be sitting in the cabinet with the same Ajit Pawar. There is a strong possibility that the entire exercise might boomerang on the BJP itself. In electoral politics most of the time it is chemistry, not arithmetic, that plays a major role in deciding the fate of parties and leaders. The BJP has managed numbers but I am not sure if it will convert that into votes.
(The writer is Editor, SatyaHindi.com, and author of Hindu Rashtra. He tweets at @ashutosh83B)