As Prime Minister Narendra Modi hopes to equal Jawaharlal Nehru’s record of returning to the PMO thrice in a row, the new year is also being seen by many as one of the toughest periods for the opposition in the country.
The grand old party, the Congress, is the real centre of gravity in I.N.D.I.A, and is undoubtedly, pivotal to the scheme of things but is most precariously perched in its 138-year journey. It is 40 years since the Congress scaled its electoral peak in 1984, winning a record 414 Lok Sabha seats. With just 48 seats in the Lower House of Parliament now, the party has experienced a steady decline in the last 10 years.
In 2024, as the Congress hopes to arrest this slide, it will face multiple challenges, the topmost being finalising seat-sharing deals with the constituents of the anti-BJP bloc, which is yet to make any electoral impact. Not being in an advantageous position, it will begin these negotiations on a weak footing, having lost the Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh to the BJP. The defeats have upset the Congress’s calculations as it was hoping to sustain the momentum gained by the victories in Himachal Pradesh in 2022 and in Karnataka in 2023.
The losses are most likely to prove demoralising for the party cadres just ahead of the 2024 general elections, as the Hindi belt states play a major role in determining the outcome. In 2019, the BJP had won 141 seats – 71 per cent of those contested – in the Hindi heartland.
Poll analysts feel that the 2024 Lok Sabha polls are significant for the Congress, considering that it has lost two general elections badly. It is a make-or-break situation for the party now.
The Congress is in power on its own in just three states – Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka and Telangana. While HP is the only north Indian state the party now rules, it has just four Lok Sabha seats. However, in the southern states, the party appears to be consolidating.
After being virtually wiped off the Hindi belt, the Congress will need to devise new plans to capture the voters’ imagination. The BJP has pitched ‘Modi ki Guarantee’ and the PM’s ‘four castes – women, youth, poor and farmers’, to counter the Congress’s freebies and caste census plans, respectively. With caste census, sops and the anti-Adani campaign yet to generate any mass appeal, the party has gone back to announce a second edition of the Bharat Jodo Yatra by Rahul Gandhi, hoping to reconnect with the people.
The hybrid (by bus and by foot) Bharat Nyay Yatra from Manipur to Maharashtra will begin on January 14 and cover 14 states. The march is seen as politically significant and the announcement of the polls may coincide with the last leg of the yatra.
But this yatra has not evoked a positive and encouraging response from I.N.D.I.A partners. For instance, JDU leader K C Tyagi says, “What’s the point of another Bharat Jodo Yatra when I.N.D.I.A seat sharing is still pending, Rahul could have called a quick meeting to finalise the final contours with all the alliance partners but he hasn’t done so and I feel sorry for the alliance, as Nitish Kumar had worked hard to put it together.” Tyagi says that “Nitish will begin his own nationwide campaign on caste census awareness but he is trying to chart his own course, as there is uncertainty regarding the final shape of I.N.D.I.A”.
Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge recently said that if everybody were to unite, Prime Minister Narendra Modi would not be able to do anything. “The more you try to crush us, the more we will rise. We are fighting unitedly to save the country and democracy,” he had said. But there is a distance between the cup and the lip. For now, all the talks on I.N.D.I.A seem to be only for the camera, as on the ground, the pace is excruciatingly slow. There is no sign of a common secretariat, no common banner, except for the different committees which have been announced. Several of them haven’t even met.
Asserting that it is ready for polls, the Congress held its ‘Hain Taiyyar Hum’ mega rally in Nagpur to mark its foundation day. The party has also been holding consultations with state leaders for the past several days on Lok Sabha poll preparedness and is leaving nothing to chance. It appears to look upbeat about reversing its fortunes, but remains acutely conscious of the challenges ahead. The first roadblock to successful seat-sharing talks within the I.N.D.I.A bloc has come from within the party, as its Punjab and Delhi units openly warned against any Lok Sabha truck with AAP.
With the internal dynamics unclear, it remains to be seen how Congress, the largest constituent of the I.N.D.I.A bloc will strengthen the alliance and forge seat-wise understanding between professed rivals – the TMC and CPI(M) in Bengal; the Left and itself in Kerala, and with the AAP in Punjab and Delhi. Already the smaller parties of the alliance are advising the Congress to be prepared to sacrifice more than it is ready to. In Maharashtra, the Congress is not ready to give 23 seats to the Shiv Sena.
Former Uttar Pradesh CM Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party has been openly voicing its concern over what he called “‘Congress arrogance’, as evidenced in the lack of understanding with the SP in Madhya Pradesh”. The TMC and AAP have, meanwhile, thrown a spanner in the wheels of the bloc by proposing Kharge as the coalition’s PM face, knowing well that the grand old party is in favour of collective leadership with the rank and file behind Rahul Gandhi as their leader.
With leadership issues, a common minimum agenda and seat sharing yet to be resolved, I.N.D.I.A currently looks barely put together, even as the BJP continues to set the narrative, the latest being putting opposition parties in a spot by inviting all their top leaders for the consecration ceremony at the Ram temple in Ayodhya on January 22. The move has again divided the opposition, with Congress undecided on attending the event.
On the other hand, the BJP has launched ‘Modi ki Guarantee’ as its 2024 poll plank, daring the opposition to show its cards on the leadership issue, so that the narrative that emerges is ‘Modi versus whom’. For its part, the Congress says it will enter the Lok Sabha polls with the plank, ‘We, not me’, and will project a collective leadership. Whether the Congress’s recipe of a leaderless anti-BJP coalition can match the Modi juggernaut remains to be seen. In the meantime, it hopes to work on an alternative positive agenda for the 2024 elections and unite secular forces against the BJP.
The party’s guiding principle as it enters the new year is contained in its Raipur Plenary Political Resolution, which reads, “Unity of secular and socialist forces will be the hallmark of the future of the Congress party.” There are more questions than answers before I.N.D.I.A, at the moment. But politics is the art of the impossible. If you remember 2004, the India Shining campaign was at its peak and no one thought that the UPA would come to power.
So who knows, if in the next three months, I.N.D.I.A could get its act together in reaching out to the people, Modi’s days could be numbered. But for now, all this is in the realm of conjecture. If 2024 will be the hat-trick year of Modi’s rule, it could sound the death knell for the opposition in India. Surely then, 2024 is the biggest test of democracy for India.