Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay | Will Opp. lose battle for 2024 before it's begun?

The Opposition parties got together, found in INDIA†an acronym that creased brows of top BJP leaders

The wheel of political prospects completed the full circle as the page of the annual calendar was flipped. Last year, at this time, there was unanimity among most analysts and political watchers. Supporters of India’s current ruling establishment, as well as those on the other side, agreed that the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi were in pole position with a head start over the Opposition. This almost universal opinion was vital as it was the last year for the government before the Lok Sabha election. The conclusion that the BJP was way ahead of its rivals was significant given that the assessment was made before Mr Modi’s final poll-eve moves, political initiatives, starting new schemes and promising others if elected again. There were also Assembly polls in three bipolar states where the BJP was pitted against the Congress, the Opposition party with the widest electoral footprint.

It’s a truism that people vote differently in Assembly elections and there is little co-relation between that and the subsequent parliamentary polls -- for instance, the Congress won the 2018 Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, yet the BJP swept the three states in April-May 2019. At this time last year, the BJP appeared on a weak wicket: Shivaraj Singh Chouhan’s performance was nondescript, if not dismal, in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, there was a crisis of leadership with Vasundhara Raje and Raman Singh not being projected as CMs. This remained the dominant assessment although it was also said that while Rajasthan remained too close to call, Congress victories in MP and Chhattisgarh were declared a matter of formality.

In a combination of fortuitous turns and painstaking efforts of Rahul Gandhi to walk virtually the entire length of the country while on the Bharat Jodo Yatra, the Opposition appeared heading towards posing a serious challenge. Besides the BJY, Rahul Gandhi also was quick to use the Hindenburg Report, which created a major splash and triggered a massive stock sell-off, with Adani companies’ stock prices falling. The accusation against the Adani Group was not just of artificial boosting of fortunes, but also alleged Mr Modi’s links with Gautam Adani. These appeared credible on face value as they reiterated over allegations levelled for several years. Rahul Gandhi used his speech to mount a blistering attack on the PM while participating in the Lok Sabha debate on the motion of thanks to the President. He also completed a fairly successful visit to Britain, during which echoes of his stinging lectures to select audiences were heard in India too.

Although the BJP revived an almost-forgotten defamation case in a Gujarat court and disqualified Mr Gandhi from Parliament at breakneck speed, the coming together of 14 Opposition parties to jointly file a petition in the Supreme Court against, what they alleged, weaponisation of Central investigating agencies, mainly ED and CBI, rattled the BJP even though the plea wasn’t admitted by the apex court. The BJP’s worry stemmed from the fact that its leaders knew the power of perception and were also worried at ginger moves by the Opposition parties to make common cause.

Events moved at a quick pace for the first three quarters of last year.

The Opposition parties got together, found in “INDIA” an acronym that creased brows of top BJP leaders. For some time, even Mr Modi seemed rudderless. He hastily summoned a Parliament special session with little initial clarity on the agenda. After signalling a switchover to a system of simultaneous polls, the government eventually settled to pass a post-dated cheque with no clarity on a timeline for women’s reservations in legislatures being rolled out. In the initial weeks of campaigning, the BJP appeared lagging behind, but this was altered as the polls neared. The rest is history -- the BJP performed exceedingly well in the three states and despite the Congress victory in Telangana, the defeats in the Hindi heartland stung more.

Within days, doubts surfaced regarding the prospects of the Opposition alliance as cracks started becoming more visible than when these first surfaced during the campaigning due to the Congress’ decision not to accommodate the Samajwadi Party in MP. Not entering into an agreement with smaller parties in Rajasthan also cost the party dearly.

The question is simple: what are the reasons behind such a dramatic alteration of fortunes? Simply put, there are five reasons for the BJP winning the three states so decisively, and for the party’s fortunes to continue soaring even when the Lok Sabha campaign is four months away.

*The Modi factor: the PM’s charisma and his campaign style, where he betters his rivals in both energy and ability to communicate his message with flair.

*Latent and omnipresent Hindutva factor, now gradually increasing in fervour with the Ram Mandir consecration later in January.

*Modi’s welfarist policies, the most recent being the distribution of food cereals for another five years.

*The BJP’s highly-efficient party mechanism that has been built beyond the old network.

*Finally, the disarray and the Opposition parties’ inability to anticipate developments and formulate plans, quickly agree on seat-sharing, and the absence of a sense of timing.

Of the factors that aided the BJP victory and continues to boost the party’s prospects, the last factor is possibly the most important. With the Congress as its principal adversary, the BJP doesn’t really need worry much. Take, for instance, the necessity of striking a seat-sharing deal with parties like the Trinamul Congress, Samajwadi Party and AAP. But satraps like Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury in West Bengal and Ajay Maken in Delhi often bad-mouthed the potential ally. The Congress leadership has, however, not firmly directed such leaders to remain focused on the main objective, reduce the BJP’s majority, even if the Opposition ends on the losing side.

A simple message, that a weakened Narendra Modi would open up spaces for the Opposition to mount a comeback, has not been either communicated to such errant leaders or their diktat has not been heeded by the satraps. A similar situation was a primary reason for the Congress virtually gifting the polls in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The Congress leadership also has little sense of timing. Not only is Rahul Gandhi’s second march, the Bharat Nyay Yatra, completely ill-timed, but it also carries the potential of upsetting other Opposition parties in the INDIA bloc.

There is every chance that these parties may assess the initiative as being primarily aimed at securing the anti-BJP space in states in which the regional parties are a significant force. In such a situation, the battle for 2024 may be over even before it has begun in right earnest.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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