Next week the seventeenth Lok Sabha (2019-2024) crosses the halfway mark of its five-year term. It is, therefore, not surprising that political parties are beginning to consider their options in facing the next general election. There is much talk of election strategies and stratagems all around. Britain’s former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson had once famously said that “a week is a long time in politics”. Surely 30 months is eternity. Several factors have, however, contributed to this early strategising for an election that is two and a half years down the road.
First and foremost, the fact that the outcome of the coming elections to the Uttar Pradesh State Legislative Assembly is viewed as having the potential to queer the pitch for the national vote in 2024. Even if the Samajwadi Party and the Sonia Congress do not expect to defeat the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, a significant dent by them that reduces the ruling party’s numbers in India’s most populous state can make a difference not just to UP politics and life in the state but to national politics as well.
The results of the other state elections too could cast a shadow on the BJP or boost the morale the of non-BJP parties. Hence, the outcome of these elections will be relevant to crafting the strategy for 2024.
A second factor that has mobilised the non-BJP parties has been the dip in the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The mishandling of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic was Mr Modi’s second major misstep, after demonetisation. A third misstep has been his handling of the challenge posed by China. It is only to be expected of the non-BJP parties that they would criticise the PM over his handling of China. Surprisingly, though, the non-BJP parties have been slow in demanding greater accountability for the PM’s mishandling of the China challenge, even though Rahul Gandhi did not miss the opportunity to tweet that “our national security is unpardonably compromised because GOI has no strategy and ‘Mr 56’ is scared”.
More than the mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic and China, it is the continued under performance of the economy, contributing to rising inflation and poverty and subdued employment growth, that has dented Prime Minister Modi’s image, and is offering a ray of hope of improved electoral performance to the non-BJP political parties. Even if the electorate forgets the Union government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, it remains to be seen if it can also be made to forget the mishandling of the economy, after demonetisation, as the BJP managed to do in the run-up to the 2019 elections by drumming up nationalist sentiments.
Taken together, these adverse developments have cast a shadow on Mr Modi’s popularity and boosted the morale of the non-BJP parties. It is only natural that many non-BJP leaders, like Telangana’s chief minister K. Chandrashekar Rao and West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee have been on the offensive, taunting the PM and demonstrating to their supporters that he is not unassailable. Some political analysts have argued that “regional” leaders like Mamata Banerjee cannot hope to pose a challenge to a “national” leader like Mr Modi. This is a spurious argument. Mr Modi was himself a very regional leader till 2013. The BJP itself has also acquired a very Gujarati personality these days in many ways.
Moreover, “regional” leaders have time and again played a “national” role in Indian politics. In the 1980s, at the height of Indira Gandhi’s powers, it was N.T. Rama Rao who mobilised a group of regional leaders including V.P. Singh, M. Karunanidhi, Jyoti Basu, Farooq Abdullah, Devi Lal, H.D. Deve Gowda and Ramakrishna Hegde, and challenged the Congress Party’s dominance. If NTR could challenge Indira Gandhi, Ms Banerjee and Mr Rao can easily challenge Mr Modi, building a coalition of parties.
The one thing that the non-BJP parties, especially the Sonia Congress, have to come to terms with is the fact that the BJP is the only pan-India political party today with a national vote base, according to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, of 37 per cent. The Sonia Congress does have a national base of about 20 per cent, but it is both splintered across the country and unlikely to increase by much if the party continues to function the way it has been over the past few years. In any case, the Congress has to sort out its internal problems first. This makes it all the more necessary that the regional parties who feel threatened by the rise of the BJP should come together to be able to challenge it in 2024.
Mr Modi has, for sure, a full two years to craft his counter strategy and regain his popularity. He has a demonstrated track record of regaining lost ground. That is why political analysts have been warning the non-BJP parties that they must first recognise the strength of their opponent before crafting a strategy to defeat or even weaken him. If the splintered vote of the major non-BJP parties that are directly being challenged by the BJP has to get consolidated, these parties, including the Sonia Congress, have to arrive at a common pre-poll understanding, if not an explicit alliance, to defend their political space and reduce the BJP’s numbers.
Even if the BJP is not defeated in 2024, denying it single party majority and forcing it to work within the framework of a coalition, rather than pursue the authoritarian and majoritarian path it has chosen to do now, would be in the national interest. The historical record shows very clearly that except for the first decade of 1947-57, when India performed creditably compared to all its peers, including China, the country has performed better in the “era of coalitions”, between 1989 and 2014, than during the periods of single party dominance. Coalition Prime Ministers like P.V. Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh succeeded not only in taking the economy forward but also ensured political stability and regional peace through difficult times and, above all, strengthened the foundations of national unity.