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regular-article-logo Friday, 23 February 2024

A bigger script

BJP fights every election with the same intensity of passion and commitment, assuming that every political investment will yield returns at some point, if not now, then a year later

Swapan Dasgupta Published 25.05.23, 05:41 AM
Packing a punch

Packing a punch

Since it is disproportionately dependent on exciting its readers and viewers, the media is naturally prone to hype. This is particularly true of elections, an event of utmost uncertainty for both the electorate, which perforce must take sides to participate, and the political class, which awaits the verdict with trepidation. Even the language used to describe electoral verdicts tend to be needlessly hyperbolic. Thus, a defeat is invariably described as a rout and political obituaries tend to get written with unseemly haste, only for the actors to return to life five years later.

The Karnataka assembly election resulted in an emphatic mandate for the Congress and, by implication, against the Bharatiya Janata Party. Regardless of the hype created by the BJP in the final phases of the campaign, and particularly after the very successful roadshows of the prime minister, the ruling party at the Centre was never optimistic about a favourable outcome. Yet, it is in the nature of the post-Modi BJP — notably the party that was bequeathed to his successors by the home minister, Amit Shah — that it fights every election with the same intensity of passion and commitment. The assumption is that every political investment will yield returns at some point, if not now, then a year later. Consequently, the defeat in Karnataka, while an understandable disappointment since it also involved losing its bridgehead into southern India, has been internalised as part of the vicissitudes of political life.

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For the Congress and, indeed, the rest of the national Opposition, the Karnataka verdict has been timely. Although the Congress also won the small state of Himachal Pradesh a few months earlier, the return to power in Bengaluru was the first bit of good news after the loss of power in the big states such as Assam and Punjab. At the receiving end of adverse media publicity following the family stage-managed election of Mallikarjun Kharge as Congress president, the party had reposed great store on the emergence of Rahul Gandhi as a mature leader capable of matching Narendra Modi. Great store was also attached to testing the impact of the Bharat Jodo Yatra on Karnataka, a state that has traditionally been a stronghold of the party. Although Rahul Gandhi’s personal involvement in the poll campaign was patchy, the outcome has been beneficial. In the eyes of a hitherto demoralised and dispirited Congress, the head of the Gandhi dynasty (Sonia Gandhi is, for all practical purposes, in near-retirement from active politics) is now ready for the big battle against Narendra Modi in 2024.

In the larger anti-BJP ecosystem, the Congress has also successfully clawed its way back to the top spot. Had the party not been successful in Karnataka, the temptation to forge a leaderless third front of regional parties would have been irresistible. That would have suited the likes of Mamata Banerjee, Akhilesh Yadav, Arvind Kejriwal and, up to a point, even Sharad Pawar. However, after the Karnataka result, no anti-Modi grouping will be successful unless the Congress is at the centre of the formation. The last word on whether Rahul Gandhi will be projected as the alternative to Modi in a quasi-presidential race will depend on the outcomes in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. The Congress is expected to do well in at least two of these states, and less so in Rajasthan where it has been grievously damaged by the ugly Ashok Gehlot-Sachin Pilot spat. If the winds from Karnataka influence the outcomes in central India, we may expect to see a buoyant Congress brush aside all other misgivings and declare Rahul as the prime minister-in-waiting.

The prevailing groupthink in the BJP is that declaring Rahul Gandhi as the alternative will be the best news for the Modi campaign. If the Congress leader repeats his legendary gaffes or demonstrates his lack of seriousness, Modi, undoubtedly, will be placed at a greater advantage. For the BJP, there is a potential danger of being faced with a common Opposition candidate in each parliamentary constituency. It hopes to overcome this with an aggressive marketing of Modi, his domestic achievements, and his tall global standing. Yet, the tone of the campaign must be perfect. It is always instructive to learn lessons from the 2004 India Shining campaign that hit the wrong note and led to the party losing an election rather than the Opposition winning it.

No doubt the theme of the 2024 campaign will receive the full attention of BJP strategists in the coming months. However, it is important to factor in the fact that a large chunk of young voters — upon whom the Modi victories of 2014 and 2019 rested — have known of no India before Modi. The anger, apprehensions and anxieties that made so many of them put their faith in Modi have largely been forgotten. As has been shown on innumerable occasions, there is also a tendency to take the infrastructural upgradation that is being experienced all over the country for granted. If this happens, there will be a tendency to focus entirely on short-term issues such as inflation, the price of gas cylinders, the disaffection with local BJP leaders and caste identity. The BJP’s success depends almost entirely on making the 2024 election as presidential and as national as possible; the Opposition, at the same time, would want Modi to be tested on the strength of very local issues.

It is in this context that the significance of Hindu nationalism as a theme of the election must be viewed. One of the features of Karnataka was the near-total consolidation of Muslim and Christian voters behind the Congress. This had happened in West Bengal earlier, with the Trinamul Congress as the beneficiary. Naturally, with minority votes consolidating behind the principal anti-BJP force, there is a corresponding temptation to rally Hindu voters behind the BJP. This pattern is likely to repeat itself in the 2024 election. But rather than subsume the campaign in dog whistles that demonise a section of Muslims and add to minority consolidation, the challenge for the BJP is to project nationalist themes that consolidate Hindus without necessarily invoking Muslim fears.

What the 2024 election awaits is a big idea that can encapsulate achievements and new aspirations.

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