By Harihar Swarup
Nine assembly elections will take place between February and December 2023 stretching from Telangana to Tripura. Collectively these polls will be the last chance for opposition to test the mettle of the incumbent BJP before the May 2024 general elections.
Any realistic assessment of the next national polls must begin with the premise that the BJP is exceptionally well placed. Make no mistake, 2024 general election campaign began in December 1 with the commencement of India’s year-long presidency of the group of 20. The click roll—out of this milestone included automated text to mobile subscribers hologram projected onto national monuments, full page news advertisements and an op-ed penned by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in all the leading newspapers. The coup de grace is the lotus flower icon just so happens to be both India’s chosen G20 logo and BJP symbol.
To be fair, Modi’s personal popularity is running well ahead of his party’s. For example, the PM was the beginning, middle and end of the recently concluded assembly campaigns in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. This may not be enough to overcome local factors in the context of an assembly campaign, such as in Himachal Pradesh, or municipal elections as Delhi. But a leader with a 59% net approval rating, according to Morning Consults Global Leader tracker, is an asset for BJP fighting a national election.
So, what about the Opposition? In June, 2019, election post -mortems were replete with the woes of a fragmented, leaderless, out organized, an out-funded Opposition. Any impartial evaluation of the Opposition at year’s end would begin with these shortcomings. But, at long last, there are signs of creative destruction underway in the opposition ranks.
Let’s begin with the Congress. The Bharat Jodo Yatra, has on the surface, been qualified success. Even BJP insiders are surprised at the crowds, grassroots support, and compelling photo — ops the Yatra has produced. However, one can argue that it has been more successful in rehabilitating Rahul Gandhi’s image than rebuilding the party’s tattered election machine. The Yatra’s itinerary is divorced from hard—nosed calculations of electoral politics, an admission its planners have said was by design. Yet, the Congress is theoretically in the business of winning elections, not running a social advocacy organization.
In the meantime, the Congress’s listless Gujarat campaign has allowed Aam Aadmi Party to establish itself as a third force while the Congress saw its vote share drop by nearly 15 percentage points in five years. If there’s one established empirical fact about the Congress politics over last four decades, it is this: once the Congress falls below second place in the state, it never rebounds. The party can scarcely squander market share in a traditional bipolar state since it is hard pressed to make up votes elsewhere.
Scratch the surface further and ticking time-bombs abounds. The internecine conflicts between Congress leaders Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan shows no signs of abating. In Karnataka – perhaps the Congress’s best chance to pick up a major state in 2023 — the Congress leaders are not sure how the subterranean struggle between former chief minister Siddaramaiah and party boss DK Shiva Kumar will shape up in the remaining months before the polls.
Yes, the party successfully held a Presidential election resulting in the selection of someone, whose last name is not Gandhi. But the party High Command snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by placing its thumb on the electoral scales to ensure the victory of a favoured insider over an underdog outsider. Shashi Tharoor ran a principled, positive campaign that criticized neither Gandhi family nor his fellow contestant. For his efforts, it appears, Tharoor has been further ostracized, putting at risk an important parliamentary seat in Thiruvananthapuram. With only 53 seats in Parliament, the Congress should be husbanding every competitive assembly segment, rather than tossing aside a seat that it could well lose without Tharoor in the saddle.
Beyond the Congress, the AAP has its national ambitions clear. With the AAP’s entry in Gujarat, in addition to its hold on Delhi and Punjab, Arvind Kejriwal has firmly entered the 2024 conversion. However, in both Gujarat and Delhi Municipal elections, the AAP underperformed expectations. The party has decided, alternately to put on questions of nationalism or try to outflank the BJP on the Right. Muslims firmly rejected AAP in Gujarat. According to Lokniti –CDSM data, Muslims in the state strongly consolidated behind the Congress. Furthermore, it is not clear that this strategy can even win over core Hindu votes. (IPA Service)