The Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has dominated almost every political discourse in the country ever since it came to power in 2014. Setting and controlling narratives, the party has left the opposition parties completely outfoxed in public debates. But this status quo looks threatened now. From Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra to the formation of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), several political developments seem to have pushed towards a serious re-thinking in the party that, until recently, was confident of ruling the country for the next 50 years.
The recent “show of strength” put up by 38 political parties under the banner of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which was almost redundant after the BJP won a brute majority in the last two general elections, is being seen as a ‘show of nervousness’. The Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge was quick to recall how Modi had told Parliament in a self-congratulatory way that he alone was “weighing heavily on all the opposition parties”.
Demands by various NDA partners such as the Shiv Sena and Shiromani Akali Dal to set up an NDA Coordination Committee were not conceded in the past. The Akali Dal quit the alliance in 2020, protesting against the contentious farm bills. Months later, the Modi government had to withdraw the bills after massive protests. Now, the BJP is trying to woo back the same Akali Dal into the NDA fold.
Signs of trouble for the BJP?
As it became evident that the 2024 election is shaping up into a war of alliances, Modi, who has maintained a studied silence on several key issues including the violence in Manipur, was quick to dismiss the formation of INDIA, claiming how the BJP-led alliance is a better prescription for power. Asserting that the opposition’s INDIA stands for dynasty, corruption, and political opportunism, whereas NDA stands for an aspirational India that looks 25 years ahead, Modi coined a new full form of the NDA: New India, Developed Nation, Aspiration of People of India. Speaking at Kalinga Hall in Delhi’s Ashoka Hotel, PM Modi said, “Alliances formed with negativity are not meant to survive.”
But the party is visibly humbled after its recent back-to-back defeats in the intensely-fought state assembly elections in Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh. Incidentally, Modi recently renamed the years preceding India’s 100th Independence Day as Kartavya Kaal (the era of duty). These years had been previously declared as Amrit Kaal (the era of elixir).
The 3,500-km Bharat Jodo Yatra is believed to have not just re-energised the Congress cadres but also raised the profile of disqualified Lok Sabha MP Rahul Gandhi among the Opposition leaders. With the Congress stooping to conquer and declaring it was not interested in the post of Prime Minister, and the Trinamool Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party showing their bonhomie with Rahul during the joint opposition meet in Bengaluru, the speculations about a non-Congress opposition front have been laid to rest for the time being, which is certainly not good news for the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
The BJP has traditionally benefited in a triangular contest. As such, the opposition alliance’s idea of a one-to-one contest against the saffron party could be a real headache for the ruling party when it attempts a hat trick in 2024.
In the past as well, the prime ministerial candidates for the coalition governments have been decided after the elections. The suspense over the opposition’s Prime Minister candidate will certainly keep INDIA from falling into the “Modi vs Who” trap. The INDIA alliance, which has 142 seats in the Lok Sabha, has cleverly minted the name for itself, given the BJP using its nationalist rants and rhetoric as weapons to destroy its rivals.
A joint resolution adopted by INDIA vows to safeguard the idea of India as enshrined in the Constitution and, while talking about the rights of socially, educationally, and economically backward communities, lays a fair amount of stress on caste census, something which the BJP had been wary of as it has the potential to set an altogether new electoral narrative.
“The character of our republic is being severely assaulted in a systematic manner by the BJP. We are at a most crucial juncture in our nation’s history,” the resolution read, adding that “the foundational pillars of the Indian Constitution—secular democracy, economic sovereignty, social justice, and federalism—are being methodically and menacingly undermined”.
Regional parties and NDA’s future
Regional political parties with a substantial vote base would prefer keeping a safe distance from the BJP as the ruling party, in its expansionist zeal, has trodden on the toes of allies such as Shiv Sena. While the BJP suddenly dumped the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) in Jammu and Kashmir, the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar, fearing a repeat of Shiv Sena scenarios, walked out of NDA.
After hitching his bandwagon to the opposition grand alliance in the State, Bihar’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in December 2022 had accused the BJP of conspiring to weaken his party. In fact, all three traditional oldest allies of the BJP [Sena, JD(U), and Akali Dal] are currently out of NDA. There is a buzz that the BJP’s past ally Telugu Desam Party (TDP) would come back to it, but it has not happened so far. Regional parties such as the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) have bailed out the BJP in Parliament, but an alliance with them is unlikely.
So, on the alliance front, while the BJP has tried to show it has more allies on its side (38 in comparison to 26 of the Opposition), it does not bring much substance on the ground. The 37 allies of the BJP, who form the grand alliance of NDA, had won less than 30 seats in the 2019 parliamentary election. While 16 alliance parties could not win even a single seat, at least nine of them did not participate in the elections. The BJP, however, had single-handedly won 303 seats, garnering 37.4 per cent of the votes in the 542-member Lok Sabha.
In the run-up to the 2024 election, the BJP has been forging social coalitions with the numerically important caste groups instead of relying solely on an ultra-nationalist sales-pitch. For instance, after its vote share declined in eastern Uttar Pradesh in the 2022 State Assembly election, the ruling party has renewed ties with the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) with an eye on the Rajbhar (non-Yadav OBC) community which could influence the election outcome in 32 Lok Sabha seats in Purvanchal.
In this region, the party has also got former Minister and Samajwadi Party MLA Dara Singh Chauhan, who enjoys an OBC support base in the Ghosi Lok Sabha constituency, on its side. The BJP lost the seat in the 2019 general election by over one lakh votes. Likewise, the BJP has aligned with Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena, focusing on the electorally significant Kapu community (OBC) in coastal Andhra Pradesh.
Whether it has been local civic bodies, State Assemblies, or parliamentary elections, the BJP has sought votes in the name of Modi in the past nine years. The gap between the party and its leader had shrunk substantially. Seeking votes in the name of NDA in the forthcoming general election is going to be yet another first for the ruling party. One of the key takeaways from the raging battle for alliances and political narratives reveals that brand Modi alone would not ensure a 2024 election victory for the BJP.