Road to 2024

Arvind Gupta

With a dominant 3-2 victory in 2023 Assembly elections for five states, the BJP and its alliances have formed ruling governments in 16 states. The results indicate that Rahul Gandhi’s fierce OBC pitch and demand for a nationwide caste census has little impact in Hindi belt States.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, like all successful political leaders, has a panoptic vision, which, accompanied by an inspiring narrative, helps him identify key battles. He then draws up deft strategies of attack, strikes at the most opportune moment, even leading from the front if needed, to vanquish any opposition he may encounter, qualities that he demonstrated in full measure in the recently-concluded assembly elections. The stakes were high both for Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), since this was the final round of assembly polls before the all-important General Election 2024. Together, the aspiration is to notch a third successive Lok Sabha victory, a feat only India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had accomplished so far, and win not just a full majority but one of the kind that Rajiv Gandhi pulled off in the 1984 general election after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, when the Congress bagged 404 out of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, the highest-ever majority any party has won since Independence. The Congress had cornered a 46.4 per cent vote share at the time to reach that pinnacle. The BJP’s highest vote percentage, by contrast, has been 37.3 per cent, in the 2019 general election, when it won 303 seats on its own. Its target this time is a 50 per cent vote share, along with its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Winning a third term will put Modi in the league of statesmen, a mantle that Vajpayee had worn.
Meanwhile, the Opposition, with Congress in the lead, combined its forces under the banner of I.N.D.I.Alliance, a 28-party coalition that soon armed itself with the potent narrative of increasing reservations for backward classes after caste-based surveys. It was a direct threat to the monolithic Developmental plank the BJP had so diligently crafted and executed over the past few years and which had yielded rich dividends in state and general elections.Conscious of this hydra-headed challenge coming their way, Modi, along with his master strategist, the Union home minister Amit Shah, and BJP national president J.P. Nadda, got down to work. They crafted a battle plan that would, in one fell swoop, demolish all threats standing in the way of the party’s quest for greatness. The mistakes in Karnataka had been an object lesson for the party and the top brass. Learning from these costly oversights, the BJP approached elections in the three northern states with five broad strategies.
The first involved countering Congress state satraps like former chief minister Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh, chief minister Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan and his counterpart BhupeshBaghel in Chhattisgarh, who were spearheading the respective campaigns in their states. Rather than pitting just one face against these strongmen, Modi and Shah decided to exert their combined might, presenting voters with a collective leadership that included both state heavyweights and central leaders, including Union ministers. The party got these individuals not just to help in the campaign but fight elections, too, in some cases. That strategy found maximum play in MP, where the party had been in power for 18 of the last 20 years. As many as seven MPs, including three Union ministers and one national general secretary, were awarded tickets in order to offer voters a wider choice.
The second strategy was to counter Congress freebies with targeted ones of their own, never mind that Modi in the past had dismissed Opposition parties for indulging in ‘revdi’ politics. Days before the states went to the polls, the prime minister extended the Pradhan MantriGaribKalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY), which will provide free foodgrains to over 800 million of the country’s poorest citizens for the next five years. This was accompanied by the promise to enhance the bonus on the MSP (minimum support price) linked purchase of paddy by Rs. 500 (in Chhattisgarh), income support for farm labour, and a Rs. 200 reduction in the prices of LPG cylinders.
Boosting the BJP’s vote-catching abilities was a third strategy that focused on wooing socio-economic groups, especially women and youth. The ‘LadliBehnaYojana’ and other women-centric schemes in MP resulted in the BJP gaining a 13 percentage point lead over the Congress in terms of the women’s vote share, constituting a significant factor in the party’s massive victory in the state. Special schemes for women in these states apart, the passage of the Women’s Reservations Bill by the Centre in September, reserving one third of the seats in Parliament, cemented their support further. The BJP also trained its attention on Scheduled Castes and ScheduleTribes, cohorts that had deserted them in previous elections.
The fourth strategy was the strict selection of deserving candidates, with ability to win and not the loyalty, the chief criterion for receiving a ticket. In Chhattisgarh, for instance, 55 of the total of 90 BJP candidates were fresh faces. In MP, almost one third of the BJP MLAs were denied tickets because of their poor performance.
The trump card in the BJP’s winning pack of cards, however, was the fifth strategy. It saw Modi take the bold but risky decision to pit himself directly against the Congress satraps in the northern states and use his huge popularity and credibility to swing a decisive chunk of votes his party’s way. In all, Modi addressed 34 rallies in the three states. In MP and Rajasthan, he addressed 15 rallies each and smartly appropriated the Congress freebie plank by rechristening them “Modi’s guarantees”. His name was even inserted in the party’s slogans for the two states, ‘MP kemannmein Modi hai’ and ‘Modi satheapno Rajasthan’.
The outcome of all these efforts was spectacular wins for the BJP and a ringing endorsement of PM Modi’s leadership and programmes. In MP, the BJP managed to buck 18 years of anti-incumbency, and retain the state with a two-third majority. The party won 163 of the state’s 230 seats and netted a vote share of 48.55 per cent, a boost of seven percentage points from its 2018 performance. In Rajasthan, it managed to wrest power from the Ashok Gehlot-led Congress, which had been trumpeting a welfarist narrative of the kind that had helped the BJP win in other states. The party won 115 of Rajasthan’s 199 seats and, contrary to its own expectations, won Chhattisgarh too, claiming 54 of its 90 seats. The three states together have 65 seats in the Lok Sabha, of which the BJP won 62 in the 2019 general election despite losing the assembly polls in all three states in 2018. It’s a feat the party expects to repeat in 2024.
What its triple victory has helped the BJP do is drown the crescendo that had started building around the caste census and OBC reservations. With Nitish the first to unbottle that genie, the Congress was quick to latch on to its potential and pitch Mandal @2.0 as the lead narrative of the Opposition campaign going into 2024. The limits of this plank stood exposed in the recent elections, with the OBCs voting massively in favour of the BJP in the three northern states. Modi’s emphasis on directing his welfare schemes to a broad spectrum of socio-economic groups and laser focus on performance and delivery seem to have transcended caste considerations among voters. He put it pithily enough, “I cater to only four castesthe women, the youth, the farmers and the poor.”
Even the economic sentiment seems to be working in Modi’s favour. Growth numbers are looking up and the stock market is booming, adding to the positivity around the Modi government. Never mind that the growth may be K-shaped, with the rich and the middle class getting richer and the poor seeing their incomes and job opportunities still need to be addressed in a better way. The frenzy around freebies during elections is evidence that people have begun relying on doles for sustenance, an indication that all is not well with the economy, something that should worry the BJP. Modi has already announced the Rs. 13,000 crore Vishwakarma scheme to support small business owners, especially traditional artisans and craftsmen, and offer them financial assistance of up to Rs. 3 lakh. To support vulnerable tribal groups, he launched a Rs. 24,000 crore welfare scheme in August, which includes housing, roads and tap water supply for them.
With the state elections in the North won, Modi is already in battle mode for the general election in May. Perceptive political analysts discern a triple strategy. The first unfolded with Modi’s massive drive to get his ministers and partymen to talk about his government’s achievements in the past 10 years, of which he has plenty to showcase and which dovetail neatly with his philosophy of ‘SabkaSaath, SabkaVikas, SabkaVishwas, SabkaPrayaas’. The second is not to benchmark his performance against his immediate predecessor’s but with the pace of progress in the 67 years before he took over, to convey a sense of magnitude about what he has achieved. The third is to enunciate a vision that invokes hope and aspiration among various sections of society. Hence the dream of Viksit Bharat, a developed India, by 2047. The 25-year plan allows Modi to be a statesman with a long-term vision without having to commit to anything in the short run. Like doubling-the-farmers’ income kind of promise he is still held to. But lofty long-term goals seldom enthuse voters without tangible short-term measures to uplift their economic status. That is something Team Modi is working on. But as Modi’s popularity ratings continue to soar, rare for a leader serving his 10th consecutive year as prime minister, he is the clear frontrunner for a hat-trick in 2024.

(The author is State Secretary & PrabhariReasi
District Jammu & Kashmir UT)