The BJP’s landslide win in the 2022 Gujarat assembly election sends out a clear message: divide and rule. Unless the Opposition unites nationally to avoid triangular contests like Gujarat, it will face defeat in the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) cannibalised enough vote share in Gujarat to ensure the Congress’ decimation. AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal’s mission was to lose this battle in order to win a future war. But by ending up with a handful of seats and modest vote share, Kejriwal’s objective to replace Congress as the main Opposition party in Gujarat has backfired. He has demolished the Congress and at the same time exposed AAP’s electoral vulnerability in a state like Gujarat.
Gujarat is not Punjab or Delhi. Kejriwal miscalculated in Himachal Pradesh as well. Despite a fevered though fractious campaign, AAP drew a blank.
The big Congress win in Himachal underscores that in a binary contest the BJP can be defeated. While AAP was a factor in Himachal, it had committed most of its resources to Gujarat, making Himachal effectively a one-on-one contest between the Congress and BJP.
Himachal maintained its record of rotating governments every five years but its message to the BJP is clear: dynasties like the Dhumals which dominate the state have an expiry date.
How can the Gujarat and Himachal results be extrapolated to the 2024 Lok Sabha election? Three key points stand out.
One, unless the national Opposition unites against the BJP, it will lose the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, handing Prime Minister Narendra Modi a third successive term.
Two, Kejriwal’s bid to unite the Opposition will run into a Congress and Trinamool Congress wall. Both Rahul Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee are wary of Kejriwal positioning himself as a post-Modi era prime ministerial alternative.
Three, Mamata and Rahul share poor personal chemistry. Their animus towards Modi may drive them to make common cause in 2024. But the putative mahagathbandhan will unravel over the combined Opposition’s choice of a prime ministerial face.
Other prime ministerial — or kingmaker — hopefuls like K Chandrashekar Rao, Nitish Kumar, and Naveen Patnaik will be more concerned about safeguarding their regional fiefs than putting all their eggs in the mahagathbandhan basket.
Perversely, a stronger Kejriwal in Delhi and Punjab and a dominant Mamata in West Bengal will work in the BJP’s favour: strong regional satraps rarely make good national Opposition electoral partners.
The 2024 Lok Sabha election will be won in the states. This is where the BJP could face headwinds. In the 2019 general election, the BJP made a clean sweep of Lok Sabha seats in Rajasthan (25/25), Gujarat (26/26), Uttarakhand (5/5), Himachal Pradesh (4/4), Haryana (10/10), and Delhi (7/7). In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP won 62 out of 80 seats, in Karnataka 25 out of 28 seats, and in Madhya Pradesh 27 out of 29 seats.
Maharashtra and Bihar could be crucial. In both, the BJP’s alliance partners – the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and JD(U) in Bihar – have walked away. In 2019, the BJP won 23 seats in Maharashtra and 17 seats in Bihar. The BJP-Shinde alliance government in Maharashtra has to weather both a pending Supreme Court verdict on its legitimacy and divisions in the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena vote. In Bihar, the JD(U)-RJD combine will pose a challenge to the BJP.
The BJP knows the danger Opposition unity poses. It lost Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh (before wrenching it back), and Chhattisgarh in December 2018. It was heading towards 250-260 seats in the April-May 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The Pulwama terror attack and India’s air strike in Balakot in February 2019 lifted the BJP past 300 seats.
Modi is arguably in a much stronger position today than in early 2019. The country’s infrastructure projects, digital thrust, post-Covid handling of the economy, and presidency of the G20 have given him a global pulpit.
However, several challenging assembly elections await him in 2023. Among them, five are key: Karnataka, Telangana, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh. The BJP looks vulnerable in Karnataka despite the attempt by the local Congress leadership of DK Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah to self-destruct. Against that though, is chief minister BS Bommai’s charmless leadership.
Turn now to the hard maths. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP won 231 of its 303 seats in just 11 states: Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana, and Delhi.
The Opposition sees opportunities in 2024 in Maharashtra, Bihar, Karnataka, and Delhi. But in a Lok Sabha election, it’s Modi versus the rest. And Modi has two arrows in his quiver.
The first is India’s year-long G20 presidency which will cement his stature as a global statesman. As soon as India hands over the G20’s presidency to Brazil on December 1, 2023, the second arrow in Modi’s quiver will be pulled out and aimed squarely in the direction of Ayodhya.
The Ram Mandir will open to devotees in December 2023. The official inauguration is scheduled for January 2024.
For the Opposition, the timing couldn’t be worse. As soon as he hands over the G20 baton, Modi will shift gears into campaign mode for the 2024 Lok Sabha election. The first major campaign rally could be held in Ayodhya against the backdrop of the Ram Mandir. The symbolism will not go unnoticed.
For the Opposition, the hope is that regional leaders set their egos and ambitions aside. If they don’t — as they did not in Gujarat — they could face a rout in 2024.
The writer is editor, author and publisher. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.
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