The reasons behind the BJP’s victory in this round -- Modi factor, Hindutva, welfarism and party machinery -- may not work across states
There is a general perception that after the BJP’s startling performance in the three Hindi heartland states, especially its turnaround in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, all roadblocks that appeared in its path to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls have been cleared.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s forceful, and at times laden-with-warnings for opponents, victory speech to party cadre at its headquarters on Sunday night is being cited as proof of its confidence and is being believed at face value. His assertion that this “hat-trick” of victory paves the way for a similar trophy, or a sequence of three consecutive Lok Sabha victories, is being accepted as gospel. This BJP leadership’s newfound confidence, being predictably projected now, is in sharp contrast to the web of self-doubts that it had appeared entrapped in over recent months.
The downturn in the party’s political fortunes was triggered in January by the Hindenburg report alleging irregularities by the Adani group of companies and the links of its promoter, Gautam Adani, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The anxiety within the BJP leadership became more pronounced since March, first, when 14 parties unsuccessfully filed a petition in the Supreme Court, accusing the investigating agencies of unfairly targeting them by conducting raids. Thereafter, the Opposition parties initiated the process of arriving at a formula for seat adjustments in 400-odd seats.
Despite exulting in the wake of his party’s performance in the three states, Mr Modi continued to denigrate the INDIA alliance by referring to them once again as “ghamandia”, a slur he used in the immediate aftermath of the group’s nomenclature. Obviously, the threat potential of the alliance remains even though these victories have greatly elevated the enthusiasm of the BJP’s cadre. While fissures surfaced immediately after the verdict in the alliance, it is expected that these cracks will be papered over in the coming days and work would begin on one-on-one contests against the BJP.
To understand if this round of victories will enable the BJP to go beyond its tally of 303 Lok Sabha seats that it won in 2019, or reach close to that mark, it is important to revisit the tally and analyse it. It is necessary to examine where these seats came from and if there is any scope of enhancing the final tally.
The region-wise tally of the BJP in 2019 was as follows: North 146, Central 37, West 51, East and Northeast 40, and South 29. The verdict highlights the belt along which the BJP’s politics prospered the most -- North, Central and West India; and the regions where it trailed -- East and South India. The BJP, even after this election, continues to be the dominant party only in its area of strength and remains laggard in the other areas.
Among the seats in the north and central regions, the BJP won in 61 Lok Sabha seats in the three states where the Assembly polls’ verdict was declared on December 3.
Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh account for a total of 65 seats and the Congress won a paltry three seats in 2019, while a regional party not aligned with either won one seat in Rajasthan. The BJP secured 58 per cent votes in 2019 in MP and more than 60 per cent in Rajasthan. While the BJP has now touched almost 49
per cent in the MP Assembly polls, it remained short of 42 per cent of the popular vote in Rajasthan.
Realistically, the BJP cannot win all the four seats that were not in its kitty in 2019, and in the best-case scenario it may win two or three additional seats. Effectively that means the BJP is unlikely to add to its previous tally in these states.
Among other states, the BJP either secured the maximum possible, like in Gujarat, Haryana, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, or had the lion’s share -- Uttar Pradesh (62 out of 80), Jharkhand (11 out of 14).
Only two states in India can be considered as those where the BJP is electorally a dominant party -- meaning where it has become essential for all-encompassing Opposition unity to defeat it for over a decade: Gujarat and now Madhya Pradesh.
Even a state like Uttar Pradesh cannot be affixed the same label as the party has electorally hegemonised the state only since 2014, or for four elections: two parliamentary and two Assembly polls. In 2019, the Opposition parties performed better than in 2014, and at the moment the die is not settled in favour of the BJP -- developments among Opposition parties will be keenly watched.
The BJP faces a humongous challenge in the 2024 parliamentary polls. This is in the form of the absence of an overarching nationwide political narrative at this stage. The four reasons behind the BJP’s victory in this round -- the Modi factor, Hindutva, welfarism and party machinery -- may not work universally across states. With a grand idea, like the one triggered by the Pulwama terror attack, not yet in sight, the big question looming over the BJP is whether it will be to retain seats it won in East and South India in 2019. The BJP even faces a tricky situation in western India, comprising Maharashtra, Gujarat and a few Union territories.
While the party remains unchallenged in Gujarat, there is uncertainty over its showing in Maharashtra, where it won 23 Lok Sabha seats in 2019, because the NDA has been shuffled. A similar situation prevails in Bihar, clubbed together with other northern states.
The BJP’s biggest challenge will be in retaining the present tally of 69 seats from the South, East and Northeast. The BJP won 25 seats in Karnataka, and there are questions over the party repeating its showing after the Congress’ Assembly poll sweep. Also, the BJP’s pronounced Hindi tilt is manifest in open advocacy of the language over others in the names of the criminal law bills due for passage in the Winter Session.
The BJP’s problem is simple: if it maximises votes and seats in North and Central India, it stands to alienate or even scare voters elsewhere because of its chauvinistic approach. In this scenario, the biggest challenge before the Opposition parties is to reach an understanding and field one candidate in the maximum possible constituencies to elevate the level of the Index of Opposition Unity.
It is evident that despite the head-start the BJP has regained, the game is still on. But to make the 2024 LS poll into an aggregate of polls, the Opposition parties, most importantly the Congress, have to muster greater astuteness than what the latter displayed in this round.
Author and journalist Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay’s latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin