Modi continues to be the single factor that stands in the way of any alternative faction’s aspirations in 2024.
Congress seems to be running on fumes as it is fighting a battle with no strategy and importantly, no general in command.
By Hector Kenneth Kumar
In the Shakespearean tragedy Julius Caesar, Cassius invokes Brutus’ character to get him to rebel against the mighty Caesar saying “The fault dear Brutus lies not in our stars but in us that we are mere underlings”. Today there are many within the Congress that share Cassius’ point of view ahead of a critical five-state election, an election where Congress is projected to be marginally ahead only in one state i.e. Uttrakhand.
The lethargy of the Congress and total reliance on a stuttering family franchise means that the BJP led by Narendra Modi is all set to stamp its authority on the election setting the tone for 2024 and rubbing the Congress further into the ground.
Ideally, these elections should have been one where the opposition led by the Congress seized on factors like the failed farm bill, inflation, and the China bugbear to take the fight to the BJP, but the Congress seems to be running on fumes fighting a battle with no strategy and importantly no general in command. Add to that the Congress’ leadership pig-headedness to fight BJP on a field that it rules aka the Hindu vs Hindutva debate and you have a losing proposition.
The BJP’s trump card is Narendra Modi, seven years in power have not diminished the PM’s popularity and he continues to hold sway over the electorate. The gains of the past seven years are debatable, the economy is stuttering, vigilante attacks on minority communities are on the rise, China has inched further into Indian Territory and Beer is cheaper than Petrol or Tomatoes. Yet the BJP has kept its nose ahead, especially in the electorally critical state of Uttar Pradesh by stoking the fires of muscular majoritarianism.
In the past UP elections were a mathematician’s delight, caste combinations were worked out and alliances stitched, Yadav’s and Dalits, Muslims and Mallahs all carefully weighed against the strength they brought to the voting booths. But now, the BJP with a saffron-robed monk in charge of the state has clearly made this election a fight between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
The point is emphasized in almost all election speeches by Adityanath where he invokes Jinnah and Topi-wale ahead of development. The images from the alleged disastrous handling of the Covid-19 crisis and the continued rise of crime in the state are long forgotten, the electorate now being fed an overdose of saffron. This is coupled with a PR overdrive where Adityanath is selling his alter image, the one that sees him inaugurating an airport complex one day and ten medical schools the other seeking to emphasize his development credentials.
The opposition led by the Samajwadi Party of Akhilesh Yadav is left fighting the street battle. Their fight becomes tougher with a rejuvenated Congress led by Priyanka Gandhi set to eat into their votes. While the Congress will also run in the UP contest but it does have a vote share which could have helped Akhilesh pip the BJP at the hustings.
Images of a refurbished temple at Kashi Vishwanath and those of a proposed one at Ayodhya have helped the BJP cause as its ground cadre projects the saffron dominance message on the ground. The lone worry for the BJP was in western UP with the groundswell against the farm bills, but with the Prime Minister moving to repeal them that crisis is since averted and its back to Mandir and Masjid.
A recent C-Voter survey projects the BJP to win upwards of 40 percent of the vote share translating into a majority in the assembly. If that happens Adityanath will rise to become first among equals and become the first Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh to beat the anti-incumbency factor and return to the Assembly as CM. It will also place him firmly in pole position for a shot at the top job in the future.
The BJP election machinery is so well organized that unlike Congress it can read the writing on the wall clearly and act on it. The point is emphasized in two smaller states poll-bound in 2022 i.e. Goa and Uttarakhand. The state government of Uttarakhand had brought legislation to take over the management of Holy pilgrimage sites, a move opposed by the Hindu clergy.
A new Chief Minister, Pushkar Dhami, in chair recognized the challenge and promptly repealed the legislation. With the Hindu voter assuaged, Dhami is projecting his ‘young man’ image to steal a clear march ahead of Congress and the fledgling AAP. It’s the same story in Goa where the 26 percent Christian vote is critical for the BJP’s survival, and PM Modi ensured he send the right message when he made it a point to call on the Pope during his visit to Rome.
The BJP is now hard selling that to the Voter, what it has done is drive a wedge in the Christian vote, perhaps enough to send the BJP back to power in a state with a small electorate. In Punjab as well, it was the BJP at the center that sensed the mood in the farming community ahead of the elections and repealed the farm bills. At the same time, the BJP tied up with the breakaway Congress faction led by former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh. Although they are far behind in the sweepstakes the BJP has kept itself alive ahead of the curve by ensuring it remains a credible factor when the general elections are fought in 2024, by then the BJP may even re-ally with its old friends the Akali Dal while the Congress battles an internal fight in its state unit.
The fact that Narendra Modi is an astute politician who can read the tea leaves is not lost on anybody. He continues to be the single factor that stands in the way of any alternative faction’s aspirations in 2024. There are feeble attempts being made, led by Mamata Banerjee and the ever-hopeful Sharad Pawar, although at the moment that effort seems to be concentrated in keeping the Congress and the Gandhis out of power.
Mamata has national aspirations and her sojourn into Goa is only an attempt to dip her feet in the pool and see if the water temperature is good enough for the long swim to 2024. Her chieftain is election strategist Prashant Kishor who believes 2022 is not a semifinal for 2024 and there are many state elections prior to that, what he fails to mention is that Mamata is not a factor in any of those polls.
The fact is that the opposition is divided by ideology and ambition and no single factor unites them against the Modi juggernaut. Australian Cricket legend Don Bradman once said “When you play test cricket, you don’t give the Englishmen an inch. Play it tough, all the way. Grind them into the dust”, Narendra Modi’s politics follow that playbook, grinding his opponents into the dust and come to the Ides of March when the results are firmed, we could well see an example of that.
(Hector Kenneth Kumar, a Chevening Scholar – 2001, is a senior journalist based in New Delhi. Twitter: @hk_365)