The recent state elections in India have highlighted the Bharatiya Janata Party’s winning strategy. They not only swept the three northern states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh but also made gains in terms of seats won in Telangana. Though they lost power in Mizoram and did not gain a larger vote share in Telangana, BJP’s dominance in the Hindi heartland was irrefutable. This led Prime Minister Narendra Modi to declare that he was looking to score a hat-trick for his party and government in the general elections less than six months away.
BJP, emboldened by impressive victories even when pollsters and psephologists had predicted much smaller margins, also demonstrated a tighter control on the choice of chief ministers. Veterans such as Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Vasundhara Raje were overlooked to make way for newer and younger leadership — Mohan Yadav in Madhya Pradesh and Bhajanlal Sharma in Rajasthan. This was also true of Chhattisgarh, where former Chief Minister Raman Singh was made the speaker while a new chief minister from a tribal community, Vishnu Deo Sai, was installed.
The BJP under Modi is undoubtedly the dominant political force in India today, having won two consecutive Lok Sabha elections with a clear majority. The party has also expanded its presence in various states, either by forming governments on its own or with partners.
The grip of the triumvirate, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, and party president J P Nadda, became firmer on both the party leadership and its rank and file. The Modi-Shah duo will continue to be the party’s faces in next year’s general elections, even though the prime minister will cross the “Lakshman Rekha”, or redline, of 75 years just a couple of years into his expected third term in office. The BJP’s tradition is not to continue in active office after 75.
The BJP under Modi is undoubtedly the dominant political force in India today, having won two consecutive Lok Sabha elections with a clear majority. The party has also expanded its presence in various states, either by forming governments on its own or with partners. Sometimes, as in Maharashtra, it has split or destabilised regional parties to come to power. Which brings us to the main organisational and administrative strategy of the ruling party: stability at the Centre and mobility in the states. But will it work in the 2024 general elections?
Stability at the Centre attests to the BJP’s ability to maintain its popularity and legitimacy at the national level by projecting a strong and decisive leadership under Modi. In addition to implementing flagship schemes and reforms, managing the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic fallout, and appealing to the nationalist sentiments of the voters and pushing the Hindutva agenda.
The BJP government has used its institutional powers, such as President’s rule, the Central Bureau of Investigation [CBI], the Directorate of Enforcement [ED] and the National Investigation Agency [NIA], to weaken opponents and consolidate control over key institutions. The party has also sought to reshape the federal structure of India by centralising more resources and decision-making powers and by promoting the idea of “One Nation,” whether for a common goods and services tax across the country or, more recently, a common civil code for all communities. In doing so, it has championed the “nation first” ideal, subsuming regional identities and aspirations.
But to counterbalance the continuity and stability afforded by the Modi-Shah duo at the Centre, the BJP has also demonstrated remarkable flexibility and upward mobility in the states for its key stakeholders and constituents. A Brahmin chief minister in Rajasthan, an OBC [Other Backward Caste] in Madhya Pradesh, and a person from a tribal community in Chhattisgarh — all these show how deftly it has managed its caste and community calculus. The BJP’s ability to adapt to different political contexts and challenges shows that it continues to wean voters away from dynastic and regional parties.
Defections, alliances, poaching, polarisation, social engineering, and organisational expansion are par for the course in the ruling party’s relentless quest for power. The BJP has tried to appropriate regional icons, symbols and narratives, and to present itself as a viable alternative to the incumbent parties. It has also consistently leveraged its central schemes and resources to woo the voters in the states, and to create a perception of development and good governance.
Can BJP win 50% of vote share?
The BJP’s strategy of stability at the Centre and mobility in the states has worked well so far, but it may face challenges in the general elections. One challenge is that the party may have reached a saturation point in terms of vote share and seat share at the national level. Consequently, it may be difficult to enhance the party’s performance in 2014 and 2019 and its declared objective of crossing the magical mark of 50 per cent of the vote share.
Another challenge is the backlash the party may face from some states that feel alienated or neglected by the Centre’s policies and actions. Unemployment or economic hardship among influential sections of the electorate, such as the youth will also matter. In addition, disaffection in the party organisation at the local level might tell in the outcome of the Lok Sabha elections. Internal dissent or factionalism may also play a part, as some leaders may feel sidelined or dissatisfied with their roles or rewards.
But given how weak, divided, and lacking in ideas the opposition seems just now, the BJP will ride not only on the popularity of Modi but also on the ubiquitous TINA factor. TINA, of course, stands for “there is no alternative.” TINA is one main reason anti-incumbency has not yet set in, despite the BJP’s two terms at the Centre. A third term for Modi thus seems a fait accompli.