India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi is going strong despite political and economic challenges Image Credit: ANI

In New Delhi the monsoon session of the parliament witnessed stormy proceedings. The opposition made sure that the pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government remains intense.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government faces the issue of high fuel price, increasing inflation, street-level agitations, now and then letter-protest by intellectuals and serious external security issues, too.

Farmers are at Delhi borders agitating since the winter of 2020. Then there are serious snooping charges over the alleged use of Pegasus software, resulting in the boycott in both houses of the parliament.

Along comes Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, who visited New Delhi last week to test the political waters at the national level. Her trip to New Delhi during the parliament session was to work towards opposition unity to take on Modi.

The way her visit was covered by the press may have unsettled Rahul Gandhi. It also electrified the debate about who should be the leader of an anti-BJP front. This is a question of national importance in India albeit a difficult one.

Even though it is not on the record yet but from all accounts, Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee and Rahul Gandhi are actively involved in midterm activities to explore ideas for the 2024 general elections.

Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has only 5 seats, Mamata Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) has 22 while Congress party has 52 seats. BJP has a whopping 301 seats in the current parliament.

This would explain why even a weakened Modi will not be easy to defeat.

A stable, strong leader

With the general election three years away, Modi government looks quite stable. However the nature of politics in India is such that various issues of discontent among people often livens up the political scene.

The upcoming election in Uttar Pradesh (six months away) is going to be a keenly watched affair. If the BJP loses UP, it will create a huge psychological setback for the party.

Pertinently if you meet the common people in India, the most pressing issues are the after-effects of the lockdown due to the pandemic and the slow down of economy. You may detect a perceptible decline in public image of the Modi government due to high price of living and unemployment.

The aura around Modi has too taken a hit. Due to BJP’s politics revolving around theme of Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan, there is strong undercurrent of provincialism that has always existed in India. Recently Assam and Mizoram state borders flared up, resulting in the killing of five policemen.

Opposition parties like the DMK in Tamil Nadu have shown high level of subnationalism to keep BJP at bay. Shiv Sena, staunch regional party in Maharashtra, too has an alliance with NCP on the provincial issue of Maratha identity. Both parties are conniving to retain the Maratha control over Maharashtra politics.

Inspite of discontent in people over issues, Modi's strong point remains his nationalism. While strong regional parties offer political challenge to the BJP in the states, this may not turn out to be a weakness for a nationalist Modi in the 2024 general election. As subsequent elections have shown, Indian voters are smart enough to differentiate between ‘regional’ and ‘national' issues.

Banerjee’s Delhi visit

Mamata Banerjee’s Delhi visit is a case in point. Fresh from her victory in the West Bengal elections, she is eyeing a bigger share in the national pie but it takes a regional leader a very long time to emerge as a contender at the national level in India.

The West Bengal CM, who has strongly identified with the Bengali subnational ethos, may find it hard to challenge a national level leader like Modi.

The transformation of Mamata from regional to the national stage requires creating a new branding for herself, dramatically widen the base of her West Bengal-based party and identify with pan-national issues better than the BJP. This is the minimum she will have to achieve to claim leadership of any opposition coalition before the general election if she wants to take on Modi.

Modi himself began this transformation and brand building exercise — to come to the national stage — soon after L K Advani, BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, failed to capture power in the 2009 general election.

No consensus in non-BJP parties

If there is an able, mass-based, strong and nationalist leader in the Congress, he or she stands a better chance to challenge Modi.

Right now Congress isn’t strong at all but the party is still better placed due to its instant brand recognition and historic role.

However Rahul Gandhi seems to have projected himself with a certain class which isn’t as mainstream as Mamata’s ‘people’s politics’. She understands Rahul’s limitations and is gearing to transform herself for the national scene if the BJP loses UP.

BJP meanwhile has three main planks to approach the 2022 UP polls — nationalism, identification with the Hindu identity, and law and order in the state.

The RSS family’s identification with all things Hindu will be further strengthened (come December 2021) when Kashi Vishwanath Dham will be thrown open to the believers of Lord Shiva in Varanasi. The election in UP can’t be easily predicted, but one thing is for sure — it won’t be easy to defeat the BJP. More so after the completion of the massive architectural build-up around one of the most holy and ancient temples of Kashi Vishwanath.

‘Modi versus all in 2024’

Even if the BJP does badly in the UP polls, it will be difficult for any provincial satrap to lead the coalition to challenge Modi’s leadership before election 2024 because their strength on regional level won't work well on the national battlefield. 

And, right now these satraps are so powerful in their respective regions  that they won’t allow Congress to have its way to lead the opposition coalition before elections.

It’s very likely that there would be ‘Modi versus all in 2024’ even if the BJP loses UP polls.

Let us not forget that powerful regional players in UP, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra have challenged the Congress, too. Therefore the politics within the opposition makes it difficult to find consensus candidate to pit against Modi.

Mamata’s Delhi visit signalled that the 2024 election’s real drama is likely to kick-start after the UP election results are announced. As the combined power of regional leaders make it difficult for the Congress to win the semi-finals, opposition may find it harder to rally around a leader who can challenge Modi.

Regional satraps versus Congress fight is real and intense. As of now it looks like Narendra Modi may end up fighting different adversaries in each state in the 2024 general elections.