By: Dipak Kurmi
The 2024 Parliamentary elections bring with them a strategic move by Amit Shah in a recent Bihar rally. While addressing the crowd, Shah declared that the BJP is not opposed to the caste census. However, he swiftly turned the narrative, alleging that the caste census conducted by the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar has skewed numbers, over-representing Muslims and Yadavs while underestimating other backward castes. Shah’s explicit accusation aims to sow seeds of doubt among the people of Bihar, insinuating favoritism towards Muslims and Yadavs over other communities. This tactic not only raises questions about the accuracy of the census but also plays a dangerous game, potentially creating division and hostility between Yadavs and other castes, mirroring the BJP’s past successes in fanning tensions between different communities.
The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, made a significant announcement during his campaign in MP, stating that the free ration scheme, initially launched to aid the impoverished during the pandemic, has been extended for an additional five years. Despite the extension coinciding with Assembly elections, it remains uncertain whether this move violates the election code of conduct. However, it undeniably carries the potential to sway voters. The BJP appears to be facing challenges in this election, prompting questions about the necessity of such a prolonged central government intervention. Prime Minister Modi, known for championing India’s economic growth, now faces scrutiny as 80 crore people continue to rely on government-provided rations. While the initial extension was understandable amid the pandemic’s economic fallout, the current circumstances beg the question: why is such extensive support still deemed necessary over two years after the onset of the crisis? This move has drawn parallels to past criticisms when the scheme’s extension was perceived as a strategic attempt to influence voters in both Assembly and general elections.
The PM himself, despite fervently criticizing the Opposition for their freebie distribution practices, finds his party caught in a contradictory stance. On July 16 in Jalone (UP), he warned against the “revadi” culture, deeming it perilous for the nation’s development. Specifically addressing the youth, he cautioned them to be wary of such freebies. Continuing his critique, on August 2, he targeted Congress-led governments in Karnataka and Rajasthan, asserting that the prevalence of freebies leaves no financial room for development. Expressing concern over the impact on Karnataka, he highlighted how this “freebie culture” drains state treasuries, detrimentally affecting the people and jeopardizing the future of the youth. Despite these strong remarks, the BJP itself has not shied away from making promises of various freebies, exposing a noticeable double standard within the party’s approach.
The culture of freebies, a longstanding phenomenon, experienced a renewed vigor following the historic triumphs of AAP in Delhi, followed by Punjab. Across three assembly elections in 2013, 2015, and 2020, AAP, once a non-entity, consecutively formed governments in Delhi. Despite Modi’s campaigning, the BJP faced total decimation in the 2015 and 2020 elections. The Congress, which had a 15-year rule under Sheila Dixit in Delhi, politically vanished, failing to secure a single seat on both occasions. AAP’s unprecedented success in Punjab, attributed to freebies like free electricity, prompted the Congress to adopt a similar strategy. In Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, the Congress promised freebie guarantees, leading to victories over the BJP in both states. In Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot is also experimenting with this model. Just last week, Rahul Gandhi pledged free education from KG to PG in Chhattisgarh, intensifying the competition between the BJP and the Congress.
The BJP finds itself in a precarious position in the ongoing assembly elections, grappling with formidable challenges in Rajasthan, MP, and Chhattisgarh. According to opinion polls, there’s a looming possibility of the BJP losing in MP and Chhattisgarh, with Rajasthan presenting a potential but uncertain victory. In Telangana, once speculated as a strong contender, the BJP has slipped to third place, facing a tough competition against the Congress, challenging KCR’s dominance. Mizoram reflects a negligible BJP presence, and due to Manipur violence, the party might not secure any seats in the state. The outcome of these elections, especially if the BJP faces defeats in four states, could signify an ominous sign for the party’s prospects in the upcoming general elections. In the 2024 general election, where Modi vies for his third term, navigating a decade of anti-incumbency becomes a formidable challenge.
The Opposition and the BJP face a unique battleground this time, with a looming possibility of over 400 seats witnessing a one-to-one contest. This scenario poses a substantial threat to Modi’s aspirations for a third consecutive victory. Securing the prime ministerial position hinges on the BJP obtaining a majority on its own, akin to the 2019 triumph. Renowned psephologist Sanjay Kumar of CSDS predicts that in a one-to-one contest, the BJP may struggle to win more than 230 seats, even though it could remain the single largest party. The challenge intensifies due to two key factors. Firstly, the BJP, under Modi’s leadership, has gained a reputation for not treating its allies well, leading to the departure of long-standing partners from the NDA. The Shiv Sena, Akali Dal, TDP, JD(U), AIADMK, among others, parted ways with the BJP, citing issues like the alleged refusal to honor power-sharing formulas. Secondly, the BJP’s attempt to cobble up a coalition of 37 parties to counter the I.N.D.I.A alliance has proven to be less impactful on the ground, with a majority of them lacking substantial presence. Consequently, the BJP may encounter significant challenges in securing alliance partners to reach the crucial 272-mark for government formation if it falls short of a clear majority by a considerable margin.
The Modi government has, secondly, deployed government agencies ruthlessly to harass Opposition parties. Presently, as I pen down these words, Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh and Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan find themselves in the crosshairs of these agencies. The pervasive belief among political parties is that a return to power for Modi at the center would usher in an existential crisis, potentially leading to incarceration for many of their prominent leaders. This level of overt and unabashed utilization of government agencies against political rivals is an accusation unprecedented in the history of any other prime minister.
The extension of the foodgrain scheme for the next five years should be seen in this context. The intention behind it appears to be securing the loyalty of voters for the 2024 general elections. Similarly, Shah’s reluctant acknowledgment that the BJP is not opposed to the caste census is a move aimed at appeasing OBCs. Ideologically, the BJP is convinced that the caste census could undermine its Hindu unity project. When the Nitish government unveiled the caste census report, the prime minister denounced it as a kind of sin. Rahul Gandhi and I.N.D.I.A are staunchly determined to make the caste census a major election issue. If that unfolds, it could impede the BJP’s OBC outreach program. OBCs, traditionally supporters of the BJP in North Indian states, might reconsider their allegiance if the BJP fails to endorse the caste census despite its aversion to it. In such a scenario, the BJP stands to lose numerous seats in North India, resulting in a potentially disastrous outcome for the party.
The BJP finds itself in dire straits at present. To secure victory in 2024, the party must reassess its election strategy. Shah’s statement and Modi’s announcement are integral components of this strategic reevaluation, and in the coming days, we can anticipate witnessing many more initiatives of a similar nature. (The writer can be reached at email@example.com)