India’s second republic, which has been inaugurated with the BJP’s two consecutive Lok Sabha victories is fundamentally reshaping the social and political arena. The pandemic rather than being a disruptor seems to have consolidated these trends in 2020. How will BJP’s looming presence, the weakened national opposition and civil society protest shape Indian democracy in 2021 and beyond?
First, the BJP’s geographical expansion as well as deeper penetration of the society continues under Narendra Modi’s leadership. This was most visible in how the party campaigned even during local polls held this year. This formidable machine will put all its energy into every possible election. Nothing will be left to chance, and no strategy is off-limits.
Second, the current BJP does not wholly depend on its allies to either run the government in Delhi or expand its electoral footprint in states where it was weak. It let its two oldest allies — the Shiv Sena and Shiromani Akali Dal — walk out of the NDA without shedding a tear. The current cabinet has only one non-BJP minister. Is this the arrogance of power or strategic calculation? History will be the judge but the party seems determined to negotiate with allies from a position of strength. And it is ready to go to any length — look at how the party precipitated a crisis through Chirag Paswan, and is now in a commanding position in Bihar.
Third, BJP leaders and supporters now wear their agenda on their sleeve. Sympathisers now take on their opponents on every possible platform – seminars, TV studios, social media, Parliament, and the streets. This is the second December in a row when the central government is facing street protests — notwithstanding the merits and demerits of the CAA-NRC or farm bills, there is no mellowing in the government’s stance. The message is clear: this government will not give in easily to parliamentary opposition or street mobilisation.
Fourth, the near absence of opposition parties in mobilising social grievances indicates an emerging crisis in Indian democracy. While BJP’s domineering presence ranging from monopolising campaign finance to delegitimising the opposition is indeed critical, the oppositional parties must own the larger share of this morass. The ideological confusion within their rank-and-file is their own making, they lack alternative governance programmes, became vehicles of interests groups in which top positions are family-controlled, and shy away from building the organisational ladder from local to national levels. In such a situation, non-party protests are likely to become more frequent in the coming years.
Fifth, while many of the state-level formations seem to have perfected the template to challenge the BJP — highlight local issues, challenge NDA’s state-level leadership, avoid traps on national issues, particularly religion and national security, and stay clear of direct attacks on Modi – the Congress seem to have not recovered from the shock of 2014. With the recent demise of key strategists such as Ahmed Patel and Motilal Vora, it seems a long road for the Congress party to bring its house in order. The party continues to cede space in state after state.
What does 2021 hold for these parties electorally? With no Tarun Gogoi to lead the charge in Assam and a dismal performance in the recent Kerala local body elections, the Congress must prepare itself for another electorally bad year. The possibility of a LDF return in Kerala has suddenly increased and this may break the pattern of government turnover every five years in the state. Rajinikanth’s entry has spiced up the contest in Tamil Nadu, especially in an assembly election in which both Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha would be absent. The disarray in AIADMK camp provides a good opportunity for the DMK to stage a comeback. However, the DMK would do well to remember that they would need a much broader pre-election coalition to overcome the larger voter base of AIADMK.
West Bengal assembly elections hold the key as it will set the tone for the 2024 campaign. If ground reports are to be believed, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is on the defensive. The BJP is banking on Prime Minister Modi’s popularity, charges of corruption against TMC cadres, and Hindu consolidation. The momentum indicates that West Bengal is now for the BJP to lose, but underestimating Trinamool’s strength and Mamata’s spirit before April 2021 would be the BJP’s ‘historic blunder’.
Amidst all these medium-run trends, the Prime Minister may be making a sharp departure in the BJP’s script by addressing the centenary celebrations of the iconic Aligarh Muslim University. While some dismiss PM’s speech as playing to the gallery, if his outreach efforts get internalised by the ruling party and certain sections within the Muslim community, it could broaden BJP’s electoral coalitions in certain states. Watch this space.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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