"And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win."
"But what good came of it at last?"
Quoth little Peterkin.
"Why that I cannot tell," said he,
"But 'twas a famous victory."
—From Robert Southey’s poem "The Battle of Blenheim."
In the run-up to writing this column, I’ve been bemused by the little Peterkins of the media in general, and the television media in particular, praising the general who led his party to a famous victory in Gujarat.
Of the three results announced earlier this month, the scoreline for the said general and his battle-honed electoral troops is won one, lost two – but the losses have been submerged in the flood tide of hyperbole surrounding the win in Gujarat.
PM Modi having had spent the past month on a non-stop campaign in Gujarat, kick-started a two-day party meeting with a single-point agenda: preparing for the next round of state-level elections, due in 2023.
Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh – where the BJP failed to win a majority in the previous elections and subsequently captured power by engineering defections, are critical for the party; so too are Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.
The leadership of the key southern states – Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana – are thus, working on plans to mount a joint effort aimed at helping the Congress-JD(S) combine to win the state.
Karnataka is key to the Opposition’s emerging national strategy, not for the outcome itself but as a proving ground for a theory aimed at 2024.
Hate Politics Bounced at the Polls. Did the BJP See It Coming?
In February 2020, Home Minister Amit Shah in the wake of his party’s drubbing at the hands of the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) in Delhi Assembly elections of that year, said that hate speech, and incendiary slogans such as the infamous goli maaro saalon ko likely cost the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the polls.
That view was also shared by the then Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari. And yet, in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi(MCD) elections this year, the BJP reverted to its hate-filled agenda again, and lost, again.
More significant is the case of Himachal Pradesh, where the Congress – which, as per popular opinion, is a dead party – defeated the incumbent BJP.
This, despite a complaisant Election Commission scheduling elections in such a way as to afford Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his associates sufficient time to campaign extensively in the state before switching their attention to Gujarat.
After 2022, How Is the Bjp Bracing Up for 2023 Polls?
The BJP appears to have read the signals right. On 5 December, even as Gujarat was voting in the final phase of the Assembly Elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew to New Delhi to inaugurate a two-day meeting of the ruling party’s top leaders and state functionaries.
On that day, the families of eight naval officers held in Qatar were told that their custody has been increased by one more month. The State Bank of India’s Economic Research Report found that the cost of living which has been rising steadily since September 2021, now matches that of the United States.
In Uttarakhand where the BJP is in power, a campaign gathered steam demanding that the names of VIP clients of a prostitution racket that led to the killing of a teenage receptionist by the son of a BJP leader – be made public. Reports on the state of the economy found that rural demand for FMCGs had decreased 17% in November over the previous festive month while urban demand decreased 10%, all of this leading to the sector declining by 15.3% month on month and by 2.7% on an annual basis.
That is a very short list of issues the country and its government had to deal with on that day. Meanwhile the prime minister, having spent the past month on a non-stop campaign in Gujarat, kick-started a two-day party meeting with a single-point agenda: preparing for the next round of state-level elections, due in 2023.
Can the BJP Command a Regime Change in Congress-Dominated States?
There are nine states scheduled to go to polls over the next 12 months – Meghalaya, Tripura and Nagaland in February; Karnataka in May; and Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Telangana and Rajasthan in November. Of these, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh – where the BJP failed to win a majority in the previous elections and subsequently captured power by engineering defections, are critical for the party; so too are Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, both currently held by the Congress despite the best efforts of the BJP to orchestrate regime change.
Against that backdrop, the year just ending has been characterised by the duck-pond politics of the Opposition: placid on the surface, a lot of frenetic paddling beneath. The seeds were sown around December 2021, when the leadership of the two southernmost states puts their heads together to figure out the best way forward.
The foundational principles of their discussions are simple. Firstly, it is vital to ensure that non-BJP parties win as many of the states as possible, in order to deny the BJP the unfettered use of local administrations in the 2024 general elections and, secondly, Modi, Amit Shah and the vaunted BJP election machinery are no longer the irresistible force the captive media outlets would have us believe, particularly at the state level.
The immediate focus is on the state elections – particularly Karnataka, which is the BJP’s sole surviving beachhead to the south and where the BJP has already started stoking communal fires. As for instance, the non-issue of a Mysuru bus stop, which BJP MP Pratap Simha threatened to demolish by force because the domes on top of it “resembled a mosque”, and which has since been unilaterally defenestrated by the authorities. Or the Kalaburgi railway station, which was whitewashed last week after “locals” said its original green color made it resemble a mosque. And just this week, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti has started a campaign to pressure party legislators into introducing a bill banning ‘halal’ certification of food.
What does the shape of the roof of a bus stop, or the colour of a railway station, or a certificate on certain food items for a particular community, have to do with price rise, unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, or indeed, any of the issues affecting Jane and Joe Citizen? Don’t ask. Just know that we are in for a very fraught five months heading into the expected election in May. Oh, and know also that Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2022 is ‘gaslighting’.
Karnataka As The Ideal Opposition Election Template..
Karnataka, the nascent Opposition grouping believes, is ripe for plucking. Corruption under Basavaraj Bommai’s rule has not only been endemic, but also highly visible.
The thinking is that Karnataka will provide proof of a concept that will serve as template for 2024: to wit, that all Opposition parties will join together to help, with money, human resources and muscle, the most likely among them to win a particular state. In the case of Karnataka, that likely winner has been identified as the Congress-JD(S) combine.
The Opposition think-tank – an amorphous grouping for now cites numbers to make the case. In the previous election in May 2023, the BJP won the most seats – 104 – with a 36.4% vote share. Against that, the Congress won 80 seats with 38.1% of the votes, and the JD(S) won 37 seats with 18.3% of votes cast. (The reception that the Rahul Gandhi-led Bharat Jodo Yatra got on its Karnataka leg, despite the best efforts of the ruling BJP to dampen the turnout, is also being seen as a key straw in the wind).
The leadership of the key southern states – Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana – are thus, working on plans to mount a joint effort aimed at helping the Congress-JD(S) combine to win the state. Talks are also on with Maharashtra’s Uddhav Thackeray, and Bihar’s Nitish Kumar-Lalu Yadav combining, to join the collective effort.
Will the Opposition’s National Strategy To Oust Modi Govt Work?
Left out of these early-round talks is the AAP, which has already talked of contesting all 224 seats, and is being viewed with suspicion – not as the BJP’s “B-team”, but as an untrustworthy party focused on the personal aggrandizement of its leader Arvind Kejriwal, even at the expense of splitting opposition votes.
Karnataka is key to the Opposition’s emerging national strategy, not for the outcome itself but as a proving ground for a theory aimed at 2024: To wit, that Modi can win a national election only if he can turn it into a personality contest between himself and one other – preferably Rahul Gandhi.
The Opposition alliance believes that it is in Modi’s interest to prop up Gandhi as his sole challenger because then it becomes easy to bring the combined force of the BJP’s propaganda machine, the swelling ranks of captive media, and the various enforcement and administrative arms of the government, to bear.
“The way to defeat Modi,” a top-rung Kerala leader argued a day after the Gujarat results were declared, “is to deny him the opportunity to go one on one, to break the election down into a series of local battles against entrenched regional leaders.
“Modi has no grasp of issues at the state level, no clue about local cultures, language, and regional ethos; all he has to offer are the tired tropes of Hindutva, Article 370, Nehru… so force him to fight Stalin in Tamil Nadu, Pinnarayi (Vijayan) in Kerala, Uddhav (Thackeray) and Pawar in Maharashtra, and watch what happens. The question of who the prime minister is can be decided later, once the results are in and we know how the numbers of the various parties stack up – the key is to deny Modi any one single opponent to mount a national campaign against.”
Where does the Congress figure in this thinking? “The problem with the Congress,” the Kerala leader argued, “is a sense of entitlement. Whenever there is a national election, the Congress believes it has a divine right to be the face of the Opposition; in seat-sharing talks, the party demands way more seats than it is capable of winning. Not anymore – we will go to them with a simple offer: in states where you have a significant vote share, all other Opposition parties will work to support you. In states where you are weak, the regional party will give you as many seats as we believe you can win and go flat out to ensure that you win these seats. And that’s it – take the deal or slide into total oblivion.”
What’s in Store for 2024?
Tamil Nadu’s MK Stalin successfully pulled off just such a negotiation, it is pointed out, in the 2021 assembly elections. The Congress demanded over 60 seats; the DMK offered 20; the parties settled on 25 – an offer the Congress was forced to accept. And the DMK pulled out all stops to ensure that Congress candidates won.
No strategy, Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke is supposed to have said, survives first contact with the enemy. But, goes the Opposition thinking, it doesn’t have to. Karnataka provides a handy, and early, proving ground. Once the results are in, the Opposition has a good six months to study the data, refine the planning, and fine-tune for the key heartland contests in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan later in the year.
None of this is unknown to the BJP – hence the urgency of the planning meeting before the party had even got its breath back after a frenetic campaign in Gujarat. It knows the going is about to get tougher. In terms of tangible accomplishments on the ground, achievements that positively impact the lives of ordinary citizens, it has nothing to boast of.
Even its get-out-of-jail card, Pakistan, is now effectively neutered by China’s incursions along the north-eastern frontier – for all the recent bombast about taking back Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, the government knows that any overt move against Pakistan will result in Chinese escalation elsewhere, and that an already undermanned, underequipped and over-stretched army is in no position to cope.
So what remains? An escalation of hate; a quantum increase in gaslighting; the serial lighting of little fires across the land, all this in the hope that hard Hindutva will fire up enough of the base to enable the party to squeak through in the key contests coming up in 2023.
“May you live in interesting times”, goes the Chinese curse. You will find it in your fortune cookie as you celebrate the end of this year and the dawn of the next.
(Prem Panicker is a senior Indian journalist and tweets @prempanicker. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)