Why the BJP’s Himachal and Delhi reverses may not matter in 2024

The opposition parties’ failure to forge a united front could have transformative implications for India’s secular polity

Updated - December 13, 2022 02:21 pm IST

Published - December 13, 2022 12:24 pm IST

An advantage that the BJP enjoys is the duality in electoral choices made by Indian voters. Image for representational purpose only

An advantage that the BJP enjoys is the duality in electoral choices made by Indian voters. Image for representational purpose only | Photo Credit: Vijay Soneji

“Voters are not fools,” the late Harvard professor V. O. Key Jr. wrote famously. The results of the three recently concluded elections — for the Assemblies in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) — validate this observation. A few key inferences that could be drawn from these results are: one, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is not invincible at the hustings despite its massive well-oiled election machinery and charismatic, over-committed campaigner, Prime Minister Narendra Modi; two, the silent campaign that the Congress party claimed to be running in Gujarat is self-destructive; three, the politics of polarisation has its limitations; and four, core governance issues matter. 

What is then the implication of these results for the forthcoming 2024 parliamentary elections?

By the time 2024 elections arrive, it is plausible that the electoral defeats that the BJP has incurred in the Himachal Pradesh Assembly and in the MCD might be inconsequential. That is because over the past few years, the BJP leadership has demonstrated that electoral defeat does not imply that the party cannot eventually form the government. Its ability to form governments through backdoor machinations — for instance, in Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra in the last few years — is evidence of this new counter-democratic trend in India’s electoral politics. This is particularly effective when the defeat margin is small between the BJP and the victorious party — but it is difficult to pull off when the margins are large, as was the case in the West Bengal and Delhi Assembly elections. The apparent advantages that this month’s non-BJP winning parties — the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the MCD, and the Congress in Himachal Pradesh — enjoy at present owing to their victories might fritter away by the 2024 elections, given the relatively small margins in their vote percentages vis-a-vis the BJP.

The overwhelming majority that the BJP has earned in its victory in the Gujarat Assembly would clearly present a positive signal for its campaign for the 2024 parliamentary elections. However, some credit for the massive electoral dominance of the BJP in the Gujarat Assembly polls has to go the self-destructive silent campaign that the Congress opted for. In retrospective, it is now apparent that the so-called silent campaign proved to be no campaign, and the prospects for the Congress to revive from this point appears rather bleak. 

In any case, there is another advantage that the BJP enjoys, which is the duality in electoral choices made by Indian voters. For instance, though voters in the 2018 Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh opted decisively against the incumbent BJP State governments, they unambiguously voted for Mr. Modi’s BJP in the 2019 parliamentary elections. In Madhya Pradesh the BJP secured 28 Lok Sabha seats, while the Congress got only one; in Rajasthan the BJP secured 24 parliamentary seats and the Congress none; in Chhattisgarh the BJP took nine seats, and the Congress one. This has been the trend in Delhi too since the 2014 elections, which is the reason why the AAP victory in the MCD elections need not imply that it would retain these voters in the parliamentary elections in 2024. The same could be argued for Himachal Pradesh. All in all, political dynamics and trends seem to favour the BJP, and whatever advantages that have accrued to the Opposition parties this month may be transitory.

Like 1977 or 1989? 

All of this could change if pre-election Opposition unity could be stitched up coherently at the national level in the lead-up to the Lok Sabha elections. For this, the key requirement is the emergence of a national leader who could raise the stakes by rallying the Opposition forces behind himself or herself, as Jayaprakash Narayan did in 1977 or V. P. Singh did in 1989. At this point, no such rallying figure is visible, with the campaign in the recent elections not adding much clarity in the Opposition’s ranks. Consider, for instance, if the Congress (with a vote share of roughly 27%) and AAP (13%) had fought the Gujarat Assembly elections together, they could have denied the BJP the massive margin of victory it eventually registered.

Historically, dominant political parties have profited from the natural tendency of India’s Opposition parties to stay disunited. The advantage that the BJP has today was once enjoyed by the Congress for several national and State-level elections. In 1996, at an election rally in Bhubaneswar, addressed by Odisha’s stalwart leader Biju Patnaik, then in the Janata Dal, and V. P. Singh, Patnaik made a telling remark. On a visit to Uttar Pradesh, he said, people were telling Opposition parties to get united, as then there would be no need for them to come asking for votes; and if they did not unite, there was no point in them asking for votes. The campaign for this winter’s batch of elections and discussions among parties have not given any fresh clue about moves towards Opposition unity. 

A prominent difference between the BJP of today and the Congress of earlier times is the degree to which the BJP has used state agencies to weaken the Opposition parties, often starving them of political funding and intimidating their leaders. Consequently, the Indian electoral system is now reorganised by creating unequal advantages for the BJP vis-a-vis its electoral opponents. This unequal playing field is sure to provide the BJP another significant advantage in the 2024 elections. 

All in all, there is not much evidence to suggest that sufficient political realignment could occur to take on the BJP or Mr. Modi’s leadership in 2024. If so, post-2024 the ideological implications for India’s secular polity, which has suffered a great deal already, are going to be fundamentally transformative.

(Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Shikwa-e-Hind: The Political Future of Indian Muslims.)

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.