After the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) thumping victory in the Uttar Pradesh election earlier this year, the party looked unbeatable in 2024. But subsequent headwinds have buffeted incumbents across the world.
High inflation preceded the Ukraine war but has been exacerbated by it. Central banks have raised interest rates sharply to curb inflation, causing a global recession that hits production and employment everywhere, including India.
Could this strengthen anti-incumbency and make the BJP beatable in 2024? The recent state elections showed that the BJP would win when facing a splintered Opposition (as in Gujarat and Goa) but could be beaten by a credible Opposition (as in Himachal Pradesh).
Splits in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) could also change the electoral arithmetic, with Nitish Kumar breaking away from the alliance and joining the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar.
Add up all these potential losses, and the BJP is vulnerable in theory. However, two conditions must be met. First, the Opposition should be united, not splintered. Second, electoral arithmetic must be strong enough to withstand electoral chemistry, in which Narendra Modi excels. Come 2024, will the Opposition be united? And will that be enough?
Having won the state elections in Delhi and Punjab, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) aims to expand across India, mainly at the expense of the Congress. It won 12.9% of the popular vote in Gujarat and 6.8% in Goa, and that was enough to sink the United Progressive Alliance. That story is likely to be repeated in more states.
The Trinamool Congress also seeks to expand its footprint outside West Bengal. And now K Chandrashekhar Rao has converted his Telangana Rashtra Samithi into a Bharat Rashtra Samithi. Meanwhile, Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen threatens to take a share of the Muslim vote from other Opposition parties in several states.
In sum, the prospects of a strong, united Opposition are fading in large parts of India. But even in states where parties may indeed get together to form maha-gathbandhans or mega-united fronts, the vote shares of the individual parties rarely add up when they join hands: a substantial portion leaks to the BJP. That became evident in recent by-elections in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, and Kurhani, Bihar, where the BJP sprang surprise victories.
Modi is the latest champion of chemistry. Such is his personal popularity that even where voters are against the BJP, they are with Modi. In covering elections across India, I often come across youngsters who plan to vote against the BJP in the state election but with it in a national election. The most dramatic example is in Delhi, where voters gave AAP enormous majorities in the state elections of 2015 and 2020 but a clean sweep to the BJP in the national elections of 2014 and 2019.
So, even if Opposition parties somehow manage to put a reasonably united front against the BJP in 2024, will it matter? Regardless of whether one is with or against the BJP, the answer has to be no.