2024 Lok Sabha Elections -SAMIR BHOWMIK

Publish: 7:14 PM, April 27, 2024 | Update: 7:14 PM, April 27, 2024

India, the world’s largest democracy, is gearing up once again for its general elections, the largest such exercise anywhere in the world. This is a monumental event that not only captures attention of the whole of India but also echos globally. The Election Commission of India has announced a seven-phase schedule for the 18th Lok Sabha elections commencing on April 19 and concluding on June 1, with counting of votes scheduled for June 4.

Close to million a billion voters, around 969 voters will be addressed and wooed by parties and candidates in this incredible Indian election. The upcoming election will feature a multi-party contest, with the ruling BJP-led NDA alliance and the opposition coalition of the I.N.D.I.A. block being the primary contenders. The NDA alliance comprises 39 parties, while the INDIA coalition has 26 parties. The election will decide who forms the new government at the Centre, whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led NDA alliance or the Congress-led INDIA coalition or any other Opposition formulation.

The BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are, as of now, in a strong position. Narendra Modi’s personal charisma kept the BJP in good shape through two terms of the NDA government. Narendra Modi set the party a target of winning 370 seats, compared to the 303 seats it had won in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in the 543-member house. He wants to perform a hat trick and win for the third consecutive term. During 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP and its allies secured 45 per cent of the votes. The BJP, a strong organization, has grown since 1980. The party had won only 2 seats in 1984. Alongside reviving up its organizational engine, the party is now seeking to expand its footprint by the continuous induction of leaders from other political parties on the one hand and tying up alliances with regional parties. In 1998, the NDA had 28 constituents. In 2024, two terms in, with a comfortable majority for the BJP and heading for an election, Modi’s NDA is set to have 39 members.

The Indian National Congress, India’s dominant party for the first four decades after independence, is at its lowest point. It has suffered two consecutive defeats in 2014 and 2019. Its combined seats in these two elections were not even half it got in 2009, when it anchored UPA-led coalition. The Congress is a 138-year-old secular party which has a base in each hamlet in nearly every state across India. With the rise of the regional satraps, the party has been weakened.

Politics is a slippery game and the Congress is facing an uphill task trying to keep the game of cards going. The two editions of Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, the first edition, that was from Kanniyakumari to Kashmir, the second one, that was from Manipur to Mumbai, gained the Congress some electoral advantage in Karnataka and Telangana which it went on to win the assembly polls, but the party lost in the assembly polls in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The Opposition, mainly the Congress party, aims to challenge Narendra Modi by consolidating anti-BJP votes and offering incentives. This strategy worked in Karnataka, Telangana and Himachal Pradesh in last year’s assembly elections, which the Congress won, The Congress hopes to gain from the BJP’s anti-incumbency by offering freebies. The party also highlights Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatras, which were meant to connect the people. Both the yatras have achieved the goal of energising the party cadres. The Congress has stitched up seat-sharing deal with Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh and with Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi, Haryana, Gujarat, Goa and Chandigarh. But Punjab, where AAP is a key player, is not a part of the deal and a consensus has remained elusive in Punjab. The Congress has conceded seats in Gujarat, Haryana and Goa to the AAP. The Congress will get support of the AAP in Chandigarh. But the Trinamool Congress decided to go solo in West Bengal. In Bihar, the Janata Dal (United) party led by Nitish Kumar has re-joined the NDA, which is expected to benefit the BJP. Kumar’s return to NDA fold and the defection of veteran party leader like Ashok Chavan have prompted the Congress to be more accommodative to its allies. In Maharashtra, former chief minister Ashok Chavan, after 38 years in Congress, has cast his lot with the BJP. Chavan’s switch follows the split of both Shiv Sena and the NCP, one of the two halves of both aligning with the BJP. The Shiv Sena (UBT) has unilaterally announced some candidates, threatening the alliance with NCP (Sharad Pawar) and the Congress. In Uttar Pradesh, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), rooted in an agrarian politics in local contexts, has tied up with the NDA. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) led by four-time UP chief minister Mayawati is going solo.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP achieved significant victories in Hindi heartland, Gujarat, and Maharashtra. The party has stitched up alliances with multiple parties before the polls. It seems that the BJP is open to having all kinds of allies on board in order to achieve its goal of 370 seats for itself and 400 seats for the NDA. The most striking is the recent realignment of Janata Dal (United) chief and Bihar’s chief minister Nitish Kumar. The party finalised a seat-sharing arrangement in Bihar with JD (U) and Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party. In Andhra Pradesh, the BJP has announced a tie-up with Chandrababu Naidu’s Telegu Desam Party (TDP). The Biju Janata Dal (BJD), the dominant player in Odisha, has been standing with BJP in parliament, even helping the latter’s ministers get elected to the Rajya Sabha. The Janata Dal (Secular) party in Karnataka has also joined the NDA alliance. A faction of the Shiv Sena and NCP’s Ajit Pawar are with the BJP in Maharashtra and they together are leading the state’s coalition government. The state’s 48 seats are poised for a fratricide battle with rival Shiv Sena and NCP factions. The BJP is negotiating with the National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir.

Uttar Pradesh, with 80 Lok Sabha seats, is very critical in all political calculations. BJP won 62 seats in 2019 and 71 in 2014. In 2019, the SP-BSP alliance could not aggregate its individual vote share of 2014. In 2024, the Congress and the SP have found their alliance not merely mutually beneficial but also critical for their survival. The southern states including Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have traditionally been governed by the regional parties and the Congress. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the DMK-led Secular Progressive Alliance had clinched 38 of the 39 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu. The Dravidian parties have a strong vote bank and influential pockets throughout the states, whereas the BJP lacks both. The DMK and AIADMK have been alternating in power for the past many years. The AIADMK had walked out of the BJP-helmed NDA last year. The BJP is not in power in any southern state, having lost Karnataka last year. In Kerala, CPIM-led Left Democratic Front and Congress-led United Democratic Front are two key proponents of national Opposition. The state’s assembly has historically swung between the two fronts. In 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP failed to win a single one of the 20 seats in Kerala. Notably, Congress leader Mr. Rahul Gandhi has filed his nomination papers for Wayanad in Kerala. The Congress has now come to power in Telangana, previously ruled by TRS. Andhra Pradesh has been under regional parties since its bifurcation. In West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), a key constituent of the Congress-helmed INDIA block, has decided to go solo. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the TMC had won 22 seats out of 42, while the BJP had made major inroads by clinching 18; the Congress had won two seats. In Madhya Pradesh (29 seats), the Congress and the SP, have reached a seat agreement and there was no alliance in last year assembly elections. The BJP had managed to retain Madhya Pradesh despite anti-incumbency and infighting. In 2019 Lok Sabha election Kamal Nath’s borough Chhindwara is the only seat BJP lost. In Delhi, the Aam Addmi Party (AAP) and the Congress have reached a seat-sharing agreement. The AAP had swept both the 2015 and 2020 Assembly elections in Delhi. But the BJP had won all seven seats in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The Lok Sabha voting is generally for the panty and the leader; a candidate’s credentials are generally the last thing on the minds of the voters. BJP replaces a significant number of sitting MPs with new faces to enhance its voters appeal and to tackle anti-incumbency. In an analysis, by opting for fresh and new faces and new voices, the party aims to present itself as responsive to public sentiment. In another analysis, sidelining sitting MPs in large numbers can create a disgruntled groups in its ranks, which can be equally detrimental to the party. In Haryana, the BJP has replaced Manohar Lal Khattar, the incumbent CM for over nine years, with OBC leader Nayab Sing Saini. This is an attempt to consolidate non- Jat votes in the state and buck anti-incumbency. Neither the former CM Khattar, nor the new CM Saini, is Jat. BJP’s change of guard in Haryana signals how the party blends politics with imperatives of power.

A strong point with the Congress, even in its timid days, is that it has organisational network across India. Mrs. Indira Gandhi won a national election by raising the slogan of Garibi Hotao in the early 1970s. Mrs. Sonia Gandhi’s Aam Aadmi Slogan in 2004 resonated well with the masses. Most voters are concerned about basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter. The Congress should raise bread-and-butter issues such as inflation, joblessness etc. to engage with young voters who play a decisive role in elections. What the Congress lacks today in state after state, is the money power. Unlike the BJP, it does not have money power, but its roots spread to every hamlet across India. The Congress has a nationwide presence but it is handicapped by severe weaknesses in quite a few States. The party seeks to overcome this through State-wise alliances. Some influential regional leaders can sway voters in their respective regions. This is particularly true for Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. The biggest challenge for the INDIA alliance is to project a single leader against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There is an ego clash among the coalition partners, which makes it difficult to agree on someone. The leader of each party in the INDIA block has prime ministerial ambitions. This is precisely the problem with too many disparate parties in one platform. It is very difficult for the Congress to hold these incongruous elements together. There is always the possibility of a slip between the cup and the lip.

For the BJP, in its core region such as the Hindi belt and western India, its victory margins are huge. But in most of the south India and parts of eastern India, it has met with strong opposition from the regional parties. PM Narendra Modi’s frequent trip to Tamil Nadu and Kerala indicate that the party is taking southern battle very seriously and putting in extra effort to deepen its roots in these regions.

In 2019, there was pro-BJP wave created after the Pulwama attacks. But on the eve of Lok Sabha election 2024, there is no such strong wave, there is no campaign plank namely surgical strikes. One major challenge in all alliances is the chemistry between the supporters of the constituent parties and the ability of the parties to transfer one’s vote share to another. Elections results are unpredictable in the wider Indian context. In a country so large and diverse, there are too many moving parts. We don’t know what will happen in the Lok Sabha elections 2024, but all eyes are on it, the biggest democratic exercise on the planet.

Samir Bhowmik is an advocate practicing at the Supreme Court of Bangladesh. Views are personal and he can be reached advocate.samirbhowmik1971@gmail.com