New Delhi: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s recent national executive meeting put Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the centre stage once again, making it amply clear that the party shall attempt to turn the 2024 Lok Sabha polls into a presidential contest. A “Modi versus the Rest” binary has delivered a victory to the BJP even in 2019 and helped it skirt discontent and anguish on the ground over various issues. It is not surprising therefore that the BJP plans to override any anti-incumbent sentiment whatsoever accumulated over its 10-year regime with its biggest trump card – Modi.
The prime minister himself gave a call to BJP workers to reach all Indian voters by the time of the Lok Sabha polls, and even urged his party men and women not to make any “unnecessary comments” about films and asked them to reach out to the Muslim community.
Like an able wingman, Union minister Amit Shah did a clean-up act. Unemployment is at record high, inequality levels have never been this deep, steep price rises have only added insult to injury and the growth rate is most likely to slow down significantly in the next quarter. But Shah kept his speech restricted to BJP’s “dedication” towards people’s concerns, the party’s internal democracy, electoral victories, and, surprisingly, the BJP’s attentive endeavours during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as a large section of people struggled for health and livelihood facilities during that period.
Shah did what he had to do. Other senior leaders of the BJP also delivered similar punch phrases. The prime minister has taken the country to “a politics of saturation and governance of saturation”, said Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan. Others like Union minister Nirmala Sitharaman and senior leader Ravi Shankar Prasad gloated over the fact that India has pipped the UK to become the fifth largest economy despite alleged constant negative campaigns against the prime minister, and added that allegations of corruption or “baseless claims on Pegasus, Rafale, ED, Central Vista, reservation, and demonetisation” could not stick.
At the same time, the BJP drew up a list of 160 Lok Sabha constituencies where it may be vulnerable in the 2024 polls, and formed dedicated multi-layered teams to run special campaigns for these specific seats.
Modi as ‘global leader’ to be new focus
The national executive sounded the poll bugle, with the BJP formally activating its mammoth election machinery. Over the last year, the BJP has ensured that the prime minister is seen as “a global leader” and “a statesman” over and above his perception as a “development icon” and a “Hindu Hriday Samrat”. The latter two have already been used extensively in previous elections. The push to transform him as a leader beyond the peripheries of India – with the potential to put India on the global power map – is what the BJP appears to depend upon before Modi steers his third consecutive parliamentary election campaign.
Each and every BJP leader in their last few speeches and the party’s own campaign has focussed on India assuming the G-20 presidency under the stewardship of Modi. Although the year-long presidency is rotational, the saffron party has vigorously attempted to spin it as one of the biggest achievements of Modi’s tenure. Similarly, the last few assembly elections saw the BJP campaigning on India’s “new-found pride” under Modi.
The BJP takes its image-building exercise very seriously, and it has been carefully churning out one apparent episode after another in Modi’s life that could eventually reinforce his already larger-than-life perception. Throughout the year, the Modi government has planned G-20 events in state capitals, Tier-II cities, and small towns, all of which will be projected as Modi transforming the country into a global powerhouse.
The Modi government has consistently attempted to build India as an alluring corporate destination. Although data regarding foreign investments over the last few years may say otherwise, Modi’s impetus on greater privatisation has made him an unmistakable favourite with corporates.
Most opposition parties have now clearly pitched themselves against privatisation and arbitrary sale of public sector units, and have shown a greater propensity towards welfarism.
To offset the opposition campaign, the BJP’s new slogan in the national executive is “Garib Kalyan”, which focuses on its populist welfare schemes in the absence of any structural measures to weaken poverty levels.
The national executive’s decision to extend the party president J.P Nadda’s tenure also once again reinforces the Modi-led BJP’s increasing thrust towards greater centralisation within the party. Nadda has been a non-controversial president with barely any independent voice. But he has been loyal and actively subservient to the Modi-Shah duo. As long as the BJP keeps winning, such a corporate-like hierarchy and functioning of the party will continue to grow from strength to strength, even as the party’s internal democracy is likely to suffer.
Given the transactional nature of Indian politics at present, the Modi-Shah duo will now have big assembly elections to fight in 2023, starting with Karnataka. The saffron party will have to struggle hard to retain the state as corruption allegations against the Basavaraj Bommai government have only been escalating. In Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the Congress appears to be well-placed to give the BJP a really tough fight, while Bhupesh Baghel appears to be in control in Chhattisgarh.
The road to parliament goes through states. With Modi being projected as a leader beyond the hustle of domestic politics, the BJP is cushioning itself from shocks. The Modi factor could work well in assembly elections. However, if not, he will surely be the biggest driving factor for a great number of voters in the Lok Sabha polls.