As it celebrated the eighth anniversary of the Narendra Modi-led government in May, the BJP looked extremely confident and upbeat, and was mulling over setting its 2024 Lok Sabha election target at 350-plus seats.
But things have seemingly changed since then, as indicated by a series of recent developments such as the Parliamentary Board revamp, a campaign against freebies, and the exit of the Janata Dal (United) from the National Democratic Alliance in Bihar. Sources in the BJP admit that the “recent developments show that party strategists are not in full control”. However, leaders point to the BJP’s capability of making course corrections.
Some BJP leaders view last month’s reorganisation of the Parliamentary Board as a “hurriedly done exercise”. They say that unlike in the past, when the party’s apex decision-making body used to be a conglomerate of experienced and heavyweight leaders at the organisational level, the new faces appear to have been chosen with electoral prospects in mind.
Despite not having a national presence, Karnataka’s 79-year-old former Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa seems to have been inducted as the party realises that the wholehearted support of the Lingayat strongman is crucial if it has to win the maximum number of seats in the southern state in the Assembly polls next year and the general elections in 2024. “This shows the party is not so confident about Karnataka and does not want to take a risk over ensuring the wholehearted support of BSY,” said a BJP leader.
The party picked a Sikh face, Iqbal Singh Lalpura, and a Dalit face, Satyanarayan Jatiya, from Punjab and Madhya Pradesh. In MP, the BJP wants to regain the support of the weaker communities that got eroded during the last Assembly elections, while in Punjab it is desperate to get on strong ground.
The BJP was not prepared for the setback in Bihar, a crucial state where the Nitish Kumar-led JD(U) switched sides and joined hands with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). According to party leaders, this did not feature in the party’s 2024 blueprint.
“After the BJP’s splendid achievement in Maharashtra (where Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena rebels formed a government with the BJP), Bihar came as a rude shock to the party. Our strategists did not have this in their mind,” said a senior leader. The threat, he added, was very serious as the Nitish Kumar-RJD combination is a formidable one. “It can create havoc in our election plans. What happened in Bihar shows things are not going in the right direction for the BJP,” said the functionary.
The BJP has also suddenly changed its approach towards the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The ruling party, which usually begins its election preparations more than a year in advance, has suddenly become aggressive against the AAP over the excise policy row in Delhi. This comes ahead of the elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh that will be held in the next few months.
“If you have identified your opponent, you will not have a lull in your moves to take them on. This sudden rhetoric and diatribe against AAP leaders can have only two reasons – you decide to make it stronger and more relevant to cut down the other opponent (in this case, the Congress in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat) or you are desperate,” said a source in the BJP.
A section of BJP leaders is of the view that the offensive against the AAP “unfortunately comes in the backdrop of the Prime Minister and the government launching a campaign against so-called freebies”. A BJP functionary pointed out, “A lot of voters read it together. The timing of a campaign against freebies is not good for the BJP now. It does not fit well into the plans at a time when the BJP is desperate to expand its ground in the southern states. The USP of the ruling parties in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu is welfare politics. One should understand the lines between freebies and empowerment politics are blurred. There’s a lot of confusion.”
Shrinking comfort zone
Even as the BJP prepares and rolls out its strategies, the list of regional leaders who can launch a strong offensive against the ruling party is also expanding. With Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Nitish Kumar in Bihar, K Chandrasekhar Rao and MK Stalin in the south, and Arvind Kejriwal in the north, the BJP has formidable competition from different regions.
“While Kejriwal can still take on the PM on the issue of corruption, others can question this government’s credibility on the issue of price rise and unemployment,” said a BJP leader from the south.
The states where the BJP has to enter into a fierce contest for Lok Sabha constituencies are growing in number. Tamil Nadu (39 seats) Kerala (20), Telangana (17), Andhra Pradesh (25), Bihar (40), Punjab (13), Odisha (21), and West Bengal (42) together have more than 200 seats. “The comfort zones have shrunk,” the BJP leader added.
BJP insiders say if Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra is a success, he may join the club of strong Opposition leaders. “His Yatra, if it goes as per the reported schedule, has the potential to pose a huge challenge for the BJP as it can mobilise the people against the BJP at the national level,” admitted a leader.
With internal surveys indicating that most BJP chief ministers are not hugely popular, the party will have to rely on PM Modi’s popularity and welfare schemes run by the Centre to retain power in states going to polls before 2024. The strategies will have to be tailored keeping these factors in mind, say party leaders.
Meanwhile, there are signs of unhappiness among the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadre too. While some of the appointments, omissions, and decisions made by the BJP leadership have made the so-called “Brahmin lobby” uncomfortable, the silence of the top leadership on the recent order on the remission of the life sentences of 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano gang-rape case (and the developments that followed) made them uneasy, say sources.
“No genuine RSS leader or a member can justify it. In the ‘shakhas’, we grew up hearing the chivalry and bravery of Shivaji. We grew up hearing the stories that Shivaji never tolerated the dishonour of women. Women from captured territories were sent back with honour by him. No Hindu king revered in our legends disrespected women,” said a leader. “Here, you not only have set the convicted free, but you have also created optics by celebrating them. This all happened immediately after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a strong pitch for respect and empowerment of ‘Nari Shakti (women’s power)’ from the Red Fort on Independence Day. Again, the timing is unfortunate. Because it does not go well with the party’s attempts to reach out to women voters.”
But party leaders point out that the BJP has an “immense ability” to read the writing on the wall and make course corrections. “Both the prime minister and the party’s top leadership have never hesitated to learn from their mistakes or strategies that did not work as expected. They always get back to the drawing board and redraw the strategies,” said a senior BJP leader.