News Analysis: ‘A victory that feels like defeat’

The opposition INDIA alliance led by Congress made a strong comeback that has done the spadework for a check and balance in a democracy.

Pallab Bhattacharya

Pallab Bhattacharya

The Daily Star


Representational photo. With Modi's and BJP's repeated claim of '400 paar' shredded, the mandate has dented Modi's electoral invincibility. PHOTO: UNSPLASH

June 5, 2024

NEW DELHI – By all accounts, Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party looks set to return for a rare third consecutive term to rule India. It has emerged as the largest single party but failed to reach the majority mark on its own. The opposition INDIA alliance led by Congress made a strong comeback that has done the spadework for a check and balance in a democracy.

How? As an analyst has aptly commented: the election has given a victory that feels like defeat and a defeat that is akin to a win.

With Modi’s and BJP’s repeated claim of ‘400 paar’ shredded, the mandate has dented Modi’s electoral invincibility. The INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) has come out of the polls as a force to reckon with in India’s politics as a viable opposition in the time to come.

The opposition bloc has reversed all exit poll predictions by leading in at least 228 seats, according to the latest numbers. However, despite a stiff contest, the BJP-led NDA is inching closer towards the 300-mark, standing at 297 at the moment.

From 52 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, its worst performance in parliamentary elections, Congress has come a long way this year. The party is leading in 99 seats. Even though the party stares at another five-year stint in the opposition benches in the Lok Sabha, the result is likely to shape its future political course, policies and strategies. As a senior leader of the party from Uttar Pradesh said, “Some defeats are more important than victories because they provide you the learning curve leading to a resurgent journey.”

Congress is set to become the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, a much-needed recognition of the strength of the principal opposition party with national footprints and a far cry from BJP’s vision of a “Congress-mukt Bharat.”

The result will also consolidate Congress’s pole position in the opposition alliance and allow it to control some regional allies like TMC.

The principal opposition party banked on three factors to fight the election this time: the formation of INDIA bloc, its manifesto raising the bread and butter issues like inflation and joblessness, promising a slew of cash doles as well as appealing to caste groups and its sustained campaign to protect the Constitution to safeguard the reservation.

Several factors are behind NDA’s result this year. Modi’s consistently pressing hard with a polarising narrative for much of the electioneering to counter his political rivals, the law of diminishing return of the consecration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya issue and the remarkable rise of INDIA, a loosely-crafted opposition alliance of 28 parties less than a year ago – all have played their parts. It also shows that every emotive issue, however appealing, has a shelf life and creates fatigue among voters if played repeatedly at the expense of other more pressing issues.

The INDIA bloc made deep inroads in several politically crucial Hindi heartland states including Uttar Pradesh which sends the highest number of lawmakers to the Lok Sabha (80). The alliance has made steady headway in Rajasthan, Bihar, Haryana and Jharkhand. The Hindi-speaking belt has 225 seats.

In Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party made a turnaround like a phoenix rising from the ashes. SP has now become the third largest party in parliament with 38 MPs at the time of writing this.

UP played a big role in BJP’s 2014 landslide victory with the party winning 71 seats of 80. BJP held its ground in 2019 by winning 62. In 2019, Samajwadi Party won just five seats, Congress one and Bahujan Samaj Party 10.

Another state where BJP has lost considerable ground is Maharashtra, India’s most industrialised state, especially after the saffron party played a role in the split of the two regional heavyweights Shiv Sena, its former ideological ally, and NCP.

Behind the remarkable turnaround for Samajwadi Party are some interesting factors which appear to have given them an upper hand over BJP.

One of the factors that worked in favour of SP was getting the caste calculus right in the ticket distribution strategy. Unlike previous elections, the SP this time prioritised non-Yadav, and other backward caste candidates. It worked as it attracted voters who rallied behind BJP in the past 2 elections.

While SP fielded only five Yadavs, all from the family of party chief Akhilesh Yadav, it gave 27 tickets to non-Yadav OBCs, 11 to upper castes, including Brahmins, Thakurs, Vaishyas and one Khatri, four to Muslims, besides 15 Dalit candidates in reserved constituencies. Also, SP changed its nominees in several constituencies after taking feedback from the ground.

On the other hand, BJP, which contested 75 seats in UP this time put up 34 upper caste candidates, and 25 OBCs, including one Yadav and the remaining 16 to scheduled castes.

Unlike BJP which concentrated more on blitzkrieg through grand rallies featuring Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, the poll campaign of SP-Congress combine settled for less grandiose events and instead focused on reaching out to local communities. The SP’s victory is well spread out across UP. It has won seats in western, central and eastern parts of India’s most populous state. It also gained seats in Bundelkhand which was electorally dominated by BJP in the last two Lok Sabha elections in 2014 and 2019.

And finally, Modi’s larger-than-life persona loomed large over the election. Across India, his face was splashed in posters, graffiti and ads on TV and the print media. This was as much due to the BJP as to the opposition which, despite repeatedly terming the election as a battle of ideologies, constantly targeted Modi keeping him in the discussion. So much so that it became Modi versus the rest story.

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