Foreseeing 2024 election outcome: here is need of the hour

Can the BJP be halted in its march towards a third consecutive victory? Is there a strategy to stop the ruling party from touching the majority mark in 2024? Most political observers and independent analysts seem to have given up. So have many opposition leaders, if you speak to them privately.

I disagree. Not because I believe in last minute miracles. Nor because I disregard the evidence of BJP’s recent victory in three Hindi states and that of the opinion polls that point to PM Modi’s popularity. It is just that we should take the evidence for what it shows, minus the psychological warfare that surrounds it. The electoral outcomes and survey evidence at this point does not encourage us to entertain the prospects of a big INDIA victory and a massive defeat for the BJP. At the same time, it does not rule out the possibility of the BJP stopping short of the 273 mark. If the opposition has a strategy, with imagination and political will to execute it, this outcome is still within the range of possibility.

The strategy involves dividing the battle of 2024 into three battlefields: primary, secondary and tertiary. The basic idea is to devise different tactics for these three different battles.

Let us begin with the tertiary field, the states where the BJP is not really in the electoral reckoning, at least not among the top two contenders. This is largely south India: Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and, now we can say, Telangana. Add to it Punjab and Kashmir, Mizoram and Nagaland. This adds up to 120 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP won only 6 seats here, 4 from Telangana and 2 from Punjab. In the last five years the BJP has not made much inroads in these areas. Its hopes for a repeat of Bengal did not fructify in Telangana. In the normal course of things, it would find it difficult to retain its 6 seats in this region, unless there is an overt or covert alliance with Akali Dal in Punjab and BRS in Telangana. The INDIA coalition does not need to do very much here. There is no need for an anti-BJP coalition in these states. The name of the game here is BLOCK. Besides the six seats the BJP holds, the INDIA coalition needs to be alert to the seats where the ruling party might wish to achieve a breakthrough – Thiruanantpuram in Kerala, Kanyakumari and Coimbatore in TN, for example – and block it. This can be achieved through special attention to these seats by INDIA partners and civil society and, if need be, small shift of votes between INDIA partners. This would contain the BJP at its current level. With some hard work and luck, the opposition can prevent the BJP from opening its account in this zone.

The secondary battlefield comprises those 223 seats where the BJP is the dominant party and is hard to dislodge in the next three months. This is mainly the Hindi heartland including Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Rajasthan. Add to it Gujarat and Assam, plus a few smaller states like Tripura and Arunachal and you have the entire area where BJP is firmly entrenched. Last time the BJP won 190 of these 223 seats. This is the region that gives the BJP its aura of invincibility. While everyone anticipates the BJP to sweep this region, very few analysts note that the BJP needs nothing short of a total sweep here in order to retain a majority in the Lok Sabha. Here lies the opposition’s chance.

The real and primary battleground is the remaining 200 seats where the BJP did very well last time, but is vulnerable now. The reasons vary. Maharashtra and Bihar have seen political reconfiguration and fresh alliances that provide an opening to the INDIA coalition.

Instead of trying to ‘defeat’ the BJP in this belt, the opposition should resort to CHIP, that is, it should quietly chip away at the BJP tally in a few select seats. Gujarat has been a BJP bastion for many elections, but the Congress can target 4 seats, mainly in the tribal belt. In Rajasthan, the Congress has a fair chance in half a dozen seats in the north east, and a couple of tribal seats in the south if it ties up with the Bharatiya Adivasi Party. Some of dalit-OBC dominated seats in the northern belt of MP offer this possibility. The Congress does not need to shift votes from the BJP; all it needs is to retain its own voters in the recent assembly elections. Uttar Pradesh is a tough game, yet the SP-RLD-Congress combine can target upto two dozen seats. The critical point in this strategy is not to scatter the energies, but focus it in a handful seats with smart local alliances and social coalitions. Here again, except Uttar Pradesh, the opposition does not need a grand alliance; some carefully chosen local alliances are the need of the hour. The opposition can snatch about 20-25 seats from the BJP’s current tally of 190 in this group.

The real and primary battleground is the remaining 200 seats where the BJP did very well last time, but is vulnerable now. The reasons vary. Maharashtra and Bihar have seen political reconfiguration and fresh alliances that provide an opening to the INDIA coalition. West Bengal, Himachal and Karnataka have seen elections since 2019 where BJP has faced serious reverses. The farmers’ movement has changed the political mood in Haryana. In Odisha, the BJD may not be as willing to gift Lok Sabha seats to the BJP as it was in 2019. You can add Manipur, Meghalaya and UTs like Ladakh, Lakshdweep and Pondicherry to this list. This is where the real battle of 2024 will be fought. The BJP had captured 107 of these seats (147 if you include its allies of 2019) in these seats.

Here the opposition has to go for a full blown PUSH. It can target the seats currently held by the BJP and cause serious reversals. But this cannot be achieved unless the INDIA coalition holds and functions properly as a political entity in these states. If the INDIA coalition can get its act together, the BJP can lose around 25- 35 seats in these states. Put together, even under the present circumstances, the BJP can be brought down by 40-60 seats, well below the majority mark, without a dramatic turnabout in the present political climate.

Whether this possibility is turned into a reality would depend upon whether the INDIA coalition, and Congress in particular, follows this strategy and implements it with imagination and political will.