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Why United Opposition May Help BJP’s 2024 Strategy

People see through the ruling party, and suffer numerous privations, but the elites it is targeting has a big electoral pay-off, more so if Opposition unites.
United Opposition

File Photo.

Much of the existential crisis of Opposition parties is connected to the material crisis India’s poor face. It cannot overcome this crisis without promising to improve conditions for the dispossessed. The poor, in turn, have weaponised the ruling party against the ruling elite, which explains why there is consent for the Bharatiya Janata Party on the ground. India’s impoverished understand that the BJP is part of the same matrix of elites, but they are willing to play one block of ruling elites against the other, for they have no other viable option.

In turn, the BJP understands that the mass consent it has secured is still contextual and ad hoc. That is why it needs to weaponise itself as a representative of the brewing anti-systemic anger. The poor are not happy with the BJP, but their anger against the system, including any form of organised power dynamics, is even greater. The BJP knows it could be at the receiving end of this growing anger, as during the farmer protests two years ago.

Indeed, the ruling party is as clueless as the Opposition parties about how to solve the systemic concerns. That is why it is weaponising this very crisis—the more severe it gets, the more anger there will be against the power dynamic. And the more feedback the BJP gets that it is winning this game, the more arbitrary its words and deeds will become.

Arbitrariness helps the toxic majoritarian project, so fake encounters and bulldozers in Uttar Pradesh become symbolic representatives of outrage against the rules of the game, with religious majoritarianism as a side project or value-added dimension. The consent for fake encounters reflects the cumulative anger against routine harassment, institutionalised fear, uncertainty, and helplessness that people have experienced. That it may be targeting religious minorities does not count as of immediate relevance. The BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh may wish to turn this anger into exclusive hatred of the Muslim or religious hysteria, but people may see through it and, therefore, it would serve no purpose.

Put another way, the consent we see for the BJP is a case of deep disaffection with how things are—not affection for the methods it has pursued. In this gap between the two lies the Opposition’s opportunity.

The BJP wants the Opposition to join the eco-chamber it is creating by reading the situation as one in which people deeply identify with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. That is why its strategy for the 2024 Lok Sabha election is to divide the Opposition rather than expand its own base. It sees better prospects in killing the Opposition narrative, not creating a new one. It has smelled the coffee in fighting through the chaos and collective confusion, more so after recent developments regarding the Adani Group and former Jammu and Kashmir governor Satya Pal Malik’s remarks about high tolerance for corruption in the BJP.

It brazenly and relentlessly targets the Opposition, which testifies to the BJP’s understanding that even if people see that it does not intend to curb corruption, they will relish the targeting of elites. This strategy pushes a sense of ‘there is no alternative’ to generate a bigger pay-off from the slight edge Modi may enjoy in terms of charisma and credibility.

The Opposition may get a measure of sympathy for being relentlessly targeted, but if people see them as part of the ruling elite responsible for their economic hardships, they will not stand by them. Further, their campaigns to “save democracy and the Constitution” will hold no practical value if the Opposition comes across as self-serving by crying foul all the time. The BJP is counting on this, so it is undeterred by frantic attempts to forge Opposition unity.

The Opposition is wrong to see a chance in the current crisis so long as people view its constituents as a part of a systemic crisis and not the answer. They may understand that the BJP is equally responsible and no different from rival political outfits, but that is where the BJP’s extreme methods of targeting the Opposition come in. It wants to mobilise anger without promising to resolve the crisis. People know that, at their core, all parties and leaders are the same, and they often say so. Political philosopher Akeel Bilgrami once said, “When the rules of the game don’t favour you any which way, then it makes sense to overthrow the game of chess itself.” It is the optics of this “overthrow” that the BJP pitches. It seeks to make democracy and the Constitution templates that helped the “corrupt elite” protect and serve its interests. So, “merely” reiterating “save democracy” will not resonate on the ground.

The mere formation of an Opposition alliance also will do very little. One can argue that Modi is pushing for the Opposition to unify to give his optics of a “corrupt elite” trying to enter Parliament credibility. A united Opposition would create a practical demonstration of what has been perceived all along.

That said, public support for the BJP is not based on trust but on how it has weaponised general discontent. That is why the risk of disqualifying Rahul Gandhi is lower for the BJP than if the Congress leader successfully thrusts Modi and his entourage into a new narrative about “corrupt elites”.

For all these reasons, Opposition unity must go beyond vacuous campaigns. The institutional guarantees of the Constitution may have helped the elite, but people may not vouch for constitutional sentiments—just as they have come to doubt the veracity of democracy and secularism. These ideas are neither self-evident nor sacred to people. If anything, they stand for class power. And today’s conflict is between “the people” and the elites consisting of the ruling and Opposition parties. This is another reason why defections, breaking Opposition parties and engineering their downfall may also be an electoral non-issue.

Even a crisis is no guarantee that people will turn to the Opposition as saviours, for they have just tasted the bitter pill of trusting messianic overtures. The BJP is trying to gain from this loss of trust by targeting rivals and turning against factions within ruling elites.

In today’s articulations of general distrust and discontent, people may find voting for the BJP as consent for targeting the elite—and not necessarily a positive evaluation of what the ruling party has or intends to achieve. That the Opposition is not making enough sense of the optics demonstrates its loss of connection with the ground. They should be out on the streets, working for radical welfare instead of holding parleys or exchanging pleasantries and bouquets. They have to become the Opposition that they are not yet.

The author is an associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The views are personal.

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