India’s 28-party opposition front, the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance or INDIA, passed its first electoral test last week, with some key victories in assembly by-polls.
Of the seven constituencies in six states that voted on September 5, constituents of the INDIA bloc bagged four. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won three seats.
This is the first electoral face-off between the NDA and the INDIA bloc since the formation of the latter in Bengaluru on July 18. The opposition bloc passed the test well.
Of the INDIA bloc’s four victories, the most significant was in the Ghosi assembly seat in Uttar Pradesh. Uttar Pradesh accounts for a fifth of all seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament. It is a BJP stronghold. In 2019, the NDA won 64 of 80 seats from the state, and in state assembly elections to the state assembly last year, it swept back to power with 255 seats in the 403-member legislature.
Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has tightened his grip over power in Uttar Pradesh through his liberal use of strong-arm tactics, bulldozer politics, and intimidation of opponents. Breaching the BJP fortress in the state was therefore widely seen as near impossible.
The battle for the Ghosi seat was a fiercely fought contest between the Samajwadi Party (SP)’s Sudhakar Singh, who was backed by the INDIA alliance, and the BJP’s Dara Singh Chauhan, an SP legislator who switched sides ahead of the elections. The BJP had made the Ghosi election a battle of prestige, sending in almost all its top leaders and ministers from Uttar Pradesh, including Adityanath, to campaign for Chauhan. Yet, Singh won and by a significant margin.
Few expected India’s opposition parties and their ambitious leaders to set aside their rivalries and differences to join hands to form an alliance, let alone win against the formidable BJP and that too in its bastion in Uttar Pradesh. That they did so has rattled the BJP.
Indeed, the BJP’s nervousness has been evident in recent months, especially since the success of the opposition Congress party’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, or Unite India March, a 3,500-km-long march across the length of the country. The Congress followed that up by toppling the BJP government in state assembly elections in Karnataka in May.
However, it is the formation of the opposition alliance and the latter naming itself INDIA that has left the usually smug BJP jittery. Previously, the opposition parties had struggled to come up with potent ideas, slogans, and words to counter the BJP’s Hindutva ideology effectively.
That changed with the opposition block naming itself INDIA.
“By including words like ‘Indian’ and ‘National’ in our name, we are reminding Indians that we are the original inheritors of Indian nationalism. By including ‘Developmental’ and ‘Inclusive’ in our name we have spelt out what we stand for,” a Congress leader from Karnataka told The Diplomat. As a result, the BJP now “finds itself pitted not only against INDIA but the very idea of India,” he pointed out.
Since it came to power in 2014 and returned with a bigger mandate in 2019, the BJP has resorted to several means to weaken the opposition parties, particularly the Congress. It has used central investigative agencies against opposition politicians to get them to defect and topple opposition governments.
In recent months, it has stepped up efforts to divert public attention from its misgovernance and corruption. It has sought to shore up public support as well. Ahead of INDIA’s third meeting in Mumbai on August 31-September 1, the BJP government slashed the price of cooking gas.
It is taking steps to better its chances of victory in upcoming general elections. It is considering holding national and state assembly elections simultaneously and to this end has set up a panel led by former President Ram Nath Kovind to explore the feasibility of “One Nation, One Election.”
To counter INDIA, the Modi government is considering changing the country’s name to Bharat. Interestingly, Bharat is already another name for India: “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States,” says Article 1 of the constitution. There is therefore no need to change the name.
Yet the Modi government is keen to implement this name change through a process and will likely mark it with an elaborate event. The aim, of course, is to project itself as the flagbearer of indigenous nationalism vis-à-vis INDIA’s “foreignness.” The BJP has wrongly projected the name “India” as being of colonial origin.
Interestingly, the Modi government announced a special session of parliament between September 18 and 22. It has not disclosed the agenda of the session yet. There is speculation that it may introduce legislation to hold simultaneous elections or change the country’s name, perhaps restore Jammu and Kashmir’s status as a state, or take a step forward in bringing in the Uniform Civil Code or the long-awaited Women’s Reservation Bill.
Or will it use the special session to announce the advancing of general elections?
General elections are due in April-May 2024. By holding elections early, the BJP government could be hoping to go to the voters before the INDIA bloc organizes itself and puts up a strong fight.
While the opposition’s performance in the recent by-polls is likely to prompt the BJP to conjure up new stunts to firm up its position ahead of general elections, the INDIA bloc is no match for the BJP yet.
Modi remains by far the most popular leader across the country; a recent India Today-CVoter Mood of the Nation survey found that 52 percent of respondents favored his return as prime minister for a third term.
Moreover, while the INDIA bloc may be more united than in the past, it remains a divided house. Its constituents continue to fight each other at the regional level. This was underscored in the recent by-polls. In Dhupguri, West Bengal, two INDIA constituents, the Congress and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), put up a joint fight against another major INDIA partner, the TMC. In Puthupally, Kerala, the Congress and the Communists fought each other.
The INDIA bloc is celebrating its recent electoral victories. But clearly, it has a long way to go.