Cornered, BJP may shift political narrative ahead of polls in 9 states

With the Congress relentlessly targeting the Central government on the issues of price rise and unemployment, the BJP is positioning to change the political discourse by diverting narratives in upcoming assembly polls, dubbed as a semi-final before 2024 polls, writes Mudit Mathur

At a time when the nation is facing its biggest problems of growing price rise and unprecedented unemployment with the sharp decline of production in Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises (MSME) and real estate sectors, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is positioning to change the political discourse by diverting narratives in upcoming crucial elections of nine state assemblies in 2023 as a semi-finals to 2024 general parliamentary elections. The logjam continued in the prematurely concluded winter session of Parliament over clash between Indian and Chinese troops along the border in Arunachal Pradesh as Modi government did not concede opposition’s demand for a discussion to enable people to know truth.

Politically, the recent historic victory of Gujarat assembly elections is being depicted as overwhelming sign of Narendra Modi winning 2024 Lok Sabha elections, but his loss in Himachal Pradesh is being substantially downplayed. It is worth mentioning that both the state elections were fought with the Modi being the BJP’s mascot and double engine plank for development with religious overtones but Gandhi scion Priyanka Vadra Gandhi tirelessly worked reversing his fortunes. In Gujarat, Aam Admi Party damaged Congress prospects paving the way for saffron party to break the record of CPI (M), which ruled for record consecutive terms in West Bengal.

Now with the emerging trends suggesting that leadership of Narendra Modi is going to be under crucial challenge within and outside his party, and thus, upcoming assembly elections in 2023 in the nine states including Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram may prove to be a litmus test for him. The government is likely to conduct the assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir next year subject to availability of security forces and strengthening its organisational base. The elections results of these ten states in 2023 will surely indicate which party may have edge in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

On diplomatic front, the Tawang face off in Arunachal Pradesh remained one of the most contentious reasons for frequent disruptions in the prematurely concluded Parliament session on 23rd December which was scheduled to be held till 29th December, 2022. The opposition placed several notices in Parliament on the widespread issues of public importance including the LAC clash in Arunachal Pradesh, uncontrolled inflation, unemployment, misuse of investigation agencies etc. The national security breach was reported due to aggression of Chinese troops,who attempted to “unilaterally change the status quo” along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Arunachal Pradesh.

Ruckus was also caused in both houses – Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha – over Congress leader Ajay Rai’s sarcastic remarks on Union minister Smriti Irani. Rai had accused the BJP leader of visiting her Lok Sabha constituency, Amethi, only to show her ‘latkas’ and ‘jhatkas’–an oblique reference to her dramatic appearance. In a retaliation, Irani challenged Congress MP Rahul Gandhi to show courage to contest from Amethi. Rahul lost 2019 general elections against her. That is how precious time of parliament stood spoiled discussing non-issues.

Leader of Opposition Mallikarjun Kharge’s ‘dog’ comment on the saffron camp also drew angry protests aimed at him in both Houses of Parliament. At a rally in Alwar, Rajasthan during the Congress party’s ongoing ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’, Kharge said that,“Congress party stood for the national movement to secure independence of the nation but not even a dog of the BJP sacrificed its live for it.” The Congress president, however, defended himself saying that his statements during the “Yatra” were made outside Parliament, and thus, need not be discussed here.

As the Opposition tried to corner the Union government over Sino-Indian clash in Arunachal Pradesh, Union Home Minister Amit Shah,with all his diverting skills, hit back at Congress outside the Parliament House and raised the issue of Chinese donations to Rajiv Gandhi Foundation (RGF). Shah said the RGF had got Rs 1.35 crore from the Chinese embassy and its registration was cancelled as this was not according to FCRA rules. Earlier in October, the Union government cancelled the licence of RGF under Foreign Contribution (Regulations) Act (FCRA).

Home Minister’s attack provoked chairman of the Congress’s media department, Pawan Khera, who in a press conference ridiculed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for its “silence” on the issue of Chinese incursions in India, alleging links between policy foundations operating in the country and their ostensible links with the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). The son of external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, Dhruva Jaishankar,was made the target of the party’s counter salvo. The retaliatory attack came in wake ofUnion Home Minister Amit Shah comments.

“The Observer Research Foundation (ORF), where Jaishankar’s son, Dhruva Jaishankar, works, has received funding from the Chinese Embassy in India.The foundation, whose unit in USA is headed by son of the Foreign Minister, had received funding from the Chinese Embassy, not once, not twice, but three times. This has happened recently,” Khera added, questioning– “Why was this funding received? What is the reason? What is the reason for which the government of India repeatedly maintains silence over China?” Dhruva Jaishankar joined ORF in 2019, as director of its US initiative, soon after his father was appointed foreign minister.

Khera also trained his guns on another policy research organisation, the India Foundation.“The India Foundation has a lot of people associated from the Sangh Parivar. Why does the foundation visit China so often? What relationship does it have with China?”, Khera asked.The India Foundation is a similar policy research centre that “focuses on the issues, challenges and opportunities of the Indian polity with which RSS ideologue and BJP functionary Ram Madhav and others closely associated with it.”

BJP rose to power in 2014 on the poll plank of prise rise, providing two crores employment every year and bring black money stashed off shores but it failed to deliver on all these counts after having two terms of majority governance coming to a fag end. The major decisions of demonetisation and GST followed with Covid-19 pandemic proved fatal to overall economic health of the nation.

The BJP had suffered a setback in the 2018 assembly elections of Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka but presently it manoeuvred to attain power in both the states by engineering defection in Congress party. In Madhya Pradesh in 2018, the Congress ousted the BJP from power and Kamal Nath became the Chief Minister, but the Congress could not handle its mandate carefully and a group of Congress MLAs led by Jyotiraditya Scindia broke away pulling down the government. After this, Shivraj Singh Chouhan of BJP again became the Chief Minister of the state.

There has been a direct fight between the BJP and the Congress in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. The recent “Bharat Jodo Yatra” of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi drew large crowds in these states on the streets as well as in public rallies which were organised with an aim to change the political discourse of alleged communally divisive polity and flagging the saffron ideology, responsible for demolishing constitutional institutions and blending religion into politics.

Addressing a public meeting in Faridabad on the last day of Bharat Jodo Yatra in Haryana in the first phase, Rahul Gandhi alleged that Prime Minister Narendra Modi spent thousands of crores in the past few years to defame me and the Congress party, but within a month he had changed their narrative and “burnt” all that expenditure.” “Modi ji spent thousands of crores to defame me and Congress in the last 6-7 or 8 years. They spread several lies about me, but I kept quiet and did not utter a word in all these years. “Aur phir ek mahine mein, inke hazaron crore rupayon ko jala diya meine… because the country saw that this person only has love for the nation, for the flag, for farmers, labourers… in his heart.”

“…This is not Modi’s government…Do not have this misunderstanding. This is the government of Adani and Ambani…Just like the media is controlled…Pradhan Mantri ke peeche bhi lagaam hai,” he added.

Political observers analysing the impact of the yatra feel that Rahul during his more than 3000-kilometre long yatra across the southern, western and cow belt states virtually washed away narratives with regard to his propagated trolled image of a “Pappu” (childish) and his image too a turn for better of a matured and serious politician having grass root understanding, deep foresight with a clean heart.” That’s why uneasy calm is quite visible in saffron camps.

The Congress government fell in Madhya Pradesh where its chief minister Kamal Nath failed to sniff conspiracy to topple his government whereas Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh chief ministers Ashok Gehlot and Bhupesh Baghel outsmarted to survive such moves. The Congress party has implemented much contentious Old Pension Scheme in both the states keeping its electoral promises affecting a large number of people. Farm loans have been waived off, health care facilities have also been implemented, and vacancies are being notified for employment. Himanchal Pradesh victory also happened because of the promise to revive the Old Pension Scheme struck a chord with the youth and employees.

Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, had recently urged the Centre to refund over Rs 17,240 crore of state government employees enrolled under the New Pension Scheme (NPS). Baghel said the state government has restored the old pension scheme in Chhattisgarh to secure the future of government employees and their families. The money is deposited with National Securities Depository Limited (NSDL) till March 31 should be returned so that it can be put in the General Provident Fund of the employees.

Hitting out at Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Rajasthan during his Bharat Jodo Yatra, Rahul said the PM promised twice during elections in Rajasthan that the eastern Rajasthan canal project (ERCP) will be supported by the Centre and will be given national project status but that did not happen. Instead, the government is creating obstacle towards the work of state government which has allocated Rs 9,500 crore for the project.

Addressing a corner meeting at Kustala village in Sawai Madhopur, he said that senior Congress leaders including Gehlot, state party chief Govind Singh and former deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot are walking with him in this yatra and “…they are listening to the people.” He added, “I am hopeful that our government in the coming time will take action on what the people are saying.”

Rahul said that loans of Rs 14,000 crore of 22 lakh farmers have been waived off and the electricity bills of 8 lakh farmers are zero. Besides, people are getting health insurance of Rs 10 lakh under Congress’s “Chiranjeevi health insurance scheme’. Old pension scheme has been  revived for state employees and the urban employment guarantee scheme has been introduced, he said.

“The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trying to spread hatred in the country which will harm the nation. People from different castes and religions are participating in the yatra and they help and support each other.” he remarked.

In Karnataka, no political party got a majority in the 2018 assembly elections after the elections threw up a hung assembly. The Governor sworn in BS Yediyurappa as Chief Minister but he resigned after not being able to muster the majority. After this, the Congress and JDS together formed the government in the state. Again, as political turmoil cropped up, the BJP formed the government in the state in 2019 and again made B. S. Yediyurappa the Chief Minister, but in view of the strategy for the assembly elections to be held in 2023, four times chief minister B. S. Yediyurappa was replaced by Basavaraj Bommai to overcome anti-incumbency sentiments.

Telangana is ruled by Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and headed by K. Chandrasekhar Rao as Chief Minister who is trying to form a larger front with other opposition parties to defeat the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. The BJP is trying to defeat him in his own bastion, Telangana in 2023, but there are no doubts that there will be a triangular contest between TRS, Congress and BJP.

Among the North-Eastern states, elections to the Legislative Assemblies are to be held in 2023 in Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram. Tripura is currently ruled by the BJP and as part of its election strategy to overcome anti-incumbency sentiment like Gujarat, the BJP has changed the face of the Chief Minister in Tripura as well. In Meghalaya and Nagaland, the BJP-backed government is in power, while in Mizoram, the Mizo National Front government is in power.

Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy in its latest report revealed that India’s unemployment rate inched up to 8 per cent in November 2022 from 7.8 per cent in October. It was 7 per cent a year ago, in November 2021. Over the past 12 months, the unemployment rate has averaged at about 7.4 per cent within a 6.4 – 8.3 per cent range. The 8 per cent unemployment rate in November is therefore on the higher side of the recent levels of the unemployment rate which is not reflecting recovery sign of unemployment scenario of the country.

The nine states are heading for assembly elections in 2023 and toughest challenge to win semi-final is before prime minister Narendra Modi, as his personality cult has overshadowed all other leaders of the party but it may result in tough resistance against him within his party if his magic wanes. His double engine poll plank for development of states may not attract people because of growing unemployment and price rise. The only strategy to galvanise support is obviously playing religious card in the name of Ram Temple in Ayodhya, whose construction is in full swing, and go for pro-poor welfare measures creating beneficiary class with reintroduction of free food grain supply etc. It will be interesting to see how far “Barat Jodo Yatra” could dent his overambitious plans for next term.