The clangour in the background—the awful sound of an alliance breaking, the footfalls of central sleuths—spoke of a battle of attrition. Not exactly tense, but taut with action, and without a lot of room for missteps. Nitish Kumar, Bihar chief minister and Janata Dal (United) chief, had just gone back to a friend-turned-foe-turned-friend. And CBI teams, playing in perfect time like a crack percussion section, had descended on the premises of five Rashtriya Janata Dal leaders, including two Rajya Sabha MPs.
This is a fairly accurate freeze-frame of the state of play as the BJP primes for the 2024 polls. A curious dichotomy attends to the situation: the big picture seems comfortable enough, with the Opposition taking the field in a state of disarray, but the details hold not a few devils for the ruling party. Some crucial NDA alliances from 2019—the JD(U) in Bihar and the Akali Dal in Punjab—no longer hold; others, such as the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, are depleted. In Maharashtra, the faction headed by new CM Eknath Shinde has formed a government with the BJP but is in a legal tangle with the Thackeray group over control of the party and its symbol. And in Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK is a shadow of its former self after the assembly election defeat and factional battles.
The next one and a half years leading up to 2024 are crucial for the party elsewhere too, with 11 states up for the hustings. The BJP has the most to lose. It is in power, alone or in alliance, in eight of these states: Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram. There loom states of potential gain too: the BJP is the principal opposition in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, and has made inroads in urban Telangana. There’s also a buzz that Jammu and Kashmir will go to the polls by year-end.
This is the context in which the drama in Bihar was unfolding. Soon after news came of the raids on its Rajya Sabha MPs Faiyaz Ahmad and Ashfaque Karim, the RJD started demanding that the new mahagathbandhan government ban the CBI from any operation in Bihar without permission. Some 10 opposition-ruled states have opted for such a status, but Nitish has kept a decision on this on hold. The BJP sees a faint ray of hope in this. The JD(U) chief, after all, has never been the most faithful of partners. For now, the Bihar setback has certainly added to the BJP’s 2024 workload. It has to go back to the drawing board: the state sends 40 MPs to the Lok Sabha; in 2019, the BJP- JD(U) combine had swept 39 of those.
The other half of the party’s bifocal lens is dedicated to inward-gazing, at least in the tactical realm. J.P. Nadda’s three-year tenure as party president comes to an end in early 2023, but he is likely to get an extension to anchor preparations for 2024. That leeway doesn’t extend to state unit chiefs whose terms are ending. Since July-end, the party has replaced many of them— Mandan Kaushik has given way to Mahendra Bhatt in Uttarakhand, Manik Saha to Ranjib Bhattacharjee in Tripura, Vishnu Deo Sai to Arun Sao in Chhattisgarh, Chandrakant Patil to Chandrashekhar Bhawankule in Maharashtra, Swatantra Dev Singh to Bhupinder Chaudhary in Uttar Pradesh. All of them, besides pucca RSS and/or ABVP credentials, also tick the right caste boxes in those states.
BJP chief Nadda is most likely to get an extension, but the same may not happen for state unit chiefs who have finished their term
The BJP is also contemplating changes in the Karnataka, Rajasthan, Bihar and MP leadership, and not just at the level of state chiefs. Thus, a younger Rajesh Kumar G.V. will replace Arun Kumar as general secretary (organisation) in Karnataka, Mantri Srinivasulu is being sent to rebuild the party in Punjab and Satish Dhond has been moved from Goa to West Bengal. The big news was the elevation of Sunil Bansal as national general secretary after his successful stint in UP. He will now look after three states that will be vital in 2024—West Bengal, Odisha and Telangana. The BJP won 18 seats in Bengal, eight in Odisha and four in Telangana in 2019 (out of a total of 42, 21 and 17 seats respectively). The party has deployed two of its best poll managers, Bansal and Dhond, to build the organisation and poll narrative in Mamata Banerjee’s backyard. Bansal, an ABVP import, had played a pivotal role with Amit Shah in realigning caste combinations in UP. He and Dhond will have to keep Bengal unit chief Sukanta Mazumdar and leader of the opposition Suvendu Adhikari in check while also galvanising the party organisation.
The party has also reconstituted two crucial organisational committees nationally—the central election committee and the party parliamentary board. After the ‘restructuring’, the Modi- Shah-Nadda troika have total control over proceedings. Those dropped from the national panels include former party chief Nitin Gadkari, MP CM Shivraj Chouhan and ex-Rajya Sabha MP and one of the party’s few Muslim faces, Shahnawaz Hussain. The new inductees include lightweights like Iqbal Singh Lalpura, Sudha Yadav and Satyanarayan Jatiya. Former Karnataka CM B.S. Yediyurappa (BSY), ex-Assam CM and Union minister Sarbananda Sonowal and Maharashtra deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis also make it to the lists and, more importantly, balance the power games in their states. BSY was being considered for a gubernatorial stint, but the troika felt he could galvanise the influential Lingayat vote in Karnataka. Sonowal is a useful counterbalance for the ambitious chief minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, in Assam.
The 11 states that vote before 2024 account for 129 Lok Sabha seats, of which the BJP had won 115 in 2019. The party’s campaign strategy plays to a script—the activation of the larger Sangh cadre, the role of the panna samitis (micro units that monitor names on each page of the voters’ list), booth- and block-level pramukhs to lure last-mile voters, barnstorming by national leaders etc. The prelude, quite often, in poll-bound states is the sacking of a chief minister who is replaced by a fresh, non-controversial face, presumably to neutralise anti-incumbency. The last such head to roll was of youthful Biplab Deb in Tripura, whose runaway mouth and inability to rein in warring factions did him in. Rajya Sabha MP and state unit chief Manik Saha replaced him.
The move paid off in Uttarakhand when 46-year-old Pushkar Singh Dhami was handed the reins; Basavaraj Bommai in Karnataka (who replaced old warhorse BSY) and Bhupendra Patel in Gujarat (replacing another veteran, Vijay Rupani) are meant to do the same. Himachal CM Jairam Thakur was on the list too—Union minister Anurag Thakur is making a tough bid—but the former seems to have Nadda’s backing. Three more CMs are said to be under the troika’s scanner.
Expanding the base
In the previous round of state polls, the BJP tested its new ‘panna samiti’ strategy. UP alone had over 9.5 million such committees, claims Nadda, a crucial element for impetus at the grassroots. “There was less noise, more action. The workload was distributed and proved most effective in connecting with voters,” he says. Gujarat could have up to 7.5 million panna samitis, and Himachal about 200,000. Alongside, the BJP is mobilising its seven other morchas—mahila, yuva, OBC, SC, ST, minority and farmers—to set up mandal-level teams.
The BJP national executive at Hyderabad in July was used as a springboard for Telangana—national office-bearers were sent out to all 119 assemblies for two days for feedback and it concluded with a massive public meeting addressed by PM Modi. The party is hoping to cream off any anti-incumbency against the K. Chandrashekar Rao-led Telangana Rashtra Samithi government. G. Krishna Reddy being made Union minister is part of the plan. The party also has an aggressive OBC leader, Bandi Sanjay Kumar, leading the state even as it keeps busy poaching from the TRS and Congress. Nadda was in the state again in August for a rally in Warangal, at the end of the third phase of Bandi’s statewide ‘praja sangrama’ yatra.
In poll-bound states, the BJP pushes the ‘saksham mandal, sakriya booth, panna pramukh (self-reliant mandals, active booth, page head)’ strategy. Besides consolidating a rainbow support base of castes, the BJP is eyeing the bottom of the pyramid: the 330 million-strong labharthis (beneficiaries of 16 central schemes) as a crucial new support base.
In the run-up to 2024, the BJP is also trying to cultivate communities for whom they are traditionally not the natural choice. Choosing Droupadi Murmu as the country’s first tribal president is of a piece with this thinking. Tribals make up 9 per cent of the electorate nationally and the BJP hopes elevating one from among them to the top post has created goodwill for the party. “Our presence and hold in these areas is declining day by day. We need to establish a strong connection,” a top BJP leader had told the leadership at a meeting in New Delhi a month or so before Murmu became president. Poaching senior tribal leader Ashwin Kotwal, the party’s latest acquisition from the Congress in Gujarat, was part of this agenda. Besides, the BJP is mending fences with the tribal community in MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. Polls are due in all four states—the Congress had won 86 of the 128 ST reserved seats here in 2017-18.
In Chhattisgarh, long-serving ex-CM Raman Singh seems to have lost the leadership’s confidence, and they are actively seeking leaders from the tribal communities. There’s also a buzz over Congress rebel and ex-royal T.S. Singh Deo switching sides. The BJP thinks the road to recovery lies in the rural plains of the state dominated by the Sahu community; hence its new OBC state unit chief Arun Sao. In MP, CM Chouhan too is focusing on the OBCs and tribal areas. The 15.3 million-strong tribal population makes up 21 per cent of the electorate. Of the 47 assembly seats reserved for them, the BJP managed only 16 in 2018. RSS organisations like the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh and Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram are trying to leverage their hold among the tendu leaf-pickers and the beedi-rolling cottage industry. The outfits have also put pressure on Union health minister Mansukh Mandaviya to abandon the controversial amendments in the Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act. MP is also working to connect 827 forest villages to the rest of the state. The Chouhan government has also set aside 20 per cent of the revenues from the forests for tribal welfare. As for the 48 per cent OBC electorate, the party was quick to react to the 2022 apex court judgment scrapping reservations for them in the local body polls. A review petition has been filed. Even with all this, there could be trouble in store, especially as the party plans to implement the ‘one family, one ticket’ rule, leaving a number of leaders in a sulk.
The Jats are a constituency that, in terms of its romance with the BJP, has been on again and off again. Naming Jagdeep Dhankhar as vice-president—the first Jat leader to grace the office—is meant to be an outreach to a community spread across Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and western UP, a wide cross-section of which holds a grudge against the party’s handling of the farmers’ protests last year. Assembly polls are due in Rajasthan next year and Jats make up 12 per cent of the electorate there.
The dilemma for the BJP is whether it should project ex-CM Vasundhara Raje as the campaign leader again. The central leadership is not her biggest fan, but it’s also true that no BJP leader can rival her stature in the state. Raje seems to be back in the reckoning, even getting to announce the ‘har ghar tiranga yatra’ at a crucial presser during the national executive meeting.
Then there is the growing dissent. As is natural for any national party with such a wide footprint, the BJP too is battling internal factions and camps in most states. In Himachal Pradesh, Union minister Anurag Thakur is becoming ambitious and there are at least three factions vying for a piece of the action. In Karnataka, CM Bommai is yet to get a grip on the party and the government, which has led to other Lingayat leaders such as Nirani Murugesh, Arvind Bellad and Jagdish Shettar flexing their muscles. In Gujarat and MP, besides intra-party tussles, the BJP will also have to deal with the heartburn from accommodating a large number of Congress turncoats.
In the run-up to 2024, the BJP is cultivating communities for whom the party is not the natural choice
In Gujarat, the party has been in power for close to three decades, and the Congress thinks it has a legitimate chance of ending the BJP’s reign. There is also the added challenge from the Aam Aadmi Party, which has a spring in its step after the sweep in Punjab. The BJP is hoping the new CM and a fresh cabinet will take the edge off the anti-incumbency. But leaving nothing to chance, it has been poaching Congress leaders with ground connections. Tribal leader Ashwin Kotwal is one such catch who fulfils BJP’s outreach agenda and also weakens the Congress in north Gujarat. The party is still undecided on what to do with the other recruit from the Congress, Patidar leader Hardik Patel. Winning Gujarat, and winning it big, is crucial for PM Modi’s grand plans to clinch 2024.
Meanwhile, Nadda’s big focus is home state Himachal Pradesh. Factionalism is a bane here, and the party will need something extra special to buck the state trend of governments alternating every five years. Ex-CMs Prem Kumar Dhumal and Shanta Kumar still control factions and are said to be unhappy with being sidelined and with the new leaders—whether independents and ex-Congressmen—being inducted into the party.
The BJP’s big battle in the south is in Karnataka, which goes to the polls in May 2023. It is aware that BSY’s ouster from the CM’s chair has not gone down well with the Lingayats, who make up 15 per cent of the electorate. Earlier in the year, central leaders had fobbed him off when he sought an MLC ticket for his younger son (elder son B.Y. Raghavendra is already an MP). Now that he sits on the party’s parliamentary board, he should have more leverage. The party can’t afford to get adventurous with the Yediyurappa family, which continues to wield substantial influence among Lingayats. The party is also hampered as the government is facing corruption allegations, and CM Bommai has been unable to motivate a weak administration. It needs the Lingayat seers onboard to have any chance of winning. Party sources also say the real power centre in the state is national general secretary (organisation) B.L. Santhosh. To keep the various warring groups in check, the party has appointed RSS pracharak Rajesh G.V. as Karnataka state general secretary (organisation) in late July, replacing Santhosh confidant Arun Kumar.
Battle for the hills
Tripura, along with Meghalaya and Nagaland, goes to the polls in February 2023. In the past four years, the Centre has used its good offices with the Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh to allow goods from West Bengal to be taken to Tripura through Bangladeshi territory rather than the clogged chicken neck, reducing travel time and accelerating development in the region. The BJP plans to project this as an example of “double engine” growth in the state. The Union government has also withdrawn draconian provisions from various places in Nagaland, with PM Modi promising to regularly review the situation on a recent visit to the Northeast. That said, the party will have no choice but to rely on its allies in the Northeast Democratic Alliance to better its electoral fortunes in Nagaland, Meghalaya, and later, in Mizoram. That, however, will remain a supplementary.