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The Indian Opposition Now Faces Modi State by State

A few months ago, many of India’s opposition parties joined together to form the INDIA alliance to compete against the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. However, challenging the BJP will not be easy. The BJP has won big majorities in the past two Lok Sabha elections and INDIA will have to play its hand carefully to avoid a three-peat.
polling station

Nalbari, Assam, India. 18 April, 2019. An Indian voter casts vote at a polling station during India’s general election in Nalbari, Assam under Mangaldoi Constiturncy. © Talukdar David /

April 20, 2024 03:52 EDT

People tend to explain electoral trends on the basis of single factors, especially individual leading personalities. In India since 2014, this means the personality of incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, such an approach cannot survive scientific scrutiny. It is instead a manifestation of efforts to fabricate a personality cult. Instead, let us attempt to dispassionately analyze electoral trends in India.

In Indian elections, a diverse set of regional interests coalesces around the states. Thus, a large number of regional and national parties that oppose the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came together to form the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) in July 2023.

Across the various states, there are four different kinds of challenges that the opposition faces:

  1. In some states, the BJP and more broadly the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) are not a serious contender, namely, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Punjab. 
  2. In some states, the Indian National Congress (INC), as the main political party in INDIA, takes on the BJP directly, namely, Telangana, Karnataka, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Assam. 
  3. In a third group of states, INDIA faces off with the BJP, but led by parties other than the INC or even non-INDIA parties. These states are West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Delhi. 
  4. In the last group of states, regional non-INDIA parties face the BJP, or the the BJP is a junior partner in an alliance. These states include Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. 

INDIA should take into consideration the varied political dynamics across these four groups if it is to have any hope of competing with the BJP at the national level. 

For the sake of brevity, this piece will examine each of these four groups by using a few large states as examples.

States where the BJP is not a serious contender

The three states where the BJP is not a serious contender are the South Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the Western Indian state of Punjab. 

In the case of Tamil Nadu, significant shifts have marked the political landscape due to the All India Anna Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)’s decision to end its alliance with the BJP. Among other factors, BJP state leader Kuppuswamy Annamalai’s vociferous criticism of AIADMK leadership led to the split. Significant efforts by the BJP national leadership to maintain the alliance did not succeed.

For the AIADMK, the move may be an attempt to reclaim its independent political identity. For the BJP, the split makes building its presence in the state an uphill battle.

In contrast, INDIA in Tamil Nadu, led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), has concluded seat-sharing talks with its alliance partners. INDIA has been undertaking a vigorous political campaign against national government’s the economic agenda, including the implementation of many welfare schemes. The DMK, for its part, has also strongly critiqued the overall performance of the Modi government. 

There is a strong possibility that the AIADMK–BJP split will favor INDIA. As a result, alliance is likely to perform strongly in the 39 Lok Sabha seats of the state.

In the state of Kerala, the principal contest is between the INC-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Left Democratic Front (LDF) to the UDF’s left. Although both the UDF and the LDF are part of INDIA, they do not have seat-sharing arrangements for the national elections.

The Kerala BJP, on the other hand, is narrowing its focus on six of the total 20 Lok Sabha seats in the state. This approach involves assigning national government ministers to oversee these constituencies directly.

In recent years, the INC has compromised with certain BJP policies, such as the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA), that have been perceived as disfavorable to religious minorities. This has enabled the BJP to attempt to polarize the electorate along sectarian lines. Though the effort has not completely succeeded, the BJP has gained an opening to exploit in the state.

The political opening comes at a time when LDF, which is in government in Kerala, enjoys popularity due to its defense of the welfare system. Thus, the INC will likely have to share seats with LDF in this state. Despite its efforts, the BJP will at best emerge as a distant third.

Finally, in Punjab, the INC is in opposition to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Although both parties are part of INDIA on the national level, have not formed an alliance at the state level. There was speculation about a possible alliance between the BJP and Punjab’s third party, Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal), but disagreements over seat-sharing have prevented any electoral understanding.

Punjab remains the epicenter of the peasant upsurge that forced the BJP national government to overturn three farm laws that were seen as enabling corporate encroachment into agriculture. Thus, it is unlikely that the BJP will be able to make much headway in the state.

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A brief glance into the political dynamics in the three states reveals the various reasons the BJP has a marginal presence. As a result, INDIA is in a position to exploit the BJP’s weakness to maximize its seat tally.

States where the INC faces the BJP directly

The states where the INC faces the BJP directly are Telangana and Karnataka, which belong to South India, as well as Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Assam, which belong to the eastern, central and western parts of India.

In the last two Lok Sabha elections, held in 2014 and 2019, it was these states that helped the BJP attain a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha rule the nation for ten years. A close look at the dynamics in these states in this group may provide an clue about whether this may happen a third time.

In Telangana, the INC leads both INDIA and the state government. While the INC has been able to achieve a seat-sharing arrangement with the Communist Party of India (CPI) there is no such arrangement with the CPI(M). Both leftist parties have a long history of popular support in the state, so an incomplete seat-sharing arrangement may not be optimal for INDIA.

The Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) which is the principal opponent of the INC in Telangana, has a significant presence, and so does the BJP. The defeat of the BRS in the state assembly elections late last year has weakened the party to an extent. Factors responsible for the defeat include neglect of education, unemployment and rising autocratic tendencies of the BRS leadership. The electoral prospects of the INC and BJP depend on which of these two parties will emerge as the principal beneficiary of the weakening of the BRS.

In Karnataka, the political landscape ahead of the 2024 elections has witnessed significant developments, with the BJP and the Karnataka-based Janata Dal (Secular) (JD(S)) forming an alliance. As a result, the JD(S) has been allocated four out of 28 Lok Sabha seats. Despite the challenges this alliance poses, INDIA has some reasons to be hopeful.

Sections of the JD(S) have broken away to gravitate towards INDIA. The BJP has recognized the diminished political stature of the JD(S). Perhaps this is why the party has been allotted such a paltry number of seats. Moreover, as the governing party in the state, the INC has restored some degree of welfare policies to push the electorate towards it.

In order to consolidate its position, INDIA may need to aim for the widest possible unity of non-BJP parties in the state, articulate alternative, non-neoliberal policies that challenge the BJP and where necessary focus on a selected number of seats in order to try to be victorious.

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Haryana as well has seen a change in political alliances with respect to the previous election. The alliance between the BJP and the Jannayak Janta Party (JJP) has collapsed. Meanwhile, the INC and AAP have come together as part of INDIA. The AAP has been allotted one out of the 10 seats in the state.

INDIA may choose to politically challenge the BJP on a number of issues including the promise of guaranteed minimum support price for crops. INDIA could also if required selectively target some seats in the state.

The electoral contest in Rajasthan involves some novel developments. In a break with past practice, the INC has entered into seat-sharing agreements with the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party (RLP) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) as part of INDIA. Furthermore, the INC has entered into an alliance with the Bharatiya Adivasi Party (BAP).

The INC has also recently formed a strategic alliance with the Bharatiya Adivasi Party (BAP), which espouses issues of tribal people and is influential in a few districts in southern Rajasthan. The collaboration aims to consolidate tribal votes, which is pivotal in these regions. However, there is some internal resistance within INC to the alliance due to fears that BAP’s rise might undermine INC electoral prospects in future elections.

The BJP in Rajasthan is afflicted by some internal divisions, with Vasundhara Raje, who was the most important in the state level, seeming to have been sidelined by the party. 

To enhance its electoral prospects, INDIA may need to consider the possibility of forging alliances with the widest possible number non-BJP forces and also politically challenge the BJP on livelihood issues such as a guaranteed minimum support price for crops and conduct of a caste census in the state. 

In Madhya Pradesh, the INC, as part of INDIA has entered into an alliance with the Samajwadi Party. However, factionalism has severely impacted the state party, with reported differences between Kamal Nath and Digvijay Singh, the two most important leaders of the INC in the state.

In general, the BJP has performed strongly in the past few elections. Hindutva ideology is popular here, providing a strong platform for the BJP. The Madhya Pradesh INC must avoid the temptation to turn to soft Hindutva in order to win votes. The state party should instead focus on livelihood issues, thus decisively challenging the BJP politically while seeking to deal with problems of internal factionalism. Where required, INDIA could seek to selectively target some seats to try and increase its seat tally in the state.

Gujarat will see direct competition between the INC and BJP in all 26 Lok Sabha seats. A BJP political stronghold, Gujarat gave the party all 26 seats in both the 2014 and 2019 general elections. In the state assembly elections of 2022, the BJP retained power with a commanding majority, winning 156 out of 182 seats.

However, the INC and the AAP have entered into a seat-sharing pact for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, with AAP contesting from the seats of Bharuch and Bhavnagar and the INC fielding candidates for the remaining 24 seats. This move aims to consolidate opposition votes and challenge the BJP stronghold, hopefully thereby preventing a repeat of the previous elections. INDIA may seek to concentrate resources on selected seats and focus on livelihood issues in order to try and deal with the organizational cum political strength of the BJP.

In Chhattisgarh, the BJP has indirectly sidelined its top state leader, Dr. Raman Singh, by getting him elected as the speaker of the state assembly.

The Chhattisgarh INC faces divisions, though to a lesser extent than in Madhya Pradesh. The state party is seeking to improve its electoral prospects by nominating prominent state-level leaders as candidates. The INC may seek to challenge the BJP by focusing on livelihood issues while being open to building a wider alliance with non-BJP parties.

In Assam the INC is leading a coalition of 16 political parties called the United Opposition Forum, which behaves like the state-level INDIA alliance. The alliance has agreed on common candidates in all the 14 Lok Sabha seats.

A principal challenge confronting INDIA is the CAA. For decades, Assam has received many migrants from neighboring Muslim-majority Bangladesh. Issues of religious identity, citizenship and land ownership intertwine, making the CAA a particularly divisive issue in the state. The United Opposition Forum may seek to politically challenge the BJP on the CAA while also focusing the political debate on livelihood issues.

In the present group of states, the fundamental challenges faced by INDIA are threefold. One is the organizational weakness of the INC. The second is the political weakness of the INC in the battle of ideas, with the party struggling to formulate an alternative to the BJP’s neoliberal and Hindutva policies. The third is the lack of opposition unity. With the exception of Telangana, the states in the current group are those where the BJP had established an overwhelming dominance in the Lok Sabha elections of both 2014 and 2019. Unless INDIA finds a coherent strategy to challenge BJP in the present group of states, a majority in the parliament may be out of reach for the alliance.

States where parties in INDIA other than the INC face the BJP

The states where parties in INDIA other than the INC face the BJP are the eastern states of West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, the Western Indian state of Maharashtra and the Northern Indian state of Delhi.

The results may depend on the way in which both the NDA and INDIA deal with the multiple political parties in their midst.

Bihar is the third-most populous state in India. It has seen Chief Minister Nitish Kumar quit INDIA to rejoin the NDA. Likewise, Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) has rejoined the NDA, while the BJP has marginalized another party led by his uncle Pasupathi Paras within the NDA. Seat-sharing talks in the NDA are complete.

Seat-sharing talks within INDIA are also complete, as the opposition announced through a press conference in March. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) lead INDIA in Bihar. The INC, the CPI, the CPI(M), and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist Liberation) also form part of the alliance.

The principal political issues that INDIA could touch upon include the inequities that were documented in the recent state-level caste census, the extension of the rural employment guarantee scheme to urban areas and guaranteed minimum support prices for agricultural products.

In Jharkhand, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) has already finalized its seat-sharing plan with the INC as part of INDIA. The RJD and the CPI(M) also form part of the alliance in this state. However, the exit of the CPI is a setback.

The NDA in Jharkhand principally consists of the BJP and JD(U). The incarceration of former Chief Minister Hemant Soren (belonging to the JMM) by the national government has raised questions as to whether the arrest of a sitting chief minister so close to elections politically motivated. However, INDIA may need to foreground livelihood issues to effectively combat the NDA.

Uttar Pradesh is the most populous state of India and thus elects the largest number of Lok Sabha seats. In the last few months, the NDA has added a number of small parties as its allies, notably including the Rashtriya Lok Dal, many of whose voters supported the 2020 farmer protests. INDIA in the state consists of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the INC.

Another party is the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), whose support base seems to be in persistent decline. However, the decline of the BSP is not the only issue that the opposition needs to worry about in Uttar Pradesh. Competition for the same key voter groups between INDIA, the BSP and alliances like the PDM Nyay Morcha may fragment the electorate. The broader political fragmentation might impact the opposition’s functioning as the non-INDIA parties behave as spoilers in certain areas rather than as substantial contenders.

There are three circumstances under which the opposition has a chance to challenge the BJP: (1) The SP successfully consolidates the electoral support of oppressed communities who were formerly BSP voters; (2) A broad opposition coalition is able to bring all parties together against the BJP; (3) INDIA runs a campaign grounded on livelihood issues such as employment and raising the guaranteed minimum support price for crops.

Maharashtra is the second-most populous state of India. Here, INDIA principally consists of the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Bal Thackeray) (SS(UBT)), the Nationalist Congress Party (Sharad Pawar) (NCP(SP)) and the INC. At the state level, INDIA is known by the name Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA). However, the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) which was one of the partners within INDIA in Maharashtra could not be accommodated within INDIA.

The MVA, which includes Shiv Sena (UBT), the INC and the NCP, finalized a seat-sharing deal for the Lok Sabha elections, with Shiv Sena (UBT) deciding to contest 21 seats, Congress 17, and NCP (SP) 10 respectively.

The NDA in the state consists of the BJP, Shiv Sena (Eknath Shinde) (SS(ES)) and the Nationalist Congress Party (Ajit Pawar) (NCP(AP)).

The schism of Shiv Sena has resulted in a situation where the bulk of its activists and support base remains with the SS(UBT) while the bulk of its legislators are with the SS(ES). The Nationalist Congress Party split has resulted in the bulk of junior leaders supporting the NCP(AP) while the support base of the party is relatively more committed to the NCP(SP). This is reflected in the use of Sharad Pawar’s portraits by the NCP(AP) during the election campaign which the NCP(SP) halted through judicial intervention.

The principal issues in the state revolve around livelihood. INDIA may try to stitch together the broadest possible unity of non-BJP forces in order to achieve significant electoral success.

In Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the INC, as part of INDIA, have entered into a seat-sharing agreement. A principal issue that is confronting the state is the sudden arrest of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal by e central government.

Other issues confronting the state include the persistent efforts by the central government to stymie the Delhi government and livelihood issues such as employment. For INDIA to be competitive in Delhi, it needs to challenge the BJP on the ideological plane.

In West Bengal, INDIA has not been able to arrive at a seat-sharing agreement. The Trinamool Congress (TMC), which is the ruling party in the state, has announced its own candidates for the Lok Sabha elections, but the leftist parties (led by CPI(M)) and the INC have entered into an electoral agreement.

The BJP is facing a setback due to internal divisions. The key political issues in the state revolve around the CAA and livelihood issues. If possible rise in the vote share of INDIA impacts the BJP more than the TMC, then the BJP is unlikely to achieve a meaningful advance in the state.

For INDIA to challenge the BJP in this group of states, it may need to resolve a few issues. One issue is the absence of broad-based opposition unity in Uttar Pradesh. More generally, the issue is whether the opposition will be unite to challenge the BJP in all of these states. These issues may well determine the results of the elections.

States where non-INDIA parties face the BJP

The states where non-INDIA parties face the BJP are the southern state of Andhra Pradesh and the eastern state of Odisha.

In Andhra Pradesh, the alliance of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Jana Sena Party (JSP) with the BJP has resurrected the NDA. The parties have reached a seat-sharing agreement for the upcoming elections.

This alliance faces the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) which is heading the government in Andhra Pradesh. INDIA is the third coalition, which has reached a seat-sharing agreement. The principal issues in the state revolve around livelihood and the resource crunch confronting the state after the bifurcation of united Andhra Pradesh into Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

In Odisha, there was a serious possibility of electoral unity between the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) (the party in government in the state) and the BJP (that is the principal opposition party in the state). However, this did not transpire due to lack of agreement on seat-sharing. The INC is the third alternative in the state.

The BJP may try to weaponize the advancing age of beloved Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik (of the BJD) to further its prospects in the state. The INC can only confront this effort by re-centering the political debate in the state around livelihood issues.

The YSRCP, TDP and BJD may unexpectedly reorient themselves after the elections in the case of a close outcome where neither the BJP nor INDIA achieves a clear majority.

A myriad of regional dynamics, strategic alliances and ideological battles will shape India’s 2024 elections. The formation of INDIA marked a significant attempt by opposition parties to consolidate their collective voter bases in order to challenge the BJP, which won two supermajorities in 2014 and 2019. If the opposition is able to function as a unit, deftly navigate state specific political issues and present a substantial ideological and policy challenge to the BJP, it has a solid chance of success.

[Aniruddh Rajendran edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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