In November 2023, local parliamentary elections were held in five states of India, which some experts, using the language of sports events, called the “semi-finals.” The “finals” will be the next general elections to the lower house of the country’s Central Parliament, which will be held for one or two months next spring. As a result of these elections, a new Central Government will be formed.
In fact, one of the main intrigues of the recent elections in five states were the forecasts, based on the predictions regarding the content of the word “new.” Because since 2014 for two consecutive electoral terms the country has been actually ruled by the unchallenged Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP) or, more precisely, an alliance of about 40 center-right parties (National Democratic Alliance), in which the BJP has an absolute majority of available parliamentary seats. Moreover, the BJP’s victory was even more impressive in the second election campaign in 2019 in comparison to their success in 2014 that had surprised observers so much.
The second intrigue of the November elections was to assess the current state and prospects of success of the country’s oldest party, the Indian National Congress, in the upcoming general elections. The INC had led the country almost continuously up to 2014 since gaining independence in 1947 with a few exceptions in 1996 and in 1998-2003. In the author’s opinion, this party, being an organic element of the “secular-progressive-socialist” trend in the development of political thought and practice in the second half of the 19th century and almost the whole of the 20th century, failed to timely catch the growth of historical self-consciousness of the Indian population with the “return to the roots” as a characteristic feature of the trend, namely to Hinduism in general and Hindutva as its social variation.
The author will not be able to formulate quite precisely what Hinduism really is. What is certain, however, is that the mainstreaming of Hinduism in one form or another makes it look totally old-fashioned, which always happens when the process of the “return to the roots” is launched. The organic element of Hinduism is the caste system among the people who embrace the religion. Even the current leadership of the BJP refuses to renounce this “ancestral curse” of modern India.
In this regard, it is noteworthy that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Droupadi Murmu honored the memory of one of the harsh critics of Hinduism and, at the same time, the founders of modern India Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, at his grave in early December. Incidentally, among Modi’s diatribes against the internal order of independent India were assertions that there was actually much more freedom and democracy during the rule of the British Crown. The INC leadership also honored the memory of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, but posed no challenge to the BJP.
In other words, the opposition has so far failed to exploit this “ideological weakness” of the BJP to its own political advantage. Moreover, there have been attempts by some current leaders, notably Rahul Gandhi, to stress their adherence to Hindu rituals.
One way or another, but during the recent decades the BJP has risen on the wave of the above-mentioned trend. However, the success of the BJP is strongly, if not crucially, connected with the fact that since autumn 2013 it has been headed by Narendra Modi, currently one of the most outstanding statesmen of independent India. It was during the last decade under the BJP and the Modi government that the state took a sharp rise in the economic development and can already be viewed as one of the new “poles” in the rapidly changing world order. The authority and the strong presence of modern India in global processes is beyond any doubt.
In this regard, the INC as the second and so far the last national party of the country has failed up to now to present to the electorate both an equally attractive image of a future India and a charismatic political leader like Narendra Modi. After Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv, who succeeded her as the head of the INC (both of them died in terrorist attacks 7 years apart from each other), the INC is also haunted by a leadership crisis.
Although Rahul Gandhi’s activism is associated with the recent victory of the INC in the May 2023 parliamentary elections in the state of Karnataka, in general he cannot yet compete in popularity with Narendra Modi. This has been only the second victory in the same state since 2018 in a series of 24 election campaigns at different levels held over this time period, whereas the BJP has had 15 victories.
The INC supporters had expected to see the signs of “revival” of the party with at least a “draw” in the five above-mentioned parliamentary elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram. All the states have a population of about 160 million, i.e. more than 10% of the total population of the country, which makes the results of the elections held in them quite representative.
The results in the first three states Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which are considered to be the “heart of India,” were particularly significant. Hopes were high, because in the previous elections in 2018, the INC had unexpectedly won in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh after a series of heavy defeats. However, everything “returned to normal” during the general elections six months later.
The above-mentioned expectations of a “draw” for the INC supporters were based on some preliminary exit polls made after the public surveys after citizens had cast their votes. It appeared that the BJP was winning in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, and the INC was winning in Chhattisgarh and Telangana, whereas the situation in Mizoram was unclear. But in reality, the INC suffered a heavy defeat in the first three states as well as in the state of Mizoram and won (for the second time in a row) in Telangana. The BJP once again won in four states, with the exception of Telangana.
Thus, a few months before the forthcoming general elections, the opposition in general and its main link, the INC, do not yet have reasonable grounds for optimism. There are calls for “new faces” in the party leadership.
On the contrary, the BJP and Narendra Modi are unanimously expected to win triumphantly for the third consecutive time. So, no “novelty” is expected in terms of partisanship of the main political force in the future Central Parliament and the Central Government that is approved by it. Still, new political figures may appear there as well.
Nevertheless, and despite the heavy defeat in the recent elections, the opposition is not giving up the attempts at least to coordinate its efforts. For this purpose, the leaders of 28 parties agreed to set up a forum for working out strategies for interaction with the colloquial name INDIA, an acronym for the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance.
Three “summits” have already taken place in this format, and the fourth meeting of the INDIA member parties was already pre-scheduled for December 6. Apparently, success in the above-mentioned elections in the five states, albeit relative, was supposed to loom large over the meeting, but it turned out to be a serious defeat. This fact probably had such a negative impact on some of the leaders of the member parties that they decided not to participate in the next “summit.”
Nevertheless, the leaders of 17 opposition parties, as well as the members of the Central Parliament from the other INDIA parties, met at the INC headquarters on December 6. A new date for the next “summit” was discussed at the meeting.
In contrast to the opposition camp, where there is obvious “discord and vacillation,” the BJP and the NDA coalition are generally optimistic about the outcome of the upcoming main elections. Everything seems to be in favor of the second camp, even the accident that occurred during the construction of a tunnel on a national highway in the north-eastern state Uttarakhand, located in the Himalayan foothills, on November 12, when the discussions about the elections in the five states were under way. After 17 days the difficult rescue operation of 41 miners, trapped in the tunnel by a 50-meter-deep collapse, was completed with a total success.
As to the BJP’s rivals, if they had not yet been “knocked out” of the intermediate “round” in November as part of the “Olympic style” pre-election campaign, that is actually already under way, they still found themselves in a serious “knockdown.”
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.