Is the removal of spokespersons Nupur Sharma and Naveen Kumar Jindal a well-thought-out course correction by the Bharatiya Janata Party? Or is it a one-off attempt to douse the fire that their derogatory remarks about Prophet Muhammad ignited in Arab countries?
One might be tempted to say ‘yes’, albeit with a lot of scepticism, to the first question. The removal of these spokespersons was preceded by a series of conciliatory messages from the Sangh Parivar. BJP president JP Nadda set the tone last Monday, saying that the dispute over Gyanvapi mosque in Kashi and Shahi Idgah in Mathura would be decided by courts and the Constitution of India. It was followed by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat’s admonition against attempts to “look for a shivling in every mosque.” Then came the BJP statement on Sunday, denouncing insult to any ‘religious personalities’ and stating that the party is “strongly against any ideology, which insults or demeans any sect or religion.”
BJP won’t abandon politics of polarisation
On the face of it, these remarks and statements could be construed as a message to Hindutva warriors to dial down. But one is probably expecting a zebra to change its stripes. Nupur Sharmas and Jindals may be eminently dispensable when faced with a diplomatic situation in the Gulf countries. But Hindu-Muslim binary has defined the BJP’s politics since its inception.
Nupur Sharma and Jindal went too far by attacking Prophet Muhammad. Sack them to deal with the immediate crisis. It doesn’t necessarily mean a change in BJP’s political and ideological make-up. The party took over a week to take action against them- and not before it turned into a diplomatic crisis.
Coming back to those questions, one doesn’t have a definite answer yet. It will be clear in the coming weeks and months. But a course correction is something that may suit the BJP’s electoral politics in the run up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
In desperate need of course correction
Having lost around two-dozen allies since 2014, the BJP has not many left and even their loyalty would come under strain if the ruling party were to pursue aggressive Hindutva. The BJP would do well to get down from the high horse and re-assess its position—unless, of course, it sees another Modi wave ensuring it 272 seats on its own, if not 282 or 303, in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Ten years of anti-incumbency—with or without Rahul Gandhi as the opposition’s face—is a factor it can’t discount. India is unlikely to become a $5 trillion economy by 2024-25 and farmers’ income won’t double by then either. So, it’s not that there will be happiness all around in 2024.
What the BJP would then be sorely missing is allies. Its ambitious expansion project is hitting a wall in many states. An indicator of its downslide came from Odisha last week. It came third in Brajrajnagar assembly bypolls, behind even the moribund Congress. That’s when its face in Odisha, union minister Dharmendra Pradhan, campaigned for two days in the constituency. In the rural elections this March, the BJP won 42 seats, down from 297 five years back. This weekend, Naveen Patnaik went on to revamp his cabinet, dropping 11 ministers, including those whose names were mired in controversy—law minister Pratap Jena accused of involvement in the killing of two BJP leaders, junior home minister Dibya Shankar Mishra facing questions in the murder of a Kalahandi school teacher, and higher education minister Arun Sahoo allegedly protecting the accused in another murder case.
The Odisha CM seems to be so confident of having contained the BJP’s surge in the state now that he is said to be planning a trip abroad, his second visit out of the country in the past 22 years as CM. The last time he had gone abroad, London, was in 2012, when his close aide Pyarimohan Mohapatra had attempted an unsuccessful coup.
The BJP won eight of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in 2019, up from one in 2014, and seemed to be on the upswing. It seems to have lost the plot in the coastal state now.
Slowly losing the plot
The BJP got 31 more than the majority figure in the Lok Sabha in 2019 and Odisha contributed 8 seats to that tally. Eighteen seats came for the BJP from West Bengal where it seems to be losing the plot every passing day. The party is pushing the envelope in southern states but it doesn’t seem to be making much headway. In Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, which BJP functionaries once called ‘low-hanging fruits,’ the party is pushing hard but is yet to reach a stage where it can hope for rich dividends in the next two years.
In the Thrikkakara assembly bypoll in Kerala, the BJP vote share couldn’t reach even a double-digit figure. Its ally in Tamil Nadu, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), seems to be struggling for its own survival even as many AIADMK leaders have started raising questions about the alliance. The BJP won 25 of the 28 seats in Karnataka in 2019, but the party is faction-ridden today, with the Basavaraj Bommai administration inspiring little confidence.
North of the Vindhyas, the BJP, which along with its alliance partners used to rule the roost, suddenly looks shaky. In Maharashtra, the BJP and the Shiv Sena together won 41 of the 48 seats. The Sena is on the opposite side now and there is a question mark on how the BJP would fare when it goes alone. In Bihar, the NDA won 39 of 40 seats. Today, the BJP can’t trust its main ally, the Janata Dal (United), which is flirting with its ex-partner Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).
BJP needs a contingency plan for 2024
So, even with the Modi wave that one witnessed in 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP needs to take a hard look at its poll prospects in 2024. Even if it were to repeat its sweeping performance in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and Haryana, it will need allies in other states. The BJP on its own won 202 out of 228 seats in these nine states. Add most of the 25 seats in the north-eastern states to the BJP’s kitty.
It must repeat its 2019 performance in these states to come close to the majority figure in 2024. Not many would put a bet on that, given acute factionalism in the BJP in these states and lacklustre performance where it’s in power. In Chhattisgarh, for instance, the BJP is looking rudderless with the high command pushing ex-CM Raman Singh to the sidelines. In Karnataka, the party’s most popular face, BS Yediyurappa, has met the same fate. The same holds true for Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan and Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh. The BJP swept Haryana in 2019 but has been struggling to retain its supremacy since then.
In a nutshell, the BJP needs to have a contingency plan for 2024 lest it should fall short of a majority. Most of its prospective allies are already wary of its expansionist design. And those who may be willing to play ball would look to shield their core vote bank if the BJP continues to unleash Nupur Sharmas on them. And that’s why a course correction is a pragmatic option for the BJP today. Not many would vouch for that though.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)