Tuesday, Dec 26, 2023

Why 2024 could be among India’s most consequential elections

A lot of Indian politics is now about competitive welfarism, and it will be on full display during the Lok Sabha elections. The BJP will seek to ride its cultural nationalism push to a third straight term. Here are the other themes likely to be at the forefront in 2024.

election year 2024In many ways, 2024 could be among India’s most consequential elections. (Express illustration)

Two words, ‘unprecedented’ and ‘historic’, were heard repeatedly on both sides of the political divide in 2023. They were intended to capture the dynamic shifts, highs and lows, and far-reaching changes in Indian politics this year.

India hosting the G20 summit for the first time, and the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament were billed as historic.

The coming together of anti-BJP parties in the largest opposition bloc ever in terms of the number of parties, and Rahul Gandhi’s cross-country yatra, perhaps the first time since 2014 that he had stepped out of his comfort zone, too, were billed as historic.


The opening of the new Parliament building was historic too, as was the passage of Bills replacing colonial era criminal laws.

The disqualification of a Lok Sabha MP — Rahul — following conviction in a defamation case was unprecedented, as was the expulsion of another MP — Mahua Moitra — for sharing her Parliament login credentials.

Festive offer

Also unprecedented: the mass suspension of MPs from Parliament, the wipeout of the grand old party in the Hindi heartland, the allegation by the US that an Indian intelligence official directed an unsuccessful plot to kill a Khalistani separatist on American soil.

2024 — the year of the world’s biggest election exercise, followed by important elections in India’s states, possible new geopolitical uncertainties and foreign policy challenges for the country, and the much-talked about rise of India as an economic powerhouse — could be marked by its own historic and unprecedented developments.


Here’s a look at issues and developments that could define the discourse and shape of India’s politics in the new year and beyond:

Competitive welfarism

As the Lok Sabha elections come closer, the political discourse will become more shrill and probably nastier. History, real and made-up, will be invoked, called into question, and debated. The politics of polarisation could return. Nationalism, of the cultural and other varieties, will take centrestage. And competitive welfarism — call it freebies, cash-transfers, guarantees, promises — will dominate the political and election narrative.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already signaled a shift to the left of centre in his welfare push, coupled with direct cash transfers. It is a key element in the Modi bouquet that the BJP offers to voters — the other elements being Hindutva, a muscular nationalism, and civilisational resurrection.


Even before the results of the five Assembly elections came in earlier this month, the government had rolled out the Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra, a nationwide mass contact campaign to spread information and raise awareness about government schemes ranging from housing, food security, and healthcare to LPG cylinders, pensions, and clean drinking water.

The Congress, which had promised the poorest 20% of families an annual cash transfer of Rs 72,000 in its 2019 manifesto, tasted success in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka with the promise of a raft of doles — which it called guarantees. But by the end of the year, the Congress’s welfarism appeared to have been eclipsed by what the PM and his party repeatedly referred to as “Modi ki guarantee”.

Nevertheless, the indication from the Congress camp is that it is formulating an economic plan with a heavy dose of welfare promises for the Lok Sabha elections. It is clear that the Opposition will seek to make livelihood issues like unemployment and price rise a key part of the campaign. Indications are the government may not announce any new schemes — but some existing schemes could well be topped up. The PM has already announced the extension of the free foodgrains scheme for another five years; the BJP’s manifesto could promise more.

J&K, cultural nationalism

Electoral democracy will return to Jammu and Kashmir next year, albeit after a judicial decree. The Assembly was dissolved in November 2018, and the state was bifurcated into two Union Territories nine months later. While the Supreme Court has directed the Election Commission to conduct elections to the J&K Assembly by September 30, the big question is whether statehood will be restored to the UT. The court gave no directions in this regard.


But the government does realise that the world is watching — and robust, free, and fair elections in J&K will add to its standing in the Global South.

Consigning Article 370 to the dustbin of history was one of the main ideological projects of the Sangh. Another, the opening of a Ram Temple in Ayodhya, will happen on January 22 — in a grand ceremony with the Prime Minister, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. It will provide a huge leg-up to the BJP’s Hindutva campaign ahead of Lok Sabha elections.


So what next in the BJP’s cultural nationalism project? Earlier this year, the PM referred to a Uniform Civil Code — “how can a country run with two kinds of law”, he asked. The Law Commission of India is already working on a report on the UCC.

The Kashi Vishwanath Temple-Gyanvapi Masjid case is progressing fast. The Allahabad High Court has set a six-month deadline for completion of proceedings before a Varanasi court in a suit by Hindu plaintiffs seeking possession of the mosque complex. It has dismissed petitions by the UP Sunni Central Waqf Board and the mosque committee, ruling the 1991 original suit is not barred by The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991.


One Nation, One Election

Slowly but steadily, the government is working to synchronise elections for the Lok Sabha and all state Assemblies. The Ram Nath Kovind committee is expected to come up with its recommendations on simultaneous elections some time next year — the timing will be key. The opposition sees this as a hugely disruptive idea.

Elections in Maharashtra, Haryana, and Jharkhand will be due by the end of 2024. It remains to be seen whether some of these polls are advanced to gradually move towards One Nation, One Election.

The Law Commission is backing the idea, and is likely to frame tentative timelines for simultaneous elections for the 2024 and 2029 cycles. The sense in political circles is that the Modi government, if it wins a third term, would push for it by the 2029 LS elections.

The Election Commission has told the Kovind panel that it needs up to a year’s “lead time” to arrange the required additional number of EVMs and VVPATs.

Backward caste politics

Politics in Maharashtra has been roiled by demands from the Maratha community for reservation in jobs and educational institutions. The Congress government in Karnataka has not been able to publish the findings of a caste survey conducted by the state backward classes commission. Meanwhile, Bihar has published the findings of its caste survey, and passed a Bill in the Assembly increasing the overall quota for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Extremely Backward Classes, and Other Backward Classes to 65%.

The Congress, which went into the recent state elections talking about social justice and caste census, realised after the results that these issues had limited resonance on the ground. Even so, the Congress and most other INDIA bloc parties believe the plank of caste and social justice can counter the BJP’s Hindutva push.

The BJP and the Sangh Parivar too know caste census can be a sensitive political issue, which will need careful handling. Thus, the RSS quickly disassociated itself from the remarks of one of its functionaries against the idea of a caste census. And the Prime Minister has repeatedly said that he considers the poor, youth, women and farmers as the “biggest castes”, whose uplift will make the country developed.

Biting the reforms bullet

Should Modi return for a third term, he will equal the record of Jawaharlal Nehru. The big question is whether he will gather the courage to unleash a fresh set of radical economic reforms. In its two terms so far, the government has made half-hearted or piecemeal efforts in this direction, choosing to instead privilege welfarism in the governance model.

Reforms in sectors like agriculture, land, labour, fertiliser subsidies, and electricity generation and distribution can be contentious and difficult also because they need the support of state governments — a difficult challenge in a fractured polity.

Modi has repeatedly said India will become the third-largest economy in his third term in office. The question is whether his government will attempt these reforms in its quest for high economic growth.

In the Budget for 2021-22, the Finance Minister had announced plans to take up privatisation of two state-run banks, along with IDBI Bank and a general insurance company. It is to be seen whether the government, if it is voted back to power, will try to move the needle on disinvestment and structural reforms.

Delimitation and the Census

While passing the Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament earlier this year, the government said that the 33% quota for women would kick in after the next Census and the delimitation exercise that will follow. Delimitation will increase the number of Lok Sabha and Assembly constituencies, and will thus ensure that the reservation of one-third of seats does not affect male MPs and MLAs.

In 2002, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government had decided to freeze the contentious delimitation exercise for 25 years. So delimitation will now happen based on the first Census after 2026. The earliest the Census process can now happen is in 2025 — if house-listing, the first step in the long process, can begin in 2024. If the government is indeed looking to complete the delimitation exercise before the 2029 Lok Sabha elections, the Census data will have to be published within one or two years after 2025

Driven by ideology

Events in 2023 were frequently described as being ‘historic’ and ‘unprecedented’. 2024 — the year of the world’s biggest election exercise, followed by important elections in India’s states, possible new geopolitical uncertainties and foreign policy challenges for the country, and the much-talked-about rise of India as an economic powerhouse — could be marked by its own historic and unprecedented developments.

The cultural nationalism project of the BJP and Sangh will drive the political narrative around the elections. Two of the Sangh’s major ideological projects — consigning Article 370 to the dustbin of history and the building of a grand Ram Temple in Ayodhya — have been achieved. What could be next? The Uniform Civil Code, possibly, and other pending temple-mosque disputes.

Tomorrow in Explained: The economy

First published on: 26-12-2023 at 07:30 IST
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