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Greatest Sin In Indian Politics Is Overconfidence

February 20, 2024 16:22 IST

The BJP will enter this election, as it does every election, as if it is fighting to prevent a 2004-style defeat.

This is a party that wins big because it always behaves as if its back is to the wall, predicts Mihir S Sharma.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Home Minister Amit Shah, Bharatiya Janata Party President J P Nadda at the BJP national convention 2024, February 18, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

Twenty years ago, a popular Union government went back to the people, expecting a fresh mandate to govern.

The prime minister was clearly the best-loved politician in the country by far, and the Opposition was led by a leader of unknown abilities who had never won an election.

The political instincts of the ruling party were unparallelled, and it had won the previous election on a surge of nationalism.

The country felt optimistic, and on the cusp of an economic boom.

The world was paying attention to India for the first time, and events like Davos seemed devoted to praising the India story. India seemed to be, well, shining.

We all know what happened in 2004: The National Democratic Alliance failed to achieve a workable majority.

Most of us in the cities of India were shocked. Multiple analyses have since been written of that loss, and various reasons proffered.

The numbers, without any analytical gloss, suggest that the Bharatiya Janata Party had too few allies that won, and though the party easily outdid the Congress in one-to-one fights in places like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, it could not make up for the losses of its allies in states like Tamil Nadu and Bihar.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee himself was relatively reticent about what went wrong, but indicated on one or two occasions that it had been hard to hold his coalition together after the BJP began to be seen by some allies as too anti-minority.

His colleague L K Advani, meanwhile, argued that it had been simple overconfidence: India Shining was a mistake.

Mr Advani's explanation is the one that has gone down in popular history and the public mind as the real one, whatever its actual truth.

The greatest sin in Indian politics, we are often told, is overconfidence.

Is the BJP overconfident in 2024? Internally, the party is confident of improving on its extraordinary showing in 2019, which was itself a startling improvement on its unprecedented majority in 2014.

Is it too certain of pulling off three successive miracles?

We can never know for certain how the Indian electorate will vote, of course: This is too diverse and unpredictable a country.

I merely offer three reasons why 2024 might be different from 2004, even if the vibes are similar.

IMAGE: Sonia Gandhi, then Congress president, at an election rally in New Delhi May 8, 2004. Photograph: B Mathur/Reuters

First, the Congress is weaker today. In 2004, it still had some giant strongholds undivided Andhra Pradesh, for one, under Y S Rajasekhara Reddy could deliver 36 of its 42 seats to the Congress and its allies.

It was the dominant partner even in smaller states like Jharkhand, where it won six seats to its ally the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha's four.

But extended spells out of power are far worse for patronage-based parties like the Congress than for cadre-based parties like the BJP.

The party machinery in many parts of the country has simply atrophied.

Even if there is rural anger in 2024 which there supposedly was in 2004 it is unclear if the Congress retains the ability to harness it and transform it into votes.

The BJP was an also-ran in states like Assam in 2004; it is now the dominant force in such places, with the Congress local offices simply withering away.

IMAGE: Then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, right and then deputy prime minister Lal Kishenchand Advani at an election rally in Amritsar, March 26, 2004. Photograph: Kamal Kishore/Reuters

Second, Uttar Pradesh. For 25 years the 80-seat behemoth of the north was irrelevant to New Delhi politics.

The Congress and BJP would split 15 or 20 of those seats between them, but the rest went to regional parties who could be enticed into either camp or neither after the elections.

This ended in 2014. The lock that the BJP now has on UP politics makes it almost impossible to dislodge.

It begins every election campaign with more seats in the bag than the Congress currently has.

IMAGE: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during his 66 day Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra in Prayagraj, February 18, 2024. Photograph: Ritesh Shukla/Reuters

And third, the BJP may be confident but the BJP of 2024 may be incapable of being overconfident.

The defining characteristic of how this prime minister and home minister participate in politics is that they leave nothing to chance.

No Opposition leader or possible ally is left unassailed or un-courted.

Every single narrative is dominated by the BJP's foot soldiers.

No crevice of Indian politics or policy, no nook of the media, is allowed to exist free of BJP scrutiny or influence.

Its mindset is completely different 20 years on. The BJP will enter this election, as it does every election, as if it is fighting to prevent a 2004-style defeat.

This is a party that wins big because it always behaves as if its back is to the wall.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

Mihir S Sharma
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