“I threw the kitchen sink at him, but he went to the bathroom and got his tub,” Andy Roddick said after his defeat to Roger Federer in the 2004 Wimbledon men’s singles final.
Indian opposition politicians can sympathise. With seven months still to go until the 2024 general election, it feels like the governing Bharatiya Janata Party has already hurled a series of bathtubs at their kitchen sink-wielding alliance of parties, which refers to itself by the (rather strained) acronym “INDIA”.
These tubs usually come in the form of intriguing announcements and media leaks seemingly designed to inflame popular passions and keep the opposition on the defensive. The most recent is the government’s decision to hold a special session of Parliament later this month. It hasn’t yet said specifically why, which has led to speculations that the BJP plans to dissolve the legislature and advance the election.
The hurling of so much porcelain betrays jangled nerves within the corridors of power. The latest polling shows 2024 is still the BJP’s to lose, yet there appears to be a perception within the party that its victory is far from sealed.
It all began in June, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his first public push for a uniform civil code (UCC) – a set of personal laws that would replace certain religious and community-specific norms and practices.
Such a law could be problematic for hundreds of millions of Indians who follow their own doctrines and customs when it comes to marriage, divorce, property inheritance and adoption. This explains why, even though it has campaigned for a UCC for decades, the BJP has yet to table a bill in Parliament.
A UCC bill will be near-impossible to pass in today’s polarised political climate, with several parties, including those allied to the BJP, expected to vote against it. The party is, instead, considering legislating it in the states it governs. But analysts believe the party’s rallying call for it, so close to the election, might be an attempt to open another battle front.
The INDIA alliance, which is torn about the UCC, has not yet walked into the political trap and fallen apart over the issue. But with popular support for a common law having grown over the years, the BJP will look to paint the entire coalition as anti-UCC and as playing appeasement politics with minority groups wary of such a law, particularly India’s 200 million Muslims.
Then there were whispers last month that the BJP may be preparing a bill setting quotas for women’s representation in government, another issue fraught with pitfalls for several opposition parties. India’s more liberal parties have twice in the past tried to pass such a bill, attempting to reserve 33 per cent of seats in the lower house of Parliament and state assemblies for women. But they failed for a variety of reasons – including fears that reservation would end the careers of many established and sitting MPs.
Would the BJP, a right-wing party with its own share of MPs opposed to it, really try to succeed where its opponents failed? It’s doubtful.
The opposition is also concerned that the BJP might propose holding simultaneous elections at the federal, state and local levels in Parliament. While the party hasn’t confirmed this, the government has set up a committee to explore the idea’s feasibility.
Elections in India have been staggered since the late 1960s. The BJP’s rationale for doing them all at once is that the country is perpetually in campaign mode, with elections held every year. This, it says, is not only expensive for parties and taxpayers, but also forces elected officials to spend much of their time campaigning instead of governing.
Many opposition leaders have countered that simultaneous elections could alter the playing field in favour of the bigger, national parties with huge war chests and, potentially, squeeze out the regional parties and independent candidates. This, they say, risks undermining India’s diverse polity.
But overhauling India’s election system would require a series of constitutional amendments, which will need two-thirds approval in both houses of Parliament and ratification by at least half of India’s state assemblies. Since the BJP doesn't have the numbers in the upper house, there’s not much hope of success.
So if the chances are slim for the BJP to get what it wants on a UCC, or quotas for female politicians, or election reform right now, what is the point of calling a special parliamentary session? And if the BJP was serious about these issues, could it not have pursued them over the past nine years it has been in power?
An even more important question is, why is it talking up these issues now?
Perhaps because now India has INDIA. After almost a decade of being divided and ruled over, this summer, 28 of India’s most credible opposition parties finally cobbled together what appears to be a formidable alliance, with the Indian National Congress – the country’s grand old party – as its fulcrum.
The coalition has overlapping vote banks and mutually competing interests. And yet despite occasional spats in public, it has held together. All its constituents have acknowledged the need to make difficult compromises; a common minimum programme is in the works; and rallies are being planned, beginning this month. The alliance’s overarching message of “unity in diversity” may turn out to be effective if it is articulated well.
It no doubt has a hill to climb. For one, the BJP has much to brag about: India’s geopolitical heft has improved in the world, it recently sent a rover to the Moon and it will host the G20 summit this weekend.
The BJP will play this all up, as it will next year’s opening of the Ram temple in the northern city of Ayodhya, an emotive issue close to many a Hindu heart.
At the same time, the opposition can point to issues affecting the average citizen, including inflation, unemployment and rural distress. The BJP knows this, which explains its attempts to set the narrative around issues it is comfortable with – such as UCC, simultaneous elections and, as the latest talking point suggests, possibly even changing the name of India to Bharat. Whether these issues resonate with ordinary Indians is debatable, but they do allow the BJP to steal the INDIA alliance’s limelight from time to time.
India Today magazine’s “Mood of the Nation” poll gives the incumbents a clear advantage were the general election held today. But even if the election was to be advanced, it will take at least three months for it to be organised.
With even a week being a long time in politics, the BJP knows it isn’t quite “game, set and match” yet.