Twenty months away from general elections, is India heading for a 20-20 cricket match-like finish in the hot summer of May 2024?

The question should concern everyone since the reigning champions, the Bharatiya Janata Party, simply cannot afford to lose the match. The BJP has completely rewritten the rules of the game in the last eight years so now it cannot afford to sit in Opposition and get paid back in the same coin.

From 2014, as the party started revising its political vocabulary, it altered the meaning of the word “Opposition” to mean “enemy”. Its whole strategy has been to vanquish the enemy by any means necessary. The BJP’s ruthless approach to politics has left the Opposition gasping for breath.

Although the BJP retains all its ferocity, 2024 might turn out to be a fight between a long-reigning team and scrappy minnows who know they will be relegated out of the competition forever if they do not win.

Riven with divisions

At present, the Opposition is far from being a united house. Narrow outlooks and individual egos are too prominent to miss. As of now, Opposition unity is a work that is very much in progress.

Telangana Chief Minister and Telangana Rashtra Samiti supremo KC Rao has called for a non-BJP, non-Congress alliance because Congress is still a serious challenger to his party in Telangana.

Rashtriya Janata Dal led by Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Tejaswi Yadav is already in a coalition in Bihar with the Congress, Janata Dal (United) led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Communist Party of India.

Yadav has also expressed the wish to take Samajwadi Party along.

Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee has still not warmed up enough to Congress but has indicated its willingness to team up with Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which rules Kerala, has not been particularly thrilled about Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s Kanyakumari-Jammu long march on foot. But the two parties are not so opposed to each other that they will be unable to work together to thwart the grave existential threat posed by the BJP.

Then there are the likes of Biju Janata Dal led by Naveen Patnaik and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy, who may not be averse to the idea of joining the Opposition alliance in case they find the scales tilting against the BJP.

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu is almost a sure participant in any anti-BJP alliance.

Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav’s overtures to Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati may look like a penny stock offer but if the Opposition unity soars to a critical level, it could reap rich dividends too.

In Maharashtra, any pre-poll alliance among Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party and Congress could indeed pose a formidable challenge to BJP.

For now, it is still unclear whether attempts to forge Opposition unity will achieve critical mass. But given the kind of crisis faced by Opposition parties, they have no alternative than to eventually unite.

The BJP can take the flailing unity attempts by the Opposition for granted at its own peril and must be prepared for a tough challenge in 2024.

Gandhi’s yatra

Even as Opposition parties represented mainly by regional satraps continue their efforts to forge unity, Rahul Gandhi’s 3,570-km Bharat Jodo march appears to have seriously unnerved the BJP. Party leaders are leaving no stone unturned to discredit the yatra to try to ward off the possibility that the huge public support it is eliciting does not get converted into votes.

Opposition unity and Rahul Gandhi’s yatra together look like a potentially dangerous cocktail for the BJP.

The BJP’s path to 2024 may not be quite so straightforward, given the anti-incumbency sentiment of ten years in power, economic distress caused to ordinary people by high inflation and growing unemployment.

One rather amorphous development in the BJP is the pent-up anger in a section of party leaders against the accumulation of power in the hands of just two persons, Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. The sidelining of Nitin Gadkari, despite his efficiency at his tasks in government, could exacerbate the trouble within.

It’s not just the rumblings within the party: Modi is being seen as a liability by a section of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Its most trying test case will be in the approaching state assembly elections. In Gujarat, the Congress is still strong and the Aam Aadmi Party could be the dark horse. If Gujarat slips out of the BJP’s hands, it would have far-reaching implications for the 2024 elections.

Karnataka, too, is going to be a tough call for the BJP, according to many observers. In Himachal Pradesh, the Aam Aadmi Party could play the spoilsport and upset BJP’s applecart.

All in all, the BJP could go into the 2024 elections with diminished stature and morale.

That’s where the 20-20 cricket analogy comes into play. With a huge score to reach in the last few remaining overs, the BJP batsmen will have to merciless attack the Opposition bowling to save the match. Its only trump card then would be religious polarisation – a strategy that has been very rewarding so far.

We could also witness a big upscaling of its so-called anti-corruption drive to demoralise the Opposition.

In Delhi, it is trying to put the Aam Aadmi Party on the mat by trying to file corruption cases against its top leaders like Manish Sisodia, Sanjay Singh and Aatishi. In Maharashtra, it has already jailed two senior Shiv Sena leaders.

In Bengal, the violence that marked its Nabharna campaign last week could just be an ominous beginning in that direction.

Some of BJP’s top leaders have already given an indication of the possibility of the party going ahead with its religious campaign, no matter what. They have stated that the recent judgment on Kashi Vishwanath temple row has opened the doors for more contentious religious structures to be included in the party’s agenda.

India could be in for one of the most tumultuous times in its post-Independence history. The cost of such divisiveness could be heavy on us as a nation. The wounds it might cause would take a long time to heal.

Vivek Deshpande worked with The Indian Express and is now a freelance journalist in Nagpur.