Is 2022 precursor to 2024 polls in India?
Holi, the festival of colour, has come a week early for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Even before the full results of the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP), Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand and Manipur were officially available on March 10, 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi proclaimed from the BJP headquarters in New Delhi that political experts would say the outcome of 2022 had decided the results of 2024 general elections. Time future is contained in time present, to tweak TS Eliot's poem Burnt Norton.
Politics is known to be a long-haul affair. Parliamentary elections in India are nearly two years away, but Modi's words on Thursday oozed confidence seldom seen. The BJP was widely expected to face headwinds because it battled strong anti-incumbency in four of the five states (barring Punjab). The polls in the five states took place at a time when economic distress grips India, with youth unemployment and fuel prices soaring. But BJP came out largely unscathed.
The key takeaway from the elections in the five states is important in two ways. Firstly, it reaffirms the efficacy of BJP's policy to blend Hindutva with efficient delivery of welfare schemes, and to reconfigure its strategy for 2024 elections. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, these poll results severely dent the credibility and ability of the Congress—which was in direct contest with the BJP in four of the five states and lost—to be the rallying point of a united fight against Modi in the next parliamentary polls. It also poses a much bigger question regarding the leadership of the Gandhi family to lead India's oldest political party, particularly the manner in which it handled its Punjab affairs.
One never tires of saying or hearing that the road to power at the Centre in India goes through Uttar Pradesh, the most populous (200 million) state and electorally decisive, because it has the largest number of Lok Sabha seats (80) to determine which party will have a parliamentary majority.
In UP, the BJP was under pressure following saffron-robed Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's handling of the devastating second wave of Covid-19 last year, and the emergence of Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav as a serious challenger. Recent desertion of a number of leaders and sitting lawmakers belonging to Other Backward Castes (OBCs), like Swami Prasad Maurya, and their shift to BJP's main challenger Samajwadi Party was thought to be a blow to BJP, because OBCs comprise an estimated 35 percent of the UP electorate, and SP sought to woo this segment to add to its traditional Muslim-Yadav support base.
The SP tried to hit BJP where it hurts the most: the latter's assiduous efforts over decades to bolster its Hindutva agenda by bridging caste divides. The Hindu consolidation, which the BJP had built to counter parties like SP, had paid a handsome dividend for the Modi-led party in the previous assembly elections in UP in 2017, when it got an unprecedented three-fourths majority, and in the 2019 parliamentary polls. But the BJP should be worried as the SP's improved performance in the just-concluded elections brought out chinks in the BJP's Hindu consolidation, mainly on the basis of raising the unemployment, bread and butter issues.
The second important picture emerging from the latest state assembly elections is Congress' defeat in Punjab to regional outfit Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) led by Arvind Kejriwal. The Grand Old Party of India is now left to govern just two large states—Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh—which will go to fresh assembly polls next year. The loss in the other four states is certain to put a bigger question mark over the Congress' ability to lead a nationwide anti-BJP alliance (It is already being questioned by Mamata Banerjee).
The Congress had betted big on exploiting the social identity of Charanjit Singh Channi, a Dalit Sikh, when he was made the chief minister four months before the state elections. Channi replaced Amarinder Singh, who hails from Jat Sikh community, the traditional landed and social elite in Punjab. By appointing Channi as chief minister, the Congress had hoped to beat anti-incumbency with his Dalit Sikh identity. But it boomeranged badly for the party in the polls.
AAP's emergence in Punjab with a splendid performance is going to have implications and trigger fresh alignments at the national level. Political observers who watch AAP closely see this performance as an endorsement of Kejriwal as a prospective national leader, possibly upstaging Mamata. One big advantage for AAP's acceptability outside Delhi is that, unlike Mamata-led TMC, linguistic identity politics is not at the core of Kejriwal's party. Mamata played the Bengali sub-nationalism card to win West Bengal assembly polls last year and dubbed BJP leaders as "bohiragoto" (outsiders). Ironically, the same plank made TMC face headwinds in Tripura's civic polls last year, and in the recent assembly polls in Goa.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India