The year ahead: Seven states in poll position
With a population over 200 million cutting across caste and communities, and 80 Lok Sabha seats and 403 assembly seats, Uttar Pradesh wields disproportionate power in the country’s politics.
Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state and arguably its most politically crucial province. With a population over 200 million cutting across caste and communities, and 80 Lok Sabha seats and 403 assembly seats, the state wields disproportionate power in the country’s politics. Having roots in the state propels a political party or leader to the national arena because no other state comes close in terms of political heft – the next biggest state, Maharashtra, has 48 Lok Sabha seats and 288 assembly segments. No wonder, then, that nine of the country’s 14 Prime Ministers have had ties to the state, or that when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was contemplating an inaugural general election run, he chose an Uttar Pradesh constituency – Varanasi.
These are some of the reasons why the assembly election scheduled to be held in Uttar Pradesh in February-March is the political event of 2022, one that is likely to determine whether the Opposition is spirited enough to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2024 general election, or whether the ruling party will get the same boost from the state that it did in 2017, when it won an unprecedented mandate of 312 seats.
To be sure, there are also a number of other state elections that will make headlines and change political dynamics – notably Punjab, where the impact of the farm protests and their success in making the central government reverse course; Goa, where the fight is as much between the BJP and the Congress as it is between the Aam Aadmi Party and the Trinamool Congress to emerge as the new Opposition alternative, Uttarakhand, where the incumbent BJP appears to be in trouble after changing two chief ministers in a year, and in Manipur, where the Congress will seek to wrest power from the BJP in a state where it emerged as the single-largest party only to see its lawmakers defect.
Among these, Punjab is particularly important because it is the state that birthed the first successful popular movement to effect a reversal of a significant economic policy decision by this government. It is also the state that has seen its government and ruling party in churn. If the state’s first Dalit chief minister staves off challenges from political opponents within and outside the party, it will be pleasant news for the win-starved Congress party.
Towards the end of the year, two other important states go to the polls. In Himachal Pradesh, BJP chief minister Jai Ram Thakur will have to combat a series of bypoll reverses and an energised Congress party. In Gujarat, the home state of PM Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah, the BJP virtually changed its entire government in September in an attempt to beat back anti-incumbency. Will the Congress party be able to repeat its spirited challenge of the 2017 campaign, or will new chief minister Bhupendra Patel manage to stitch together a multi-caste coalition that has been the hallmark of the BJP’s dominance in the western state? We will know in December.
Of course, the other thing on India’s radar this year will be social cohesion, or rather, tension. Hate speeches and inflammatory remarks by some Hindu leaders, enduring caste cleavages and the oppression faced by Dalit populations across the country, and the response of the political class to it will be important to track for anyone interested in India’s future.
But back to UP for a bit. The assembly polls in 2017 happened in the shadow of the disruptive impact of demonetisation, which had been implemented just three months before, and demonstrated PM Modi’s ability to rise above partisan issues and appeal directly to the people. Even as people were hurting under the decision to scrap high-value notes, they were steadfast in the belief that Modi had taken the decision to flush out black money. A doomed alliance between the Congress and the Samajwadi Party (SP) failed to fire on the ground, and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) lost the backing of some of its core supporters – its vote share was still significant but was rendered insignificant in a first-past-the-post system.
In contrast, the BJP banked on the PM’s appeal and carefully forged an alliance of non-dominant communities from the other backward classes (OBC) and scheduled castes (SC), weaning these groups away from the regional outfits with the promise of empowerment, economic mobility and social recognition. Having learnt its lesson from the 2015 Bihar polls, the party was deft in dispelling any notion that it was against the emancipation of underprivileged castes. Hindutva and development were the glue that held together this coalition of extremes.
The 2022 elections are happening under very different circumstances. The BJP has won a national re-election, having successfully defended UP from a formidable-looking alliance between the SP and the BSP, once-vaunted Opposition unity has since evaporated, and chief minister Yogi Adityanath has built a strong personal, if somewhat controversial, brand on Hindutva and law-and-order.
Yet the stakes are the same, if not higher.
This is a must-win election for the BJP, which faced a defeat in the West Bengal election and has since seen a string of leaders in the eastern state head towards its principal adversary, the Trinamool Congress. It is important for India’s ruling party to show that it can defend the state it showcases as the new development model for the country. The state is at the heart of the party’s Hindutva agenda and the success of its temple agenda – the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya began after the 2019 election and this will be the first major election where its impact can be gauged.
For the Opposition too, the Uttar Pradesh elections are crucial. The polls will determine whether the original playground of the Mandal revolution has been overrun (or co-opted), whether strong regional parties can indeed challenge the BJP on its home turf (remember West Bengal was an unfamiliar frontier for the party), and if they can leverage popular discontent into electoral advantage. At stake also is the pre-eminence of the Congress as the primary pole in Opposition politics and a poor performance by the party will surely spark dissension and renewed talk of leadership.
The election is crucial for the rest of India too.
It will tell us how deeply the Hindutva project has permeated the masses, and whether the Opposition’s attempts at forging an alliance of backward castes is successful. It will indicate whether Adityanath – who has been projected by the BJP as its next big leader – has successfully built a brand and following. It will be show whether a new round of mandir politics – first Ayodhya, then Varanasi and Mathura – is having an impact. And it will show how Dalit communities respond to a spate of attacks and pervasive discrimination.
But most importantly, it will be a barometer – the first, in fact – to understand whether the devastation during the second wave of the pandemic will have a political cost. Uttar Pradesh was home to some of the most controversial moments this summer, including the floating bodies in the Ganga, the mass graves on its banks, the oxygen shortage, the deaths of teachers during local body polls and the desperation for medicines and beds as health infrastructure collapsed and the state seemed effete. Can people really bury their loved ones but not let it became a factor in choosing their representatives? When public health collapses during a once-in-a-generation pandemic, do people blame god or government? Uttar Pradesh will tell us.