Tuesday, December 6, 2022
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UP, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa, Manipur elections are sliding into an entertainment sport

Where are the challengers or issues like unemployment, Covid? State polls show amnesia, but we must ask bigger questions that go beyond forecasting results.

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The coming round of state elections is a good mirror of the tragedy of democratic politics in our times. The stakes are very high; the game is anything but high. The country faces critical issues; none of these seems to matter in making critical political choices. A turn that could affect the fate of our republic is mired in quotidian moves of petty politicking. Even if the consequences are positive, the underlying causes are not.

If you wish to empty democratic politics of its substance, there is no need to call off elections. The best recipe to kill a democracy is to reduce elections to an entertainment sport, public debates to shouting matches and politics to banality. This is what we are sliding into.


Let’s be clear about the significance of this round. The media falls back on a cliché of “semi-final” to understand the link between this round of assembly elections and the big battle in 2024. If we must understand elections as sports, it is better to compare the coming round with the Candidate’s Tournament they have in chess, meant to select the player who would take on the reigning champion. At the national level, the real contest is about who emerges as the principal challenger to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2024.

If we must bill it as semi-final, it is best to compare it to the new semi-final format adopted by the Indian Premier League (IPL), with a ‘playoff’ before an ‘eliminator’. This round in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Manipur and Goa is more of a playoff that would rank the challengers and set the format of challenge, before things settle down in the next one year.

Also read: Who’ll be ‘man of the match’ in UP? West-to-east polls has clear answer

National issues?

That is why we must ask bigger questions that go beyond forecasting the results. Can we expect to have an alternative to the hegemony of the BJP? Or a serious challenger? Or a clear challenge? What issues would the potential challenger bring to the battleground? Will this round give an indication of the national mood?

This would be the first major round of assembly polls after the full unfolding of the two waves of Covid that cost anywhere between 3 to 5 million lives in the country. Uttar Pradesh was among its epicentres. In any democracy, you should expect this issue to dominate elections. Not in UP, at least not on the surface so far.

The country has gone through its worst economic meltdown, accentuated by the pandemic lockdowns. Unemployment is hovering around the highest levels ever recorded. Inflation has raised its head after a long time. All these directly affect the states going to polls. All these would surely be talked about in election rallies and may be remembered if the BJP fares badly. But you would be naïve to think that these would be decisive electoral issues this time.

We are passing through one of the most communally charged periods of our national history, with constitutional functionaries stoking hatred and patronising violence. If past record is anything to go by, we should expect the BJP to turn on the flame further over the next few weeks. It is likely to be selective, focussed more on UP and Uttarakhand, and not the other three states with large presence of religious minorities. But can we expect a serious counter-narrative from the opposition? Would they even have the guts, the tact and the language to raise this all-important issue during the elections?

This would be the first big election after the historic victory of the farmers’ movement. Yet it would be quite a task to convert the farmers’ newly acquired clout into an electoral impact. In some states, the impact may be negligible. In Punjab, it may be neutralised because the impact is so overwhelming and therefore spread across the political divide. Would the plight of the farmers take centre stage in politics? Or would it be another round of political trivia?

Also read: EC announces poll dates for 5 states, voting to take between 10 February and 7 March


If not national issues, should we expect state-level issues of governance to determine the outcome? The one thing that unites all these five states brought together by the accident of electoral calendar is uniformly indifferent quality of governance delivered by the incumbent. Even Congressmen agreed that Amarinder Singh’s second government was an unmitigated disaster for Punjab: corruption, fiscal imprudence, low on performance and high on arrogance. The same is true of Yogi Adityanath’s government, among the worst even by UP standards: if the floating corpses in the Ganga showcased the sorry state of public health and governance, Hathras and Unnao told the tale of law and order.  If the BJP could not find a replacement for Manohar Parrikar to govern Goa, its plight was worse in Uttarakhand. The BJP government’s record in Manipur is not much to write home about. The incumbents deserve to be kicked out in all five states.

That looks unlikely. Some of the incumbent may well be kicked out. Anti-incumbency can turn out to be a stronger factor than the media is willing to admit. Yet in each of these states, some intervening factors have muddled the incumbent’s examination. In Punjab, Amarinder’s departure and the arrival of the first Dalit CM of the state has given the Congress another chance that it did not deserve. The main challenger, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), has done little in the last five years to inspire any confidence. The same can be said about the Congress in Goa, Manipur and Uttarakhand, where it is the principal challenger. The larger organisational disarray of the Congress has played out in these four state. Except Uttarakhand, the Congress is in no position to benefit from anti-incumbency. As for Uttar Pradesh, Yogi government’s record should indicate an electoral wipeout, yet the BJP is still in the game, seeking to blunt the edge of anti-incumbency with the help of caste equation and brazen communal divide, while benefiting from the erosion of the Bahujan Samaj Party’s support.

This is how everyday politics can fragment and derail big issues of politics.

Also read: TMC sends Oppn unity feelers ‘to prevent backdoor BJP govt’ in Goa, Congress keeps cards close

The challenger?

If the BJP loses UP, then no other state verdict would matter. That may not be the beginning of the end of the Narendra Modi government, but it would definitely embolden all the challengers. The Samajwadi Party (SP) could emerge as one of the key challengers and hopefully a balancing force in the internal battle of the opposition.

If BJP retains UP, then its dominance would get reinforced and the battle of 2024 that much more difficult for the opposition.

Congress would need to retain Punjab and score one more win, perhaps Uttarakhand, to maintain its position as the principal challenger. A defeat in Punjab would bring the Congress stock down and intensify the contest for the principal challenger. Yet, as the largest opposition party, the Congress gets into the playoff without the fear of instant elimination.

Other semi-finalists like TMC, AAP and SP don’t enjoy this advantage. If the SP fails, it has no other state to go to. If the AAP wins Punjab and overtakes Congress in Goa or Uttarakhand, then it can have a dramatic rise on the national stage. But if it fails to make good this second chance in Punjab, its national ambitions stand extinguished. If the TMC finishes runner up in Goa, its newly created units in other states can grow roots. If its experiment in Goa fails, its plans to step outside West Bengal may be stymied.

All this speculation would keep stakeholders busy and the public entertained till 10 March. Closer to elections, all of us would turn vicarious players and amateur psephologists. Would that leave us with a clear political force that could effectively challenge the BJP in 2024? Would we know the terms of the challenge? An amnesia on these issues could be the real tragedy of banality of democratic politics.

Yogendra Yadav is among the founder of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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