The assembly polls in five states, particularly Uttar Pradesh, were the most crucial ones before the 2024 general election. UP, because the state sends a large share of MPs and an even larger political message. The results highlight key future trends in Indian politics and symptoms of major political players. Here are five key takeaways:
BJP is system-defining party
The UP results have, once again, underlined that the ascent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is no aberration or accident. Indian politics has gone through a paradigm shift and that change is here to stay even if the party loses one or two elections.
As a system-defining party, the BJP will be in a position to decide most of the issues and agendas of national life. It will go to the 2024 Lok Sabha election with a position of strength. The BJP of Modi era is different from the Vajpayee period in a sense that the latter became the PM in the era of coalition and during that period, the party lost power in UP. In the 2002 assembly election, the BJP contested 320 seats in the assembly of 403, got 20 per cent vote and won only 88 seats. The 2002 loss relegated the party to the third position in UP and things changed only in 2017. Narendra Modi has performed better than Vajpayee.
AAP is threat to Congress
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s landslide victory in Punjab is not just an important milestone for the 10-year-old party. The victory also has the potential to change the landscape of electoral politics in India. The AAP has entrenched itself well in the national capital and now tasted victory in a state which was, by and large, following the two-party system till now.
In Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal has limited space to perform as the city-state is more or less a glorified municipal corporation in terms of powers and responsibilities. Punjab, however, is both a challenge and an opportunity. Challenge, because in a complex situation, its governance model may fall apart and opportunity in a sense that if AAP is able to manage the affairs of the state well then it has the machinery to amplify and showcase it at the national level.
The most crucial test for the AAP will be the Gujarat assembly elections later this year. Gujarat may catapult AAP on the national stage in a manner where it can claim the position of the principal opposition party. This will have implications for the Congress.
Congress and its leadership woes
The Congress is in disarray. With Punjab gone, it has only two states, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, left to govern. In Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu, it is a junior partner. The party has lost both its ideological differentiators and organisational base. It is not in a position to elect a full-time president and is not going for intra party elections. 2022-23 will be a year of opportunity for the party, provided it ramps up its machinery and performs well in Gujarat and Karnataka. The Congress has exhausted its trump card, Priyanka Gandhi, in UP elections, despite knowing that it wasn’t going to work in the state.
The Congress has to re-calibrate itself and the first thing it should do is to get rid of Marxist (or pseudo Marxist) jargons and ideas. Just before the election, the party took a calculated risk by replacing Capt Amarinder Singh with its Scheduled Caste face Charanjeet Singh Channi. It has not paid off well. It might have resulted in upper caste backlash in a state traditionally dominated by powerful farmer communities. Despite the loss, the congress has built bridges with the Scheduled Caste community. Can it continue with the strategy?
BSP and its future
The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has performed miserably in these elections. It lost fort Uttar Pradesh and its alliance with the Akali Dal in Punjab failed too. Founded in 1984, the BSP became a national party in no time, and soon was the third-largest party in India in terms of vote share. 2007 was its high point when it captured power in UP with absolute majority. But that became its last electoral victory. The BSP has now lost three consecutive assembly elections in UP and performed badly in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Its show was comparatively better in 2019 Lok Sabha polls when it had an alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP). But it came out of the alliance and decided to go solo in the assembly polls. That has proved to be bad politics. This is BSP’s worst performance since 1989.
But the more pertinent question is that has the BSP also lost its ideological differentiator? The party has put too much emphasis on building bridges with the Brahmins and this strategy, though quite effective during SP-BSP duet, is not working ever since the community shifted towards the BJP. Having a top-heavy organisational structure is also troubling the party and now it has to grapple with the problem of the next line of leadership.
Samajwadis and the Muslim question
The SP has performed better, grabbing around 50 seats from the BJP. It has also improved its vote share. Perhaps, this is its best ever vote share. But the gap between the BJP and the SP is too great. The SP has emerged as the sole competitor of the BJP in the state. The party galvanised the Muslim vote that played a pivotal role in increasing its vote share. But this can also be the biggest undoing of the SP if it fails to grab more Hindu votes. The Muslim vote can keep a party relevant. It can make the SP principal opposition party. But it has to build better rapport with the other backward castes and Scheduled Castes.
Last time the SP won an electoral battle was in 2012. Not winning elections for a long time can obliterate a party as we can see in the case of BSP. That is an existential question for Akhilesh Yadav.
Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)