When Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party’s chief strategist, Amit Shah, were busy campaigning in poll-bound states, there was bad news pouring in from other parts of the country in the last fortnight. It suffered a rout in West Bengal civic polls, marking a downslide since it put up a spirited challenge to Mamata Banerjee in last year’s assembly election.
In Odisha, where the BJP once threw down the gauntlet to Naveen Patnaik, it registered a decline in rural polls with the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) forming Zilla Parishads (ZP) in all districts. The BJP’s tally came down to 42 from 297 seats in 2017 when it had formed eight ZPs.
In Tamil Nadu, the BJP contested urban body polls alone and garnered a little over five per cent votes in around 5,600 seats it contested. State BJP president K Annamalai claimed the party was making the lotus bloom “in every nook and corner” of the state. Winning 308 out of around 13,000 seats in corporations, municipalities and town panchayats might be an encouraging sign but wasn’t something to boast of. Sixty-five per cent of the seats the BJP won were in Kanyakumari district alone. The party couldn’t open its account in 10 of the remaining 37 districts.
Given the BJP’s failure to dislodge the incumbents in Odisha, Delhi and West Bengal assembly elections since 2019, there is a question mark on its ability to outmatch powerful regional players. (To be politically correct, the Trinamool Congress is a national party, technically.) The BJP’s Ashwamedha horse might have overrun much of Congress-held territories unchallenged but it seems to lose steam on non-Congress opposition turf.
Akhilesh Yadav’s shot at history-making
Since its inception in 1980, the BJP on its own hasn’t been able to dislodge any regional party from power in an assembly election – except the Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh in 2017. But what is more pertinent in the context of the current election is the fact that no regional party on its own has ever been able to unseat a BJP government.
Technically, Akhilesh Yadav is not alone in this election, nor is the BJP contesting on its own. But, for all practical purposes, it’s a Yogi versus Yadav contest, with the SP contesting 345 of the 403 seats. Therefore, if the SP gets to the majority mark in UP assembly on 10 March and replaces the BJP government, it would be a first for a regional outfit in India. That’s Akhilesh Yadav’s shot at history-making. Lest the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leaders take umbrage, yes, Mayawati may also have a shot at the same, howsoever.
Reasons for this interesting electoral record of the BJP and regional parties are not within the scope of this article. Broadly, it’s because the Congress was their common political adversary for a long time and they often collaborated against it. In a state like UP where the Congress ceased to be a major player from the 1990s onwards, the BJP grappled with regional players but the above-mentioned electoral record remained intact. Neither Mulayam Singh Yadav nor Mayawati could ever defeat the BJP on their own. Remember the 1993 poll slogan — mile Mulayam, Kanshi Ram, hawa mein ud gaye Jai Shri Ram? Even then, the SP and the BSP together remained one short of the BJP’s tally of 177.
In many states, the BJP strategically allied with regional outfits for consolidation and expansion – at the latter’s cost, eventually. Then there were states in the south (including Karnataka until the 1990s) and the northeast where the BJP was hardly a factor until Modi-Shah embarked on an expansionist agenda. As for the regional parties, they were complacent until Amit Shah started turning the heat on them as part of his goal to make the BJP the Congress of yore with pan-India political domination.
Yogi Adityanath’s shot at history-making
If Yogi leads his party to victory on 10 March and retains the CM’s chair, he too would have his shot at history-making. No CM of UP has completed a full five-year term and got a consecutive second term in office. There have been CMs who have got a renewed mandate, but that was after shorter tenures in office. In 2012, Mayawati became the first CM of UP to complete a full term in office. There were 29 CMs before her — counting multiple terms, too — since the first general election in 1952; not one served out the full term. Akhilesh Yadav became the second and Yogi Adityanath the third CM to reach that milestone.
Out of 21 UP CMs (counting their multiple terms as one), only four have served for more than five years in office: Mayawati – seven years and 16 days (in four terms); Mulayam Singh Yadav – six years, 274 days (three terms); Sampurnanand- five years, 344 days (two terms); and, Akhilesh Yadav- five years, four days (one term). Adityanath will complete five years in office on 19 March. Between Yogi and Yadav, whoever wins will have the opportunity to break Mayawati’s record as the longest serving UP CM — that is, if the BSP doesn’t spring a surprise on 10 March.
Yogi or Yadav, Indian politics won’t be the same
While Amit Shah is seen as PM Modi’s putative successor, there has been a lot of speculation about Adityanath entering the race if he gets a second term in office. The UP CM hasn’t said anything about his national ambition yet but BJP leaders are playing it safe until 10 March. The UP government’s newspaper advertisements in even non-Hindi speaking states haven’t gone unnoticed in party circles though. Nor has the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)’ beyond-the-normal efforts to ensure a second term for Yogi.
As for Akhilesh Yadav, he has so far stayed away from the with-or-without-Congress debate in the opposition camp. He has been a ‘good boy’ who is happy supporting Didi in Bengal polls and welcoming her in Varanasi during UP polls. But he would still not take sides in Didi’s battle against the Congress. He would be warm to Aam Aadmi Party leader Sanjay Singh but wouldn’t help Arvind Kejriwal’s party to find its feet in UP. He would essentially play along with everyone in the opposition, showing little ambition or assertion. On 10 March, if he makes history, he will emerge as a major player in the non-BJP camp- and, arguably a decisive factor sooner than later.
Yogi or Yadav, India’s politics will be in for a churn from 10 March.
DK Singh is Political Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)