Reflections on State Elections in India

A lot of water has to flow under the bridge to 2024, but the AAP’s rise in Punjab may herald a tectonic shift in Indian politics

By Jan Arden

Local assembly elections in five Indian states were completed on Monday with the conclusion of seventh stage voting in Uttar Pradesh (UP). Most Indian observers had presented them as a test of Narendra Modi/BJP popularity and as a forerunner to the 2024 Lok Sabha general elections. We take a look, two days before the actual results are out, at some factors and take-aways from exit polls estimates that have been released by several outlets, while recognizing that exit polls are a depiction of major trends and may sometimes get it terribly wrong (West Bengal in last general elections is a case in point).

“We suspect an Indian National Congress leadership that is seen by Indian electors as relying on old-fashioned communo-casteist formulae, as out-of-synch with India’s educated, trained and aspirational younger generations or, sadly, as noisy twitteratis, harping constantly an anti-Indian ethos and negativity on all issues, however minor, may require that dispassionate but hard questions be no longer shelved…”


 

“The next two years will undoubtedly then be intriguing times on the Punjab front for Kejriwal, while requiring all his skills to weld together a larger unified Opposition front of regional leaders, with or without the Indian National Congress, that holds sufficient appeal to the Indian national mood and expectancies to mount a challenge in 2024 to the formidable BJP team. Such an out-turn of the Punjab polls may not have been on the Kejriwal cards but Congress and Rahul Gandhi’s own fumbling have opened doors for his future role on the national stage…”

BJP anti-incumbency?: Four of these states were indeed governed by BJP-allies as incumbents, including the most populous and decisive state in the Indian heartland, UP, headed by leading figure and Chief Minister (CM) Yogi Adityanath. Would the years of incumbency in the most difficult of periods, with the economic and human costs of the pandemic, law and order, farmer protests, joblessness or the communal and caste factors detract from the BJP and the Yogi’s hold on that vast state? While Amit Shah and the YogiChief Minister strategized the UP campaign, the Indian Prime Minister personally criss-crossed the state and his Varanasi pilgrim-city constituency, forcing prominent leaders of most parties, notably Mamata Banerjee backing the Samajwadi Party (SP), and the Gandhi leadership duet, to attempt upending the BJP powerhouse in this high-octane battle state.

Elsewhere in the other three BJP-run states, exit polls suggest that except for Goa, locked in a narrow contest, anti-incumbency may not be enough to prevent the ruling BJP state coalition to win the stakes in Uttarakhand and Manipur. As for the UP showdown, the exit polls indicate a decisive second win with an absolute majority of the 403 seats for Yogi Adityanath-BJP (220-250 seats) even with a slightly reduced popular vote. The Samajwadi Party, backed by Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress(TMC), would come out as second best (120-150) and the Indian National Congress (5-6) as also-rans.

Despite fiery attempts to communalise the UP elections, rouse anti-Modi muslim and caste votes, the Yogi-Amit Shah pitch of nationalism, law and order, stability in riding the tough times and “development for all” seems to have held its ground well and this may spell some rethink from Opposition election strategists for the 2024 elections. Mamata Banerjee may not have emerged as the national Gandhi-Indian National Congress (INC) alternative she had hoped for. As for the INC, its continued irrelevance in the Hindu heartland is a reflection of a vacuous political leadership, strategy and philosophy that fails to inspire or enthuse either party workers or the electorate, even though its fortunes were guided in UP by no less a national figure than Priyanka Gandhi.

INC: the Punjab debacle

This is probably a rare feat when the Indian National Congress under its current leadership has bungled state electoral matters so badly that the prospect of snatching defeat from the jaws of what should have been a comfortable victory in the only key state it held and ruled under Capt Amarinder Singh, is now a very real prospect. The humiliation inflicted on long-serving stalwart Capt Amarinder, cursorily ejected and replaced either by Navjot Singh Sidhu or Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channior both in a circus of public recriminations, was clearly planned as a clever and personal Rahul Gandhi strategy to woo Dalits (some 30% of the state) that has backfired thumpingly. The costs and damages will be immense and could be long-lasting as exit polls predict barely 25-30 seats for the INC in the 117-seat Assembly. The clear winner hands down is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) of ArvindKejriwal, with a predicted seat tally well into the 70s, from its surprising entry level of 20 seats in 2017.

If the year-long long farmer protests and marches, whether egged on by the INC or not, were an electoral factor, they are clearly benefiting the AAP, which seems to have better integrated them while exploiting anti-incumbency and the internal squabbles within the INC and its high-command. The single large and meaningful border state, Punjab has been seduced and wrested from Congress by Arvind Kejriwal and its previously modest AAP outfit: this will certainly add more credence to his national anti-BJP leadership challenger option than either of the Gandhis, Mamata Banerjee or any regional political chief.

A lot of water has to flow under the bridge to 2024 of course, but the AAP’s rise in Punjab may herald a tectonic shift in Indian politics, as more insiders and big-wigs ingrain and digest the fact that Rahul Gandhi’s two previous challenges to the BJP (2014 and 2019) ended nowhere and the INC, as a venerable old national party, has been left largely rudderless for the past three years.

A few weeks ago, we noted in this column:“Failure to hold on to (Punjab) that Indian breadbasket state with border national security issues and an inability to dent the BJP elsewhere may spell considerable snafus in the leadership squabbles affecting the venerable INC party and more high-profile exits of staunch former cadres.”

We suspect an Indian National Congress leadership that is seen by Indian electors as relying on old-fashioned communo-casteist formulae, as out-of-synch with India’s educated, trained and aspirational younger generations or, sadly, as noisy twitteratis, harping constantly an anti-Indian ethos and negativity on all issues, however minor, may require that dispassionate but hard questions be no longer shelved.

AAP: a tectonic inroad

Otherwise, it risks being displaced or replaced by the far more agile and populist AAP, in what would be a major if not tectonic shift in Indian national politics. As noted by the ‘Business Standard’ rather warily in January this year, “The party grabbed headlines (in 2021) as Kejriwal and his colleagues began holding political rallies, meetings and other events in poll-bound Punjab, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Goa, promising free education, free and better healthcare services, jobs, unemployment allowance to youth, Rs 1000 per month to women, 24×7 free electricity et al.” Against an INC background and history fraught with a variety of corruption allegations, Mr Kejriwal is not shy of boasting his government in the capital city Delhi as a corruption-free model. We recall that the AAP took birth from the idealism of a corruption-free India, at a time when various scams had besmirched the image of the INC (UPA) government led by Manmohan Singh.

Punjab and the chaotic INC high-command decisions provide Kejriwal and his party the opportunity to demonstrate that they can indeed replicate the Delhi mix of populism and clean governance in a large, more complex state with security concerns. The next two years will undoubtedly then be intriguing times on the Punjab front for Kejriwal, while requiring all his skills to weld together a larger unified Opposition front of regional leaders, with or without the Indian National Congress, that holds sufficient appeal to the Indian national mood and expectancies to mount a challenge in 2024 to the formidable BJP team.

Such an out-turn of the Punjab polls may not have been on the Kejriwal cards but Congress and Rahul Gandhi’s own fumbling have opened doors for his future role on the national stage of Indian politics. It remains to be seen how he and the AAP adapt to the challenges and opportunities ahead.


* Published in print edition on 11 March 2022

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