The results of the regional elections could either reinforce the BJP’s grip on power or give the fragmented opposition a much-needed boost.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not up for re-election for at least another two years as the country’s next parliamentary elections are due in 2024.
Yet, his popularity and that of his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are in for a tough test with a clutch of crucial regional elections slated over February and March.
Although Modi is not on the ballot himself, the polls to elect 690 regional legislators across five states – Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur – will be a mini-referendum on his governance as the country’s top elected official.
The stakes are high in the elections, in which some 18 million voters are eligible to vote. Though India is made up of many more people – 1.3 billion to be precise – the people’s verdict on March 10 will be keenly awaited.
Riding on the results will be many things that will ultimately determine the trajectory of Indian politics. A good showing at the polls for the BJP would further bolster Modi’s persona as a populist strongman and set him up as a clear favourite for re-election for a third successive five-year term.
It would also mean more power for his government, which is already viewed as authoritarian by some, and a continuation of its contested policies – including the controversial push for the domination of Hindus at the cost of other communities. Critics of Modi say his nationalist Hindu agenda is stripping India of its secular character and imperilling the lives and livelihood of minorities such as Muslims.
A setback at the polls, though, could also have equally profound consequences. Though it will not spell the end of Modi – he had, after all, swept the 2019 parliamentary elections only months after suffering embarrassing poll losses in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan – a reversal for BJP in the five states would rejuvenate a dispirited opposition.
The outcome would be crucial, in particular, for Congress, the party that led the nation’s freedom struggle and has a footprint across the country. In recent years, its influence has shrunk and its claim as the principal glue to the opposition ranks is being increasingly challenged by ambitious regional outfits aiming to carve a space for themselves.
The upcoming elections in the five states offer the Congress another opportunity to halt the slide in its fortunes. Its presence is marginal in Uttar Pradesh, but it is in the race to wrest power from the BJP in Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa. The party would also seek to retain power in Punjab.
A creditable show for the Congress would hopefully quell talk that the party is past its sell-by date. Though a shadow of the past, Congress still remains the second-largest party in the country. It secured some 20 percent of the popular votes nationally compared to BJP’s 38 percent in the 2019 polls, and it is very likely that opposition efforts to unseat Modi in 2024 would come a cropper minus the Congress.
Modi is acutely aware that if the BJP does badly in this round of elections – touted as the semi-finals to the 2024 parliamentary polls - the opposition would double its efforts to forge a coalition with a rejuvenated Congress playing a critical, if not pivotal, role.
Politics is largely about perceptions and Modi, a hard-nosed politician, does not wish to appear weak by yielding any ground.
His party is out of the reckoning in Punjab, primarily because of unpopular farm laws that his government attempted to push through despite vehement opposition from the state’s farmers. Though the farmers ultimately won and Modi was compelled to take back the laws, the BJP’s popularity is yet to recover in the state.
But Modi and his party expect to do much better in the other four states. They hold power in all these states, including Goa and Manipur where the party actually lost last time, but still managed to retain power by engineering defections from other parties.
Winning them again would further burnish BJP’s image as invincible. It claims to be the world’s largest political party and undoubtedly boasts of a ruthless election machinery. Helped by Modi’s personality and the promise of bettering lives, it resoundingly won two successive national elections – first in 2014 and then again in 2019.
But the party’s track record has been patchy in state elections, with local leaders and regional issues often taking centre stage. It won in the northeastern state of Assam, but has lost in crucial states such as Maharashtra. It famously lost to a regional outfit in the state of West Bengal last year.
Success is not guaranteed this time either.
Particularly bruising and bitterly contested would be the battle for Uttar Pradesh – the biggest prize at stake. Almost as big in size as the United Kingdom, Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state and accounts for 80 of the country’s 543 parliamentary seats.
Considered a bellwether state, the verdict in Uttar Pradesh could well be reflective of the nation’s current mood. The state is currently administered by the BJP’s self-styled Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath, known for his authoritarian style. But few can predict with authority the possible electoral outcome in the state.
Adityanath – BJP’s poster boy of Hindu nationalism – has been a divisive figure despite his loud claims of having brought unprecedented development to the state. He has been under fire for mismanagement resulting in large-scale deaths during the coronavirus pandemic and for constantly seeking to communalise the state.
The opposition hopes to capitalise on grassroot anger to turn the tables on the BJP. They are also hoping that India’s sluggish economy, rising unemployment and runaway fuel prices would by now have robbed Modi much of his sheen.
Everyone expects the electoral contest to be close. And as the Indian Express newspaper summed it up recently, March 10 will be the day of reckoning for both the BJP and the opposition.
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