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What Defeat in UP Will Mean for Brand Modi

February 01, 2022 08:24 IST
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Any defeat for the BJP would imply that anti-incumbency against Modi has set in, says N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi lays the foundation stone for the Major Dhyan Chand Sports University in Meerut, January 2, 2022. Photograph: Press Information Bureau

Now that campaigning is on full swing for the five-state assembly polls, including the prestigious ones in Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Uttar Pradesh and the rival Congress-administered Punjab, most bets seem to be not on who would win and who would lose.

Instead, it is about who would have to share the credit or take the blame, depending on which way the results go.

Apart from Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, assembly elections are scheduled for February-March also in Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur.

Later, in November-December, assembly polls become due in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat.

Given the ruling BJP-ruled Centre's 'divide-and-rule' policy aimed at destroying the Congress rival out of recognition in every which way before Modi 2.0 ends its term, by choosing former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister and veteran Congressman Ghulam Nabi Azad for the Padma Bhushan, as if out of the blue, the chances of polls being held in the border Union Territory also cannot be ruled.

J-K has been under President's rule even before its creation which also facilitated the supersession of Article 370 and division of the unified J&K state, in August 2019.

While all parties are in the fray in the five poll-bound states are fighting to either retain or capture power, or make substantial gains in terms of seats and/or vote-share, on paper the BJP is said to be in an advantageous position.

In the normal course, perceptions of anti-incumbency, especially in the nation's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, should have been a cause for the party's concern.

Added to that should have been the aborted attempt by the party high command to try and undercut Chief Minister Adityanath ahead of the assembly polls, if only to weaken his challenge in the Lok Sabha elections of 2024.

However, better sense prevailed and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah declared after failed attempts that Adityanath was their best bet for chief minister, still.

It is not unlikely that after the assembly polls, especially if the BJP and Adityanath retain power, the internal struggle for the post-2024 prime ministerial nomination would commence.

Whether it would be an all-out war or one by subterfuge or other means, remains to be seen.

So would be its timing, whether before or after the Lok Sabha polls, depending on incumbent Modi's desire to contest a third term.

A clearer picture may sort of emerge later this year, when the presidential polls are due.

By all assumptions, the Opposition was anyway on a weaker wicket in all five states.

Where the ruling Congress was relatively strong in Punjab, especially after the anti-Centre farmers' protest of the previous year, internal rumblings have put paid to its hopes of a walk-over.

The forced resignation of then chief minister Amarinder Singh, who has since formed a party of his own and tied up with the rival BJP, and the political antics of state Congress president Navjot Singh Sidhu have all put a question mark over the Congress's electoral chances.

Overall, the woes of the Opposition can be explained in a single word. Division/divided.

Nowhere else is this more visible than in UP, where the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress, among others, are contesting alone, instead of pooling and sharing their vote banks.

It may owe to the experience gained from the previous polls when the backward Yadav-centric SP and the Dalit-strong BSP contested together and yet lost to the BJP, and precisely for the unscientific and socially unacceptable electoral union between the two.

This time round, not only are they contesting alone, the BSP also seems to have lost interest and also steam, long before the poll bugles were sounded.

The party is nowhere in the electoral picture, both inside and outside the state, it would seem.

Yet, the BSP's votes can deny the SP a few seats, or may even go to the BJP because party boss Mayawati is not seen as being actively interested in the chief minister's job any more.

Then there is the Congress, which seems to be losing more leaders on poll-eve, both in UP and adjoining Uttarakhand, than any time in the previous five years.

If anything, it is the exit from the Congress, in favour of the BJP especially, that is keeping the party in the news, both in the two northern states and also elsewhere.

The chances are that the poll results could demoralise the Congress cadres even more in Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat and other western states all the way down to Karnataka and Kerala, with the result it could impact the assembly polls in the first two towards the year-end.

In turn, it could have a worse impact on the Lok Sabha polls, in multiple ways.

After her sweeping victory over the irresponsible BJP rival that did not know how to campaign against her, West Bengal's Trinamool Congress Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, has let the impression gain ground that she was targeting the prime minister's job in 2024.

Though he did not show any signs of prime ministerial ambitions at least as yet, Delhi's AAP Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal too is vying with the BJP, and the likes of Trinamool and SP, to destroy the Congress as fast as he can.

Though not outwardly mentioned, both the Trinamool and AAP seem to be fighting the five-state assembly polls on their own, mainly to get enough vote-percentage and/or seat shares, for the Election Commission to recognise them as 'national parties'.

Mamata especially does not seem to have understood that if her ambitions were to become prime minister, she needed to first have more seats against the ruling BJP than obtain the status of a 'national party' with a reserved symbol.

In this, those that are aspiring for 'national party status' and/or the prime minister's job do not seem to remember that neither Chandra Shekhar (1990-1991), nor I K Gujral (1997-1998) had either votes or seats, and certainly no recognition as a 'national party', before they became prime minister.

Apart from whatever seats and votes they may obtain, especially in Punjab and Goa, AAP and the Trinamool, especially in Goa, can only help the BJP to win.

Thus, unless otherwise proved by the results, a BJP victory in any or all five states would owe to the division of the Opposition votes.

Post-poll hence, there can be lamentations that they lost only because they were divided.

In the absence of CPI-M veteran Harkishen Singh Surjeet, who helped anti-BJP forces to come to power at the Centre as the United Front, with the Congress supporting from outside in the late 1990s, only Sharad Pawar seems to be in any position to attempt a new patch-up ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.

That the anti-BJP parties did not care for his efforts in the long run-up to the five-state polls is worth remembering, all the same.

For all this, however, what if the BJP were to lose many and/or major states? It could well mean a few things.

The one obvious conclusion is that just as the 'Modi magic' of the past years has helped the party to win both Lok Sabha and assembly polls, barring much of the south, any defeat for the BJP now would imply that anti-incumbency against Modi too has set in.

If that were to happen, then there are issues for the BJP leadership to sort out from within.

The other reason, if it is a BJP downslide, could well point to a perception change that the party could not afford to ignore.

It would be a take-off from the post-Babri masjid demolition UP assembly polls of November 1993.

If the BJP and its supporters and sympathisers across the country thought that the party would sweep the assembly polls on the strength of the 'Ayodhya demolition' sentiments, it was not to be.

Instead, the UP voter voted against the BJP which was in power at the time of demolition, for which the Centre under then Congress prime minister P V Narasimha Rao had imposed President's rule.

In its place, UP voters elected an SP-BSP combination to power.

Conceptually, if the BJP had strived at the consolidation of Hindu majority votes, the UP electorate had gone to the next and traditional step once that had been achieved.

They took the BJP-induced religious divide, or religion-based consolidation, further -- on caste lines, as it used to be and as it continues to be.

A BJP reversal in the coming round of polls could thus imply two things.

One, the Modi effect may be fading, though that need not be the case in the Lok Sabha polls, especially if the party is able to convince voters that the nation needs a strong leader, which the divided Opposition does not have a visible chance to project.

Then, of course, the return of the nation to a non-religious electoral divide, whether caste-based or not.

This could have consequences at a time the BJP is being seen as wanting to show up a completed Ayodhya temple as the ultimate symbol of its 'Hindu/Hindutva card'.

Yet, all of it is a long, long way off...

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist, political analyst, and author, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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