2021 may go down in India’s political history as the year when a government with a brute majority in Lok Sabha understood the power of a street protest — one that was largely peaceful and apolitical. And dissent found a new idiom. The farmers’ protest was not widespread, but the movement had the power to bend the government. And the repercussions of the stir – political as well as social – will be felt in 2022.
Politics sprang back to life in 2021 after the second wave of Covid-19 interrupted normal life. The outcome of Assembly elections, held in the shadow of Covid, were significant political markers: the emergence of Mamata Banerjee as a powerful regional satrap, the Congress defeat that broke Kerala’s pattern of alternating Left and Congress governments, and the BJP’s resounding victory in Assam.
Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and in other states in the first half of 2022, and in Gujarat towards the end of the year, too, hold the potential to shape a new political narrative and disturb existing equations. The outcome is significant for the BJP and its mascot Narendra Modi, a desultory Congress that is feeling the pressure from other opposition forces, and these regional forces themselves.
The bitterness in the political sphere, both in Parliament and outside, deepened in 2021, and 2022 may be no different with a string of crucial Assembly elections lined up. With a third wave of Covid-19 looming large, politics over the pandemic could take a new turn. The government could unveil its political plan for Jammu and Kashmir, which has the potential to divide the polity.
Societal tensions have deepened with Hindutva groups sharpening their rhetoric and BJP governments looking away. With the new law that raises the age of marriage for women to 21 sought to be applied to all communities, superseding existing marriage and personal laws, the social cleavages are bound to widen.
Modi popularity on test
Prime Minister Modi and the BJP’s election machine will face a mid-term test in 2022 in the form of the Assembly elections. The Opposition had been attacking the government over its handling of the Covid-19 second wave, rise in prices, and unemployment. The government’s surprise decision to take back the farm laws gave the Opposition reason to cheer. But there are no clear signs yet that Modi’s popularity is on the wane, or that anger is brewing against the BJP. The electoral outcome will be the first indicator.
In elections in 2021, the BJP retained power in Assam and lost the high-stakes battle in West Bengal. It emerged as the main opposition in Bengal but appears to be in no position to repeat the gains it had made in the 2019 and 2024 Lok Sabha elections. The party did not have much at stake in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
In this respect, 2022 will be different. Barring Punjab, the BJP is in power in all the states that will go to polls — UP, Uttarakhand, Goa, Manipur, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. And the outcome will have huge national significance. UP, especially, is key, both for Modi and for Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. A defeat could unsettle equations within the BJP, while a sweep in all these states would be touted as the trailer for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and will be demoralising for the opposition.
2022 is also a crucial for Modi as PM. With the Omicron variant spreading, the government will have to ensure its containment with minimal disruption in economic activity. With the economy slowly coming out of the distress brought by the pandemic, the challenge for the government is to keep it on track.
Mamata Banerjee’s resounding victory was perhaps the defining political moment of 2021. Other standouts were the emergence of M K Stalin from the shadow of his late father M Karunanidhi, and Pinarayi Vijayan powering the Left to a second consecutive victory.
Banerjee now fancies a national role for herself. The Trinamool Congress has entered the Congress turf in Goa. The Aam Aadmi Party is challenging the Congress in Punjab and trying to carve out a space for itself in Uttarakhand and Gujarat. The outcome of all these moves will define opposition politics in 2022.
The outcome of the Assembly polls will have a huge bearing on the Congress’s pre-eminence among the opposition parties. It will be a test not just for the Congress but for other prominent regional satraps too – especially Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati, the Badals, and Arvind Kejriwal. It is a win-or-perish election for at least the first three.
With some farmers’ unions set to enter the fray in Punjab, the electoral scene has turned unpredictable. Not to forget the gamble that former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh is playing with the BJP.
If the Congress performs poorly, its role as the nucleus of the opposition camp will come under question. There will be calls for formation of a new opposition grouping or restructuring of the UPA with key roles for regional leaders. The Shiv Sena, NCP and DMK have thrown their weight behind the Congress, while some regional forces such as the RJD, SP and the BSP have so far remained neutral.
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Chaos within Congress
From 1996 to 2004, the Congress spent the longest time in opposition since Independence. By mid-2022, it will break that unenviable record. But the similarity ends there. In 2003, the Congress was in power in 15 states; now, it is reduced to just three. By 2000, after spending four years in opposition and losing three general elections on the trot, the Congress had resolved the leadership question.
In organisational elections in 2022, the party hopes to anoint a new president, quite possibly Rahul Gandhi again, by September, but the outcome of the Assembly elections will hugely decide whether the change of guard would be smooth. The Congress fared poorly in Assembly elections this year. It lost in Kerala and Assam and failed spectacularly in West Bengal.
In the last seven years, the Congress on its own has won only five state elections.
In Goa and Uttarakhand, it is up against the BJP, while in Punjab, it appears to be a divided house. In UP, the party is struggling to stay afloat in the multi-cornered race. 2022 could well be the year of reckoning also for Rahul as also Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who is leading the party’s campaign in UP.
The tussle in the party is expected to continue or worsen in 2022. Although the G-23 group of leaders are keeping a strategic silence, the Assembly poll outcome could potentially unite or divide the party.
Societal tensions 2021 began with visuals of a VHP rally creating tension and stoking fear in a Madhya Pradesh village, and is ending with a hate speech conclave in Haridwar. The upcoming election year could be no different: adding to that is the narrative on anti-conversion.
Karnataka became the latest state to bring a Bill to prevent forced religious conversions and the so-called ‘love jihad’, following similar laws in UP, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. The targeting of Christians and disruptions of Christmas celebrations reported from some parts of the country, the lynching incidents linked to sacrilege in Punjab, and protests against Friday namaz in open spaces in Gurgaon are disturbing signs of deep radicalisation in society, and paint a dangerous portent for 2022.
Politics over sacrilege will only sharpen in Punjab with elections coming up. And if the government tables the Bill raising the age of legal marriage in the Budget session of Parliament, it will revive debate on the contentious uniform civil code: The Bill, its critics say, is an attempt to encroach into personal laws and move towards a uniform civil code.
It is also to be seen whether the government will in 2022 notify the rules governing the Citizenship Amendment Act, passed in 2019. That could sow more discord.
Jammu & Kashmir gambit
With the Delimitation Commission coming out with a draft proposal six new Assembly constituencies for Jammu and only one for Kashmir, there is a sense that Assembly polls could be held in the Union Territory sometime in 2022. The proposed remapping of Assembly constituencies has left most of the state parties unhappy as they believe it is a move to shift political power to the Jammu region.
While Modi had in his Independence Day address signalled that preparations are on for holding elections, political parties in the region are seeking restoration of statehood first. With Article 370 abrogated, the construction of Ram Temple started, a law brought to ban triple talaq, and the Citizenship Amendment Act passed, elections in Jammu and Kashmir are an unfinished business in the BJP’s ideological project, which will perhaps figure on the government’s agenda next year.