Updated: September 28, 2021 10:02:21 am
Ministries in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, where assembly elections are due early next year, have been rearranged and rejigged, ostensibly for accountability and greater social and regional balance. The exercises in the two states follow the radical revamp the BJP undertook in Gujarat earlier this month, when the entire cabinet, including the chief minister, had to resign. The BJP — in UP and Gujarat — and the Congress — in Punjab — apparently believe that these belated makeovers will help them tide over anti-incumbency and win another term. This speaks of a cynical assumption — that the voters can be fooled through last-minute window-dressing choreographed from Delhi. It also points to a lack of imagination and ideas in the two national parties, and consequently their recourse to political band-aid to paper over the perceived cracks in their governments.
In Punjab, the Congress has tried to buy peace among warring factions with a selection of legislators from different camps and regions for the new cabinet — 15 MLAs took oath on Sunday, eight of them ministers in the previous government. Evidently, the party also hopes that appointment of a Scheduled Caste Chief Minister, a first for the state, would influence the community — the single largest caste group in Punjab — to consolidate behind it, and blunt the challenge put up by Captain Amarinder Singh and the Opposition. That may or may not happen but one thing is certain: Tokenism is unlikely to make a dent in the pressing issues in Punjab at this critical juncture. The crisis in agriculture, stasis in industry, lack of employment opportunities, and the persisting drug problem deserve political will, resolute attention and follow-through. With hardly three months left for polls, the Charanjit Singh Channi cabinet is unlikely to be able to do that. In UP, Chief Minister Adityanath appears to have fallen back on the tested strategy of caste and communal patronage and management. His term so far has been marked by the government’s brutal crackdown on all forms of dissent and a polarising approach to social issues. Even welfare distribution has been framed in communal terms — the CM’s recent abba jaan remark was a dog whistle that painted it as a brutish zero-sum game, in which “they” take away benefits meant for “us”.
Even in the past, political parties have replaced legislators to ward off or to blunt anti-incumbency in elections. But the large-scale changes in government by the BJP and Congress in UP and Punjab, directed by their respective high commands ahead of polls, reek of a different kind of calculation, or cynicism. Voters may still continue to back these governments in the absence of better choices, but that would be more a statement on the limited political menu on offer, and less a success of tokenism.
This editoria first appeared in the print edition on September 26, 2021 under the title ‘The late late show’.