While the Assembly elections in five states, including the politically crucial Uttar Pradesh, will be a mid-term appraisal for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP, it will be more critical and defining for the Opposition, especially the Congress but also regional forces like the Samajwadi Party, BSP and Aam Aadmi Party.
The outcome could shape larger Opposition politics, reaffirming or challenging the Congress’s claim as the nucleus of the anti-BJP bandwagon in the run-up to the 2024 general elections. It would also impact the internal dynamics in the tottering grand old party which is preparing to elect a new president this year.
Having relentlessly attacked the BJP government over the Covid crisis, price rise, unemployment and farm laws, the Opposition will be looking at the polls to see if its campaign has hit home, or the popularity of Modi has taken any beating.
In power in Punjab and within winning distance in Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa — among the five states headed for polls — this might be the last chance for the Congress to stay in the game. In the past seven years since Modi became PM, the party has been able to form governments in only five states — the Union territory of Puducherry in 2016, Punjab in 2017, and Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in 2018.
It subsequently lost Madhya Pradesh to the BJP. In Goa, it has been squeezed into a corner by the TMC and AAP, in Punjab its leaders can’t stop squabbling, and in Manipur it has been falling behind since losing out in the government race. This leaves the party, leaders admit, most confident about the two-horse race in Uttarakhand.
The regional parties, on the other hand, have tasted blood, with several of them having shown that the BJP can be held off. The most famous winner of them all, the Trinamool Congress, is banking on the West Bengal victory to set it off in the states headed for polls – thus powering Mamata Banerjee’s national ambitions.
The other party bracing for a national leap is AAP. Having stunned with its poll debut in Punjab in 2017, and assiduously built itself up from the ground in Goa, it fancies its chances of becoming only the fourth political front, after the BJP, Congress and Left, to form a government in more than one state.
Even if Uttar Pradesh throws up no surprises, the fate of many hangs by a thread here. For the Samajwadi Party (SP) and BSP, who drive their political sustenance from the state, it is a do-or-die battle. For the Congress, it is more personal.
In 2017, the Congress campaign was led by Rahul Gandhi. He had started on the note of ’27 saal UP behaal’ – saying the voters should give the Congress a chance after 27 years – then tied up with the SP, which was in the throes of a family feud. The outcome was a humiliating, all-time low of seven seats. This time, the face of the contest is Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, another member of the Nehru-Gandhi family.
As general secretary in charge of the state, her women-oriented ‘Ladki hun lad sakti hun’ campaign has hit some right notes, but the party remains a fringe player in UP. And, should the Congress make no gains, Vadra will dwindle as the Congress’s shiny hope.
Akhilesh is similarly shouldering the SP almost alone this time, with father Mulayam Singh Yadav ailing. He has been campaigning aggressively and forging alliances, including with Jayant Chaudhary’s RLD and several small but influential caste-based parties.
Having won just 19 seats in UP in 2017, Mayawati is facing the most important election of her career, though she has been surprisingly low-key about it. Another state where the BSP is in contention is Punjab, where it has tied up with the Akali Dal. The BSP has always had a presence in the state with a 33% Dalit vote bank, and the 2022 results will show if Mayawati still commands her base.
A poll defeat in Punjab will be a staggering blow for the Akali Dal, fighting without an alliance with the BJP and Partap Singh Badal’s towering presence, as well as under the cloud of several charges.
Amarinder Singh, having left the Congress and yoked his cart to the BJP, will also watch the results closely. The old warhorse may have shown he has what it takes for another poll bout, but should he not land some punches, this might be a knockout.