By Harihar Swarup
As the year draws to an end, one can risk a little speculation about what we can expect from politics in India in 2022. As its national government crosses the mid-term point, BJP will fight the opposition in seven state elections.
Uttar Pradesh, of course, will be the most keenly watched election. Here, BJP’s challenge is not so much to defeat a divided opposition but to maintain the dominance it achieved in 2017. Five years ago, BJP swept the state, winning 77 per cent of the seats in a victory that helped forge its image of electoral invincibility in the Hindi belt. Since then, BJP has lost more state elections than it has won, and it needs to retain its hold over the heartland state if it wants to approach the 2024 general election in a strong position. This election will also be an important stepping stone for UP chief minister’s prime ministerial ambitions, raising the stakes further.
Punjab will be a major test for Congress, battered from all sides and split internally. Retaining power in one of its last regional strongholds will indicate whether it can overcome internal strains and get its act together in an election that should have been a cakewalk. Instead, Punjab will have its most unpredictable race ever, with a four-corner battle turning into a five-corner one, since farmers announced that they would contest the election on their own platforms.
As far as opposition unity goes, none of these state elections will offer much opportunity for opposition parties to work together. Three of the seven states – Gujarat, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh – going to the polls are bipolar states in which Congress is on its own. In the four remaining states – UP, Goa, Punjab and Manipur — there are simply no provisions or space for pre-electoral alliances. Instead, regional parties in these states seem determined to fight both Congress and BJP.
While it is too early to start speculating on election results what matters beyond their outcomes is the manner in which they will be fought. In a context of Covid uncertainty and economic hardship, it seems already clear that religion and nationalism will be at the core of each of these elections.
There is a further uptick in communal tensions in UP and Uttarakhand. Major contenders in Goa are openly pandering to Hindus, in a state that comprises 25 per cent Christian and 8 per cent Muslims voters. In Punjab, alleged sacrileges and mob retaliations at sacred sites have raised the fear of the campaign being communalised. In Manipur, finally, BJP will seek to use religion as an instrument of conquest, a method that already enabled it to win new political ground across the Northeast.
Communalisation of politics will deepen in 2022 not simply because of BJP’s own inclinations and strategies, but because opposition parties will seek to fight BJP on its own terrain contrasting their version of ‘good Hinduism’ versus BJP’s ‘bad Hinduism. By doing so, they will fall for the Hindu nationalists’ trap, validating the Sangh Parivar’s claim that religion does lie at the core of India’s politics. There are virtually a handful of political leaders left who even mention the need to preserve India’s secularism. 2022 will also be a critical year for Congress as several of these state elections are technically ‘winnable’. Should it retain Punjab, Manipur and perform well in Goa, Congress can hope to change the terminal decline narrative that that has bogged it down since 2019. Some good news could help the party reorganise itself ahead of the three key Hindi belt elections it won in 2018 – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – and help reaffirm its position as a necessary cog in any future national coalition of the opposition. Holding its presidential elections ahead of the currently scheduled time of September 2022 will probably help Congress get a grip on itself and quieten its internal feuds.
Last, the coming year will provide a recomposed Election Commission an opportunity to assert the institution’s autonomy, which was eroded in the hands of their predecessors. The expected third wave of Covid is likely to disturb the electoral schedules and will require EC to mandate parties to curb campaign activities. They also should reduce the phasing of elections against parties’ wishes. Whether EC chooses the protection of lives over parties’ interest will be a critical test of its will to assert its autonomy.
As 2021 ends in a spike of communal tensions, it raises the fear that politics in 2022 will be further marked by violence. The current stance by opposition parties show that while BJP may face increasing political challenges, 2022 will be the year that confirms whether it has won its cultural ‘war’, with lasting effects on India’s democracy. (IPA Service)