March 10, 2022 would be an important day for all concerned when the results of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur are declared. The centrepiece is Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous and politically significant State. In July 2022, the country will elect a new President, where the votes of every elected MLA would matter. And Uttar Pradesh scores over all the other States on that count.
As things stand, the Narendra Modi-led NDA in Parliament has an edge in the Presidential poll, having 49.9 per cent of the votes against the UPA’s 25.3 per cent and that of non-NDA others’ amounting to 24.8 per cent of votes. A Congress victory in Uttarakhand and Punjab would have some significance while the Samajwadi Party-RLD combine’s victory in Uttar Pradesh has the potential to alter existing equations. Sensing the high stakes, the BJP campaign has been aggressive and highly polarising. For the first time in many decades, the Indian electorate is facing a political outfit which believes more in winning polls than governance. Every electoral victory is celebrated as an endorsement of its political agenda. Some of the voices heard in Uttar Pradesh have been most disturbing.
At one instance, an elected MLA was heard questioning a particular community for availing rationed food and grain when it was supposedly not voting for the ruling party! The fine distinction between the Indian State and the ruling party is being blurred. Political parties in India (with an exception of the 1984 Lok Sabha when the Congress netted over 50 percent of votes) have been winning polls with less than 50% of the total votes, but as governments, it was understood that they stood for and served all citizens, not the sections that voted for them.
The UP outcome will have some bearing on the internal dynamics of the BJP too. As it is often said, the road to Delhi goes via Lucknow. Incredible as it may sound, Yogi Adityanath, if he wins UP on March 10, would become the first Chief Minister of a national party to complete a full five-year term in Uttar Pradesh. If he loses, he’ll have to resign and will fall just short of the five-year mark, since he assumed office on 19 March 2017. So far, only Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav – leaders of regional parties - hold the distinction of completing an uninterrupted five-year term since 1951! Perhaps the Congress, which was calling the shots in Uttar Pradesh till the 1980s, was wary of powerful regional satraps from Govind Ballabh Pant to N D Tiwari in the decades that saw Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi as prime ministers, so UP Chief Ministers kept changing.
An outright victory will make the 49-year Yogi Adityanath a contender for the post of Prime Minister in the post-Narendra Modi era. Uttar Pradesh is a State that sends an outsized 80 Lok Sabha MPs to Parliament. During the 2019 parliamentary polls, the BJP tally was 62 while in the 2017 State assembly polls, it won a staggering 309 out of 403 seats.
Union home minister Amit Shah is seen as a ‘natural’ successor to Modi on account of his clout within the BJP and the Sangh parivar, his so-called acumen and his informal number two status in the Modi government. Shah is more in the Sardar Patel mode or the way L K Advani was for the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime. Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, 62, is a four-time Chief Minister of the State. However, the low key, unassuming Chouhan does not fancy himself as a contender. Number twos, or the contenders for the top job in Indian politics, have had a chequered history.
The country has had seven Deputy Prime Ministers in Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Morarji Desai, Choudhary Charan Singh, Jagjivan Ram, Yashwantrao Balwantrao Chavan, Choudhary Devi Lal and Lal Krishna Advani. Except for Morarji and Charan Singh, the others failed to make it to the top. In fact, both Morarji and Charan Singh had to fight, break parties to fulfil their ambition, which remained short-lived too. The fate of the other informal yet powerful number twos such as Pranab Mukherjee, Sharad Pawar, Arjun Singh, N D Tiwari have been dismal. Away from Uttar Pradesh, the rise of the Aam Admi Party in Punjab and in Goa will have some repercussions for the opposition, particularly the Congress. AAP’s victory outside Delhi will pose a threat to the grand old party. Privately, many Congress leaders think an AAP victory would pose a serious challenge to the party in the next round of assembly polls in Gujarat, Himachal, Karnataka etc where AAP would try to cut into Congress vote banks.
On the other hand, post March 10, 2022, if the Congress wins Uttarakhand and retains Punjab under (a dalit) Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi, Rahul Gandhi will emerge as a powerful leader to return as the 87th president of the AICC. An electoral setback in Dehradun and Chandigarh would diminish Rahul Gandhi’s prospects of leading a united Congress from the front. The Gandhis, i.e. Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka, may have to allow “free and fair” polls (minus members of the Gandhi family in the fray). Watching all these developments carefully are Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal. Pawar had twice left the Congress and twice staged a comeback. Pawar, having failed to become a non-existent UPA chairman or convenor, seems to now be trying to float a trial balloon of a ‘Third Front.’ Speaking about elections in five States, Pawar had recently remarked that “The country needs a third front and talks are on with different political parties over its formation. Even CPI-M leader Sitaram Yechury stated that there is a need for a third front, which is yet to take shape.”
Pawar would not answer whether the UPA of 2004-2014 exists now or not. For all practical purposes, the UPA that was once headed by Sonia Gandhi and saw Dr Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister for ten long years, is not around. For nearly eight years now, there has been no formal meeting of the UPA, while allies have come and left at will. The Congress under Rahul and Sonia, however have kept trying - be it tie-ups with Akhilesh Yadav for the Uttar Pradesh 2017 State assembly polls or a mahagathbandhan with the RJD in Bihar 2020 that didn’t work, or successful government participation in Jharkhand and Maharashtra, But the Congress’ alliance story has been largely ‘piece-meal’ and guided by real-politick.
Ostensibly, there is no direct or visible link between Pawar, Mamata and Kejriwal and Congress dissidents, also known as G23. But it is known that the G-23 has some kind of “Plan B”. While it’s not a structured formulation, Congress failure on March 10 will bring back the spotlight on Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee and Kejriwal.
(Rasheed Kidwai is a senior journalist and author of the books “Ballot: Ten episodes that have shaped India’s Democracy”, “The House of Scindias” and “Sonia, a biography”) (Views are personal)
(Syndicate: The Billion Press)
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.