The winning formula: On the polarisation politics of BJP

Mobilisation on caste and regional identities was no match for the communal polarisation politics of the BJP 

March 11, 2022 12:30 am | Updated 09:39 am IST

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has retained power in all the four States it held, of the five that went to the polls between February 10 and March 7, while the Congress lost the only one it had, Punjab, to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The BJP overcame the fatigue and popular disenchantment it had accumulated over five years in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa, and Manipur, while the Congress collapsed in Punjab. The popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who remained the central figure of the BJP campaign, contributed significantly to the party’s victory; for the Congress, the leadership of the Gandhi family has become more of a burden going by its moves ahead of the elections that contributed directly to the party’s Punjab debacle. The resounding victory of AAP in Punjab opens new possibilities for the emergence of a national alternative to the BJP, but, at the moment, the latter’s electoral appeal appears unassailable. A combination of identity appeals, welfare promises, and strongman rhetoric helped the winners — the BJP in four States, and AAP in Punjab. The potency of a caste-oriented social justice plank as a mobilisation strategy is at a low ebb as the collapse of its Samajwadi Party (SP) version in U.P. and the Congress version in Punjab shows. Dynastic politics can be taken as having received a definitive drubbing — the leadership of many of the parties on the losing side are controlled by families over generations — the Congress, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD). Mr. Modi and AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal were quite possibly seen by their supporters as subaltern raiders of elite citadels.

The U.P. Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, has risen as a formidable vote catcher for the BJP in the Hindi heartland. His brushes with controversies only add to his popularity, the results suggest, and a new Modi-Yogi iteration of Hindutva politics has reinforced the BJP in U.P. The voters had appeared anguished with inflation, stray cattle menace, poor COVID-19 management, and unemployment, but not enough to vote out the BJP government. A protracted agitation of farmers had minimal impact on the polls, as the BJP won many seats in its epicentre of west U.P. It appears that the non-Jat and non-Muslim votes considerably consolidated behind the BJP in the face of the aggressive campaign of the SP-RLD alliance. Several backward caste leaders switched from the BJP tent to the SP camp, but ordinary voters did not follow them to an extent that could have threatened the BJP. The SP more than doubled its tally of 2017 but it still fell short. It could not wash off its image of being a party that provides protection to criminals and favours Yadavs and Muslims. The election saw a decimation of the Bahujan Samaj Party, helping the BJP more than the SP. The Congress only helped in creating an atmosphere for the SP alliance, and barely opened its account.

Punjab’s voters have given a decisive mandate for an ‘alternative politics’ promised by the AAP, which won 92 out of 117 seats. AAP, which has been in power in Delhi for seven years, has built a reputation for its welfare schemes, particularly in health and education — two sectors that voters care a lot about. That reputation stood AAP in good stead in Punjab, while the Congress and SAD were done in by the burden of their past sins. The projection of Bhagwant Mann as Chief Minister helped AAP, while the Congress seemed to have gained little by advertising the Dalit identity of Charanjit Singh Channi, who was appointed Chief Minister just five months ahead of the elections. The decimation of SAD signals the diminishing appeal of ‘Panthic’ or Sikh religious politics. The Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM) — an amalgamation of 22 Punjab-based farmer outfits that spearheaded the agitation that forced the Centre to withdraw three controversial farm laws that it had enacted — failed to make any political impact.

In Goa, the BJP retained power, though the Congress put up a spirited fight. Goans can breathe easy, now that the State is not heading to yet another round of skulduggery to form a government. The BJP was also helped by the division of votes by players such as the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP), the Trinamool Congress, and AAP. The BJP’s strategy of selecting candidates on the basis of ‘maximum winnability’ yielded rich dividends for the party. Manipur did not escape the general trend in the northeast, where people tend to vote for the party or coalition in power at the Centre since the States are dependent on Delhi for funds. The BJP emerged on top and the Congress cut a sorry figure, behind smaller parties such as the Naga People’s Front. The election was bereft of emotional issues, and the BJP gained from its development rhetoric. The demand for Scheduled Tribe status for the Meiteis, the community that dominates the Imphal and Jiribam valleys comprising 40 of the State’s 60 seats, failed to get traction. Neither did a controversial demand for greater autonomy to the tribal councils straddling the 20 constituencies in the hills. In Uttarakhand, the BJP retained power despite setbacks it had to deal with, while the Congress squandered its chances, getting bogged down in internal power tussles. But the defeat of its Chief Minister, Pushkar Singh Dhami, is a serious embarrassment for the BJP. A fresh face would mean a fourth person as Chief Minister in a little over a year.

The BJP and AAP have gained huge momentum ahead of 2024. AAP’s durability as a viable national alternative will be put to the test. So far, it has not shown either the organisational strength or the political vision to be a national level player. Indeed, there is no one party that can challenge the BJP. A loose coalition of regional and Left parties, with or without the Congress at the head, might not inspire confidence among voters. I

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