For the two main national parties, the BJP and the Congress, these state elections supposedly set the stage for the general elections of 2024. The two parties faced off in direct confrontation in three of the five states that went to the polls - Goa, Manipur and Uttarakhand - and both parties were seen as contending with severe anti-incumbency: the BJP in Uttar Pradesh and the Congress in Punjab.
The results, however, show rather different endings for the rival protagonists: the BJP has not just beaten back anti-incumbency in Uttar Pradesh but created a "pro-incumbency" wave in its favour, while the Congress in Punjab hit the self-destruct button, miserably failing to win a state that had remained loyal to it through the Modi wave which began in 2014.
Yet just six months ago, the two parties appeared to be in a similar predicament, battling a perception and governance crisis. The BJP had changed its Chief Minister for the third time in Uttarakhand. Photos of dead bodies floating down the Ganga became a starkly graphic example of the BJP's failure to tackle the Covid pandemic in Uttar Pradesh. There were even reports at this time that Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath would be replaced. The Congress faced upheavals in Punjab, veteran Chief Minister Amarinder Singh was sacked four months before the election, and Dalit leader Charanjit Singh Channi was appointed the new Chief Minister by Rahul Gandhi.
The answer to whether the Congress can take on the BJP at the national level is now glaring and it's a big no.
In Punjab, the Congress persisted with a doomed power structure in which the garrulous Navjot Singh Sidhu and newcomer Chief Minister Channi were neither able to see eye-to-eye nor create a narrative to deflect the four and a half years of accumulated drift under Amarinder Singh. Cadres remained dispirited by the tensions at the top and the Delhi leadership scooted away blithely after announcing a change of guard, leaving newbie Channi to sink or swim.
The BJP, by contrast, was quick to recognize a crisis in the two north Indian states of Uttarakhand and UP, and get its act together fast. Critical to this effort was to pump up the publicity drive on its "labharti" schemes, and step on the accelerator on delivering of cash and welfare benefits, especially to women, in a rather cynical quick-fix ploy to capture voters' short-term memories with freebies to eclipse long-term losses they may have endured during Covid and the lockdown. A second front of the BJP's fight back was to step up subliminal Hindutva messaging, from the Ram Mandir and Kashi Vishwanath temple in UP, to the Kedarnath temple in Uttarakhand. A third line of attack was to deploy the persona of the Prime Minister, pushing the Modi as larger-than-life-leader message. The messaging struck gold: a BJP win of this size, despite serious two-year hardships of Covid, mehngai and raging unemployment, suggests an emotional religio-cultural attachment to the Hindutva idea, and to Modi and Yogi's leadership, quite beyond any rational or 'normal' reasoning.
The BJP's rivals got their act together far too late. In a decision that defies all logic and reveals a shocking lack of strategy, Harish Rawat, the Congress's most popular leader in Uttarakhand, spent most of 2021 firefighting in Punjab as General Secretary in charge of the state, and was kept away from his own home turf. Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav was not seen on the ground during the second wave of Covid, appearing only five months before the polls, by which time the BJP had already consolidated its free rations - Hindutva-Modi armada. Nonetheless, Akhilesh at least gave the BJP a fight and his Samajwadi Party got its highest vote share ever, although it failed to win because this time in UP, usually always a multi-cornered contest, elections became unusually bipolar. Akhilesh's Mandal 2.0 rainbow coalition of non-Yadav OBC (Other Backward Caste) leaders could not haul in OBC communities because the people did not follow their leaders into the SP. A transactional figure like Swami Prasad Maurya, the former BJP minister who was Akhilesh Yadav's big catch, has journeyed from Mayawati's BSP to BJP to now SP, and seems to be looking after his own fortunes, rather than being a "leader" of his flock.
Mayawati was the enigma of these elections; mysteriously, she seemed to have abdicated the Opposition space almost completely, even giving 80 tickets to Muslims, possibly to cut into the SP vote. She is now faced with her fifth consecutive defeat in a row, including state and national elections.
The Goa results show that even with overwhelming anti-incumbency against BJP, the Congress simply does not command the non-BJP vote, which got split three ways between AAP and TMC to the benefit of the BJP. Trinamool's showing in Goa reveals the perils of over-reading a mandate in the home state to believe it can lead to wins elsewhere. The AAP is an interesting story in Goa this time. The party has felled the veteran Goa strongman Churchill Alemao (contesting from TMC) in Benaulim and opened its account in Goa with two seats, after drawing a blank in the state in 2017. Clearly, if there had been a Congress-AAP-TMC opposition alliance in Goa, the BJP would have suffered more. With a fragmented Opposition, margins of victory are wafer-thin: many seats in Goa are being won by less than 1,000 votes.
The thumping win in UP and bucking the alternating regime change in Uttarakhand shows the BJP now riding a wave of popular support and standing as the obvious front-runner to retain power in 2024 with Modi as the magnet. This leaves the question 'Kaun banega challenger' hanging in the air.
The Aam Aadmi Party's triumph in Punjab is nothing short of remarkable. Arvind Kejriwal's party harnessed a whirlwind of anti-establishment sentiment in an election in which stalwart Akali and Congress leaders have been felled by the AAP avalanche. For a political start-up, barely a decade old, hemmed in by entrenched giants from all sides, to win a major north Indian state so convincingly is the tectonic shift of Assembly Polls 2022. Kejriwal learnt from his mistakes of 2017, this time he went into polls with a clear Chief Ministerial candidate in the rooted folk hero Bhagwant Singh Mann, built on his anti-corruption plank, and steered clear of being identified with radical elements. AAP is now poised to enter Gujarat and Himachal, again two states where the Congress is the principal adversary of the BJP. AAP is gunning for the Congress vote banks, as the grand old party melts down, leading to the question: is AAP the new Congress?
With massive economic distress, Covid failures and governance crisis, the lesson of 2022 is glaring: the Congress simply cannot take on the BJP or push it on the back foot. Rahul Gandhi is slated to take over as Congress president in September just ahead of the winter polls of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. Will he remain "defeat-proof" and continue to lead his party into defeat after defeat? The whisperings and malcontent in Congress are bound to get more vociferous, as the High Command has again failed to deliver in these elections: the short-sighted change of guard in Punjab bore Rahul Gandhi's imprimatur; Priyanka Gandhi led the party in UP, where it has failed spectacularly.
Along with Kejriwal, Yogi Adityanath is the other big headline of this election. Yogi is the saffron-clad Hindu prelate identified with hard, religious majoritarianism who has an unprecedented second-term win under his belt and can justifiably be called the BJP's No. 2 leader. Kejriwal has expanded his footprint and done what no other leader has been able to - create a political start-up and win two states in a relatively short period, focused on a non-identity politics model of health and education. Kejriwal is not a dynast, he has a middle class connect, he does not bear the baggage of any kind of 'Muslim appeasement' and appeals to a younger demographic tired of politics as usual.
So will the two new political disruptors Arvind Kejriwal and Yogi Adityanath be potential national rivals, if not in 2024 then perhaps in 2029? Both will still be relatively young, 61 and 57, respectively. An IIT-educated engineer versus a saffron-clad monk: can Indian politics get a more unlikely yet fascinating contest?
(Sagarika Ghose is a senior journalist and author.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.