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Upcoming state polls will test India's pro-Hindu leaders

Bigger states like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab will be a litmus test for PM Modi and Yogi Adityanath, his likely successor

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Published: January 10, 2022 10:26 AM GMT

Updated: January 10, 2022 10:30 AM GMT

Upcoming state polls will test India's pro-Hindu leaders

Indian PM Narendra Modi (right) with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath launches welfare schemes for women at the confluence of the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati in Allahabad on Dec. 21. (Photo: AFP)

India is once again in election mode even as daily Covid-19 cases rise at an unprecedented pace. Five crucial states including the most populous and communally charged Uttar Pradesh and the Sikh-dominated Punjab, both in the north, are going to the polls in February.

The Election Commission of India has also announced poll schedules for Uttarakhand in the Himalayan foothills, known for its Hindu pilgrimage sites, besides Goa in the west and Manipur in the northeast, both having substantial Christian populations.

The stakes will be high for India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh, where the Hindu monk-turned-politician Yogi Adityanath is the chief minister.

The state is also home to the upcoming Ram temple at Ayodhya — a political issue that has helped propel pro-Hindu forces to the center stage of Indian politics — and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency of Varanasi.

“The road to power in Delhi is usually via Uttar Pradesh,” is an oft-repeated line of Modi’s trusted lieutenant and federal Home Minister Amit Shah, who also doubles up as the chief electoral strategist for the pro-Hindu BJP.

Modi’s past successes in parliamentary polls in 2014 and 2019 are largely attributed to his party’s success in Uttar Pradesh. The province sends the largest contingent of 80 members of the Lok Sabha, the elected lower house of the Indian parliament.

This electoral advantage, though, is accompanied by a rider — smaller castes are generally opposed to Yadav domination and tend to unite against the Muslims

The state is run in a ruthless manner by the saffron-clothed Adityanath after being virtually given a free hand by the Modi-Shah duo after the last provincial elections in 2017.

Born Ajay Singh Bisht in 1972, the 50-year-old chief minister is fast emerging as the new face of the BJP after Modi, who is past 70 years now. His unapologetic, Hindu chauvinistic rhetoric is a crowd puller in states as far off as Karnataka in the south and Tripura in the northeast.

The Yogi’s main competitor is Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party (Party of Socialists) who was the chief minister between 2012 and 2017.  The party enjoys a groundswell of support among the state’s influential peasant-pastoral Yadav caste fellows and Muslims, who have a substantial presence in pockets.

This electoral advantage, though, is accompanied by a rider — smaller castes are generally opposed to Yadav domination and tend to unite against the Muslims.

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The Congress party, which dominated Uttar Pradesh politics in the initial decades after independence, has lost much ground to the BJP and regional parties over the years.

It is now solely banking on the waning charisma of the Gandhi dynasty in the form of Priyanka Gandhi, daughter of Congress president Sonia Gandhi and sister of Rahul Gandhi, who lost the family’s long-held parliamentary constituency of Amethi in the state in 2019.   

“It’s all good to have a charismatic campaigner and leader in Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra. But the Congress party’s biggest handicap is its organizational weakness. In the past seven years, nothing was done to improve it,” says Tushar Bhadra, a Modi supporter from Varanasi.

There are also concerns that minority Muslim votes may get split between the Samajwadi Party and Congress, as with the All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), a political party based in the southern city of Hyderabad representing the rights and interests of India’s Muslims.

Opponents of the AIMIM allege it is propped up by the BJP to split the minority Muslim votes.

The BJP could be hoping for a split in the minority Sikh votes in Punjab as well with a four-cornered contest in the offing between itself, the Congress, Akali Dal (a provincial party of Sikhs) and the Delhi-based Aam Aadmi Party.

Punjab is a sensitive state as it shares a border with Pakistan and was witness to the Sikh separatist Khalistani movement in the eighties

The BJP will be banking on its newfound partner, the Punjab Lok Congress, floated by the former chief minister and disgruntled Congressman Captain Amarinder Singh, who fell out with the Gandhis after a change of leadership in the state.

The retired army officer who hails from a princely family had a long stint as a Congress leader, including as the state chief minister, until he was replaced by a Dalit, Charanjit Singh Channi, recently.

Punjab is a sensitive state as it shares a border with Pakistan and was witness to the Sikh separatist Khalistani movement in the eighties

The BJP’s anti-Pakistan nationalist rhetoric notwithstanding, it has had to play second fiddle to its former ally Akali Dal in the state.

This year’s run-up has got further complicated with India’s ruling party claiming a security breach in Punjab as the prime minister’s cavalcade was held up on a flyover for 20 minutes while on the way to the border town of Ferozepur on Jan. 5.

The BJP triggered a major political row by aggressively highlighting how the Congress government in Punjab had compromised the PM’s security.

“As the issue is related to the security of the prime minister of India and that too in a state which has a history of Sikh terrorism, the entire narrative could change by the time elections are held,” opined political analyst Vidyarthi Kumar.

The Supreme Court of India took cognizance of the matter even as the federal and provincial governments initiated separate probes pushing their own versions of the contentious incident.

The outcome of the elections in the five states will be crucial in predicting Modi’s fate in the national elections slated to be held in 2024

India has in the past lost two prime ministers to terrorism. Indira Gandhi fell to bullets fired by Sikh bodyguards while her son Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) suicide squad.

Hence, the raking up of a political controversy ahead of the Punjab elections is not without good reason.

The Sikh farmers of Punjab successfully opposed and compelled the repeal of Modi’s pet farm laws to reform India’s agricultural sector last November.

It was the presence of a group of Sikh farmers that reportedly held up Modi’s cavalcade, though their leaders said they were simply protesting and never intended to harm the prime minister.

The outcome of the elections in the five states will be crucial in predicting Modi’s fate in the national elections slated to be held in 2024.

The results in Uttar Pradesh will seal the fate of BJP’s top leaders, Modi in Delhi and Yogi Adityanath in his state. “How much that will change the larger Hindutva politics will be a matter of concern and academic interest,” according to Bhadra.

Nirendra Dev is a New Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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