Outcome of polls in bellwether states important, but what matters more is manner in which they are fought

As 2021 ended in a spike of communal tensions, it raises fear that politics in 2022 too will be marked by violence. BJP will of course keep religion at core of seven Assembly elections due in 2022

Representational image
Representational image

Harihar Swarup

Even as we enter a new year, 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 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.

In Punjab, the Congress is expected to retain power, but the state will witness an interesting four-corner battle turning into a five-corner one, since a section of farmers have announced that they would contest the election on their own platform.

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 with the BJP pitted against the Congress.

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 the context of Covid uncertainty and economic hardship, it seems already clear that religion and nationalism may 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 some opposition parties like the AAP may 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.

2022 will also be a critical year for the Congress as several of these state elections are technically ‘winnable’. Should it retain Punjab and perform well in other states, the Congress can reorganise itself ahead of the three key Hindi belt elections it won in 2018 – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – and help reaffirm its numero uno position in any future national coalition of the opposition.

Last, the new 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 ended 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 shows that while BJP may face increasing political challenges, 2022 will be the year that confirms whether it has won its cultural ‘war’, which will have lasting effects on India’s democracy.

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