Congress, BJP defending the turf: Two national parties are defending one of their key turfs each this time — the BJP in Uttar Pradesh and the Congress in Punjab. To understand the importance of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab in the scheme of things of the BJP and the Congress, respectively, note the contribution that these States make to their national strength. Eleven of the Congress’s 52 Lok Sabha seats — 20% — comes from Punjab. Of the BJP’s 301 Lok Sabha seats, 62 i.e 20% comes from Uttar Pradesh. The BJP and the Congress are not facing each other, however, as they do in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. The Opposition space is in a flux in both States. The Samajwadi Party (SP) is drawing crowds in Uttar Pradesh, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is a talking point in Punjab, but incumbents appear to have an upper hand at the start.
Leadership questions: If the BJP wins Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath will emerge as the prospective successor to Mr. Modi. His brand campaign in recent months puts the spotlight on him as an unapologetically brash Hindu leader who is turning around India’s biggest State. Unlike other Chief Ministers of the party. Mr. Adityanath has already established himself outside the shadow of Mr. Modi. In the Congress, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is in charge of its Uttar Pradesh strategy; and she chose Navjot Singh Sidhu as party president in Punjab. The party’s performance will reflect on her leadership skills, and influence internal debates on her role.
Dalit politics at the crossroads: Dalit politics in the heartland, dominated by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) until some years ago, is at the crossroads. The BSP, which has been in power in Uttar Pradesh several times in the past, appears to be on terminal decline. It had a strong presence in Punjab too, though it never won power. The BJP has made significant inroads among the Dalits, at the cost of the BSP in Uttar Pradesh. In Punjab, the Dalits have largely voted for the Congress in the past, and the party is trying to consolidate them following the appointment of Charanjit Singh Channi, a Dalit, as Chief Minister. The outcomes of these Assembly elections may give some indication of how Dalit will politics will evolve from here on. The BJP and the Congress are both trying to expand their acceptance among the Dalits.
Two models of regional politics at test: The SP in Uttar Pradesh represents backward politics led by a dominant caste; the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab helms a minority religious politics. Two distinct models in the spectrum of regional political formations in India. Both are facing a crisis, as their traditional mobilisation strategies are now weak, and their corruption-ridden dynastic politics is increasingly unacceptable to the electorate.
Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur, Punjab and Goa will litigate some key political questions that will have resonance across the country. There are at least six defining issues of these Assembly elections. Here’s a quick take.
A minority problem: The BJP is practically non-existent in Punjab; and the Congress is practically non-existent in Uttar Pradesh— which shows a fundamental struggle that these national parties face. The BJP is impulsively mistrusted by religious minorities, and its efforts to woo Sikhs, remains half-hearted. It swings between accommodation and hostility. The party’s confrontation with Sikhs, a largely farming community, on the question of three controversial farm laws, shrunk its appeal further this time. The Congress on the other hand is seen largely as the party inherently trusted by the religious minorities. The party’s strongholds these days are regions and constituencies that have a significant population of minorities, leaving it unviable in places and situations of communal polarisation. The BJP’s minority problem is that it is not trusted by them; the Congress’s is that its base is largely confined to minority regions. The BJP has been wooing Sikhs in Punjab through measures such as making visits to their sacred sites in Pakistan easier; it perhaps wanted to signal friendship to Catholics in Goa, who constitute a third of the population, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with the Pontiff last year. The BJP wants to get a foothold in Punjab; the Congress wants to get a foothold in Uttar Pradesh, through these elections.
Ambitions of a non-Congress alternative to BJP: There are two Chief Ministers who are testing their politics outside their respective current arenas — Delhi Chief Minister and AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal, and West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee. Both want to emerge as the principal challenger to Mr. Modi ahead of 2024. Mr. Kejriwal’s focus is Punjab where his party had emerged as the second largest in 2017; Ms. Banerjee is focussing on Goa. The AAP is also in Goa, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh; TMC is trying to be a player in Manipur. The national ambitions of these two leaders are based on two different models and two different sets of calculations. Their performance this time can influence the course of national politics ahead of 2024.