Like festivals, elections now seem to be an annual occurrence. And not unlike festivals, elections too cost money and cause diversion away from the normal. But unlike in the case of festivals, it is in our hands to ensure that elections are held every five years throughout the country, and simultaneously both for the state Legislatures and Parliament. However, for want of a wider consensus, the idea of uniform elections every five years has proved a non-starter.
Thus it is that in 2023 we shall have nine states electing new Assemblies. Virtually the election cycle will run throughout the year before we enter 2024 and hold the big one for Parliament. Some of the states going to the polls in the new year are Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Mizoram and a couple of other states in the Northeast. The energies of politicians will remain focused on electoral battles throughout the year. The polls in these states are to be held in two stages, one in the May-June period and the other in October-November. Public attention — even in the states not going to the polls — will remain on the outcomes in those which will elect new Assemblies. Good for diverting attention of the people from the gnawing bread-and-butter concerns, isn’t it?
Karnataka will witness the poll in the first phase. And it is important for the Bharatiya Janata Party to retain control in the lone Southern state where it commands a major presence. Whether the Narendra Modi factor will overcome anti-incumbency and a lacklustre leadership by Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai will be interesting to watch — although the BJP is already in full flow with its dog-whistle messaging against the minorities, what with the twin issues of the hijab and Uniform Civil Code dominating the daily news cycle in the state. Also, Mr Bommai has undertaken a revision of the caste calculus by re-ordering the reservations for the economically weaker sections among the upper-caste poor. Admittedly, the Congress has a fair chance of ousting the BJP in Karnataka provided it can settle the dispute over chief ministership between the state party chief DK Shivakumar and former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. None in the central leadership of the party commands such moral authority as to be able to resolve the tussle between the two ambitious leaders.
In Chhattisgarh too, where Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel is well placed to retain power, state Health Minister T S Singh Deo could play the spoiler. Mr Singh Deo claims that he was assured by the central leadership that Baghel will make way for him mid-way in the five-year term, but he betrayed his trust. In Madhya Pradesh the ruling party could well retain control, especially when the state Congress is faction-ridden, unable to present a united front against the saffron party. As for Rajasthan, on paper it is an election which is the BJP’s to lose since the bitter feud between Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his bete noire Sachin Pilot is hard to resolve, though the BJP too is yet to settle the leadership question in a forthright manner. In Telangana, Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao seems to be in a position to retain power, even though the BJP has emerged as the main Opposition, aggressively championing the Hindutva cause in a state where the Muslims dominate the entire Hyderabad belt, rooting for Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen.
The Narendra Modi factor is common in all the states going to the polls this year. Into his ninth year as Prime Minister, his appeal to the voter remains strong. Through a generous mix of welfare programmes and incessant Hindutva propaganda, the polity has come to be virtually divided on religious lines, especially with the self-avowedly secular parties in sharp decline for want of popular leaders both at the state and the central level. Despite his arduous 3,000 km-plus trek through the country, only the sycophantic will say that Rahul Gandhi has now acquired a charismatic halo which will transform the fortunes of the Congress party. Besides, the much-touted Opposition unity to challenge the dominant BJP in a one-on-one contest remains illusory. Finally, regardless of the outcome of the State polls this year, Mr Modi remains firmly in contention to retain power after the 2024 Parliamentary poll. Unless something major upsets the BJP applecart, say costly border clashes with China, a third term for Mr Modi is easily in his grasp.
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