Tectonic shift in India’s political terrain

The Aam Aadmi Party was, not too long ago, the favourite in Punjab. Arvind Kejriwal appeared something of a hero, riding in to rescue the state from a decade of misgovernance. The Congress was its nearest rival, with the Shiromani Akali Dal’s prospects as SAD as its acronym. The joker in the pack, Navjot Singh Sidhu, appeared set to lend his dynamic drollery to the AAP after having quit the BJP and his Rajya Sabha seat in a blaze of buffoonery.

The political terrain in India shifts with the rapidity of costume changes in a Bollywood item number. In eight weeks, the scenario in the election-bound states of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab has undergone a tectonic shift, with no-hopers becoming contendors and vice-versa.

The Aam Aadmi Party was, not too long ago, the favourite in Punjab. Arvind Kejriwal appeared something of a hero, riding in to rescue the state from a decade of misgovernance. The Congress was its nearest rival, with the Shiromani Akali Dal’s prospects as SAD as its acronym. The joker in the pack, Navjot Singh Sidhu, appeared set to lend his dynamic drollery to the AAP after having quit the BJP and his Rajya Sabha seat in a blaze of buffoonery.

The comic connection failed, when the AAP refused to give Sidhu & Sidhu (the husband-and-wife team of Navjot Singh and Navjot Kaur) the role they wanted, presumably that of chief minister-in-waiting. Then, they played footsie with the splinter group of the AAP led by Sucha Singh Chhotepur and with the Congress, which the power couple had described as “not a good match” just a fortnight earlier.

Captain Amarinder Singh, giving in to party vice-president Rahul Gandhi, has issued the Sidhus an open invitation, much against his own inclinations. Awaaz-e-Punjab, Sidhu’s political outfit, has yet to give awaaz to its political plans. With its credibility and goodwill ebbing, the farce force has run out of steam.

The AAP has lost ground and it looks as if the contest will be, as usual, between the white turbans and the blue turbans, i.e., the Congress and the Akalis. The SAD-BJP alliance, not even in contention a couple of months ago, is now hopeful of engineering a split in the anti-incumbency votes. If the dalits (comprising a whopping 32 per cent of Punjab’s population, the highest of any state) inclined towards the AAP is divided, so much the better for the Akalis. The Hindus (38 per cent) will in any case waver between the Congress and BJP.

The SAD’s election strategist par excellence, deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, would like a weak – but not too weak – AAP. His overt strategy is likely to focus on ameliorating the public image of  his government as being economically incompetent, corrupt and negligent in addressing the drug mafia and presenting it as development-oriented. His covert strategy will probably be directed at splitting votes. So the election, which looked like a done deal for the AAP, is now wide open.

Moving further south and east, in UP the most intense Yadav war since the Mahabharata (in which post-Kurukshetra internecine strife wiped out Krishna’s clan in toto) has cemented the Bahujan Samaj Party’s advantage. The Dalit-Muslim combine envisaged by the BSP now looks like a sure thing. Mayawati appears stronger, with her solid dalit votebase augmented by the minority vote. If the Congress was hoping that an insecure Mayawati would be open to an alliance, it will now have to rethink its strategy. So should the BJP, which had declared that the Samajwadi Party was its main rival in the state.

Interestingly, both factions of the Samajwadi Party have quietly reached out to the Congress and a couple of the splinter groups in the state. There’s little doubt that public sympathy, particularly in the younger demographic, is with chief minister Akhilesh Yadav. He’s successfully projected both courage and humility in his battle against the old guard.

The subtext is that the Yadav family must unite against the trouble-making “outsider” and that his ailing/ageing father, clearly under the influence of said “outsider”, is more to be pitied than censured. Added to the mix is a step-mother (much younger than her husband the patriarch) who is believed to be very much in league with the forces of discord. The scenario strikes an emotional chord with the public at large, probably because it has a certain resonance with their own lives. Comparisons with mythological characters – the blind king Dhritarashtra (Mahabharata) and the scheming step-mother Kaikeyi (Ramayana) – are inevitable.

While the CM has said he will not jettison the khandaan and go solo, instead preferring to buzz off to vanvaas with his faithful wife at his side (Ramayana redux), that possibility cannot be ruled out (this being Kalyug, after all).  And if the charismatic Priyanka Gandhi chooses to make her presence felt across the state – well, all bets are off. Political pundits will be kept busy configuring and reconfiguring the various permutations and combinations of dalit, minority, yadav, OBC, brahmin and thakur votes.

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