Leadership Stakes in 2022

Formidable regional players led by master strategist Sharad Pawar pose a challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unchallenged pole position in national politics. 

By Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi continues to remain the unchallenged national leader aft er seven-and-a-half years in power. his popularity ratings have dipped a bit, but there is no credible challenge to him. Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who continues to wage a rhetorical battle of repartees against the prime minister still seems to be missing the mark. Mr Modi remains unaffected. The Prime Minister has in Union home Minister Amit Shah a trustworthy lieutenant, who executes the prime minister’s plans in the government and on the campaign trail of elections to the state assemblies. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah had indeed faced a resounding defeat in West Bengal at the hands of Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo and chief minister Mamata Banerjee, but the two top Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders enter 2022 on a fresh note. But a great change in 2022 as five of the states – Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa, and Manipur – is that the BJP is not on a strong wicket.

Amit Shah, Union home Minister since 2019, former BJP president from 2014 to 2019, former UP in-charge in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election, has moved from the margins to the centre of BJP hierarchy. Of greater importance than any of the posts he had held is that he is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most trusted man. Shah is seen as the architect of the overwhelming BJP victory in UP in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the man who engineered the 2019 Lok Sabha election victory as party chief, and the man who piloted key BJP legislation of abrogating Article 370 for Jammu and Kashmir and for bifurcating the border state. he is also the man who has pushed through the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019. Th e question that is asked about him is whether his career has peaked because he is not seen as Prime Minister Modi’s successor because of the silent resentment against him in the party. he is a powerful figure in the party and in the government. 

PM Modi has a battle on his hands in 2024. And the state assembly elections in 2022 will be a prelude to the 2024 national election 

The UP, which is a key state for the BJP for ideological and electoral reasons, is turning out to be a tough battlefield. UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath faces unrest and discontent in the party cadre and among the people. Some of the key members of most backward castes like Swami Prasad Maurya, who went to the BJP from BSP in 2017 had walked into the Samajwadi Party (SP), and this clearly reflects that there is unhappiness with the BJP establishment in the state among the influential sections of the weaker castes of society. There are also signs that the party will have stiff resistance from the agitating farmers in western UP poses a further challenge to the ruling party.

There is the unspoken tense equation between Chief Minister Adityanath on the one hand, and Modi and Shah. Also, the party’s supreme duo may not want Adityanath to be too popular or to become too big because he could be a challenger in the party’s leadership stakes in the future if not immediately. A setback to Adityanath is on the cards if the BJP were to win but without the overwhelming majority of 2017, and that would push down the importance of the monk from Gorakhpur. It is often forgotten that despite the glue of Hindutva ideology that binds the top echelons and the rank and file of the party, personality clashes and personal egos have their play in the party. The BJP may want to believe, and it may want to project that it is a disciplined and unified party, but internal divisions in a successful party are inevitable. The BJP cannot escape the natural trend. So, the BJP in UP in 2022 is not a party without a rival as it had become in 2017. It is a party under siege, and it is also suffering from internal stresses.

This affects Modi’s image and standing. The Prime Minister derives much of his parliamentary strength from the numbers of members from the state, nearly 90 per cent in 2014 and 70 per cent in 2019. And he is himself a member of the Lok Sabha from Varanasi. Surprisingly, the ideological advantage of representing the traditional seat of Hinduism seems to have loosened. And the advantage of the commencement of the construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya, a key part of the core agenda of the party for 30 years, does not seem to be paying much dividend though the party expects that it will derive huge electoral benefit from it. The impact of Covid-19 and the economic distress it has caused to poor people, especially the migrant labour, is simmering beneath the surface and it is likely to affect the party’s The BJP’s parliamentary majority is crucially dependent on the number of seats from UP. UP is not a cakewalk for BJP in 2022 and that is a sea change from 2014 and 2019. If BJP comes back to power in UP, Adityanath will emerge a stronger leader, and the speculation that is the successor to Mr Modi as prime minister will become stronger.

Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav has at last managed to emerge as a leader in his own right because he is carrying the election campaign on his own shoulders apart from the fact that the party enjoys the traditional backing of the Yadavs. He made the strategic alliance with Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) of Jayant Chaudhury, son of late Ajit Singh and grandson of former Prime Minister and strong leader of Jats and farmers, Charan Singh. Akhilesh Yadav has also moved away from his former allies, the Congress, and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), realizing that these tie-ups have not been fruitful. With Mayawati and her BSP in decline in state politics, Akhilesh Yadav has emerged as the credible alternative to Adityanath and his party, the SP, an alternative to the BJP. He would then take his place along with other opposition parties to challenge Mr Modi and the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Priyanka Gandhi’s energetic and purposeful campaign, with the focus on women and youth, has revived the spirit of the party cadres and Congress has become a credible contestant

Congress general secretary and UP in-charge Priyanka Gandhi who is spearheading the party’s campaign in the state election is now the face of the Congress. Congress has been struggling to regain its foothold for nearly a quarter century, and it looks like Priyanka Gandhi’s energetic and purposeful campaign, with the focus on women and youth, has revived the spirit of the party cadres and Congress has become a credible contestant in the elections. Whether Priyanka Gandhi will contest the elections, and whether she could hope to be the chief minister of the state is still an open question. If the Congress were to project her as the chief ministerial face of the party, then the stakes would be high, especially for the Congress. The Grand Old Party (GOP) is not sure whether Priyanka would be able to pull off the electoral miracle. Hence the hesitancy on the part of Priyanka Gandhi as well as the party. The political fortunes of the Congress in the UP elections will have its impact on the issue of the party’s central leadership. It might impel Rahul Gandhi to take over as president of the party, which he has been refusing to do since the Lok Sabha election defeat in 2019.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M K Stalin will be the bulwark of anti-BJP opposition in the South

The partial revival of the Congress in UP would also go a long way in making the party an effective nucleus for the opposition unity against the BJP in 2024. And Priyanka Gandhi would emerge as the leader in the party who has spearheaded the Congress comeback both in UP and in the country. She would become an effective second-in-command to Rahul Gandhi at the national level. The position of the Nehru-Gandhis at the head of the Congress party would be stronger than ever. So, 2022 could be the year where Priyanka Gandhi would make an impact in the UP elections, and by doing so strengthen the Congress as well her brother Rahul Gandhi in national politics.

Varun Gandhi emerged as a dissenting voice within party, who has been constantly supporting farmers. He is one of the leading figures to carry forward a new sort of optimistic politics. He says that he doesn’t want to confine his politics to polarization or populism. His pro-people ideology aims to prioritize youth, women, farmers, and the common working class. He keeps himself engaged in the study of the Indian economic situation. He has done a massive volume on rural India based on facts and figures, and what needs to be done to change the face of India’s villages. A member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a Member of Parliament from Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh since 2009, he has emerged as a promising leader of the future. At one time, he even seemed to have won the approval of top brass of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as well, and his mother, Menaka Gandhi, had even expressed the view that he is a good fit as the BJP’s chief ministerial face of Uttar Pradesh. He is an outsider in the BJP. While the family name is giving Rahul and Priyanka some political heft in Congress, the family name has turned out to be a liability for Varun Gandhi.

Without its traditional ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the prospects for the BJP in Punjab look gloomy. The SAD too has lost much of its ground. Former chief minister and Congress rebel Captain Amrinder Singh is sure to hurt the fortunes of the ruling Congress in the state, but that may not ensure victory for his new party, Lok Congress, or for his new ally, the BJP. One of the surprises in the politics of the state is the emergence of Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi, a rank outsider, as a formidable leader, who has overshadowed the assertive and attention-grabbing

With Mayawati and her BSP in decline in state politics, Akhilesh Yadav has emerged as the credible alternative to Adityanath and his party

Navjot Singh Sidhu, president of the state unit of the Congress. If the Congress manages to win the election for his party because of the multi-cornered contest, then he becomes the new star of 2022. Right now, he shows the promise of being a star. The new, and yet not so new, player in Punjab politics is Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) of Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister of Delhi. AAP’s success in Punjab depends on the reputation of Kejriwal as the man who delivers who promises, and the reputation of the AAP government in Delhi as a government that has improved the lives of the people. It is necessary for the Congress to retain Punjab because it is one of the few states where the party is in power on its own, apart from Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. And as Channi is the face of the party in the state, its performance in the elections depends on his credibility. The Congress election campaign in Punjab squarely rests on the shoulders of Channi more than that of the supposedly charismatic Sidhu. The central leadership of the party stays in the background. The only outsider who has a role in the Punjab elections is Delhi CM Kejriwal. AAP’s political fortunes in the state depend on his image. Neither Mr Modi nor Mr Shah are sticking their neck out as it were in the Punjab election. Capt. Amrinder Singh would be leading the campaign.

Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar, though over 80, remains an indomitable player in the national politics though his party has only a very limited base in Maharashtra, and a faint presence in some other places in the country. But he is the master strategist who has outflanked the BJP in the state by stitching up an unlikely alliance with Shiv Sena along with the Congress.

It is his strategic thinking that will be a key factor in the opposition parties joining hands to defeat the BJP in the 2024 elections. He is not in the contention in the prime ministerial stakes because he has found that he is not made for it when he dropped from the race with P V Narasimha Rao in 1991. But he has shown the political determination to defeat the BJP.

The man Modi and Shah must fear two years from now is not Rahul Gandhi or even Mamata Banerjee but Pawar because he is the opposition mastermind. Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray will be of immense help to Pawar in the opposition moves against the BJP because Thackeray effectively undermines the Hindutva support base of the BJP. Thackeray has shown that he is the sober Sena chief who will fight the BJP for the prime honours. With Maharashtra out of the BJP’s sphere of influence, the opposition parties are stronger across the country, with Mamata Banerjee’s TMC lending support from the western end of the country.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M K Stalin will be the bulwark of anti-BJP opposition in the south. That will not leave much choice for Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y. Jaganmohan Reddy much room. If they do not join the opposition, they will remain marginal players in national politics. Though news of Chandrasekhara Rao wanting to play a role in national politics, especially in opposing BJP, has been doing the rounds for quite sometime now, he would not be effective unless he joins hands with Stalin, Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar, Uddhav Thackeray and Akhilesh Yadav.

Prime Minister Modi will find himself surrounded by a host of formidable opposition leaders across the country, and his relatively easy Lok Sabha election victories of 2014 and 2019 might be a thing of the past. He has a battle on his hands in 2024. And the state assembly elections in 2022 will be a prelude to the 2024 national election. The BJP would need allies in 2024. With long-time trusted allies like Shiv Sena and Shiromani Akali Dal breaking away from the BJP, Mr Modi and Mr Shah will find the going tough in 2024, and the challenging situation in UP and Punjab show how things will be in 2024. This will be a year of hard rethinking for Mr Modi because he has lost the sheen of a newcomer which he had in 2014 and that of an energetic prime minister in 2019. In the aftermath of the two-year long pandemic and the immense economic distress it has caused the economy and the poor people, the challenge is immense. Rhetoric will not impress people anymore. Nor mere promises of good days. Hard reality stares the Prime Minister in the face. He will have to change his tactics in 2022 to fight the electoral battle in 2024.

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