In a democracy, a government is the product of ideological conflict resolution. But not anymore. In most democracies today, individuals are ideologies themselves and voters often ignore their political outlook.
From Lucknow to Ludhiana, the skylines of poll-bound states are dominated by banners and hoardings of leaders pitching their political wares, most prominent among them being chief ministers eyeballing voters. There is no ideological idiom, only candidate cut-outs. If one party is marketing a Dalit, another boasts of its candidate’s non-dynastic credentials. During the past decade, every region has produced a new local Indira, Vajpayee or Modi, both as the party’s face and unstoppable force.
Outfits that couldn’t manage the magic mask for mandate invariably flop at the hustings. The dominance of non-Gandhi personalities such as Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik, Jagan Mohan Reddy, M K Stalin and Chandrashekar Rao indicates the rise of homegrown leaders who can stall the saffron juggernaut stabled in New Delhi.
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Hence, it is no wonder that for the first time, all parties have declared their CM candidates in the upcoming Assembly elections. Even the 135-year-old Congress needs a winnable face at both the state and the national level to ratchet up its score. Until now, the two national parties have been averse to naming their future helmsmen. But now, the BJP has almost declared its nominees in all four states it rules. Where it doesn’t or even expects to grab even double digits, it has aligned with various factions to keep the saffron standard flapping in the winds of change.
The question now is not about which party will win, but who the new chief minister will be. Even in smaller states like Goa, Manipur, Uttarakhand and Punjab, the symbols of governance and leadership are individuals like Charanjit Channi who was recently catapulted as Punjab’s CM and is the front runner against veterans like Amarinder Singh and Sukhbir Singh Badal. This time, Sukhbir will be leading the Akali Dal for the first time since previous campaigns were captained by his father Parkash Singh Badal. AAP has announced former folk singer Bhagwant Mann for the catbird seat. Channi and Mann are the rising symbols of an aspirational Punjab which can see a generational and social transformation this election.
Barring last-minute mergers and acquisitions, both the BJP and the Akalis are likely to surrender their unique space to rival parties piloted by new and younger faces. The growing demand for declaring the chief minister in advance has spurred the emergence of a younger leadership in most states. Of the dozen-odd aspirants, half are less than fifty years — Akhilesh Yadav and Yogi Adityanath in UP, Mann in Punjab, Pramod Sawant and Amit Palekar in Goa and Pushkar Singh Dhami in Uttarakhand. Amongst the seniors are Punjab’s Amarinder Singh and Manipur’s N Biren Singh.
Indian elections became personality-driven from the day Indira Gandhi became the prime minister in 1966. For the next decade, votes were wooed in her name or against her. She imposed loyalists as Chief Ministers and changed them at will. Hardly any Congress CM could complete the term. Son Rajiv and later Sonia followed Indira’s policy of destabilising regional satraps, sparking massive desertions. Prodigals like Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee, and VP Singh floated their own enterprises. A party, that ruled over two-thirds of the states until the mid-‘80s, was reduced to running just three states.
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As the Congress shrank and its leadership fumbled, the BJP moved into the room. While Vajpayee and Advani expanded its geographical and social base, it was Modi who stormed the nation, touting his distinct administrative skills. After creating national history in 2014, he went on to win state after state. By 2018, the BJP with its allies governed 18 states. Modi initiated a generational change in the BJP leadership. He picked younger people from nowhere to play significant roles in the party and the government. But in spite of his huge popularity, he couldn’t defeat local leaders like Arvind Kejriwal, Naveen Patnaik and the Lalu-Nitish combo in state elections. The slogan of double engine sarkar was coined to encash Modi’s charisma since the local leadership wasn’t powerful enough.
Of the dozen Assembly elections held since 2014, BJP won the majority in the first round but started losing in the second because Congress and other rivals had better coxswains. Modi’s iconic image couldn’t compensate the deficiency. The BJP lost power in Maharashtra and Punjab. It couldn’t win Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Rajasthan. It failed to defeat Mamata. It retained Assam only thanks to the dynamic and pragmatic Himanta Sarma who had defected from the Congress before the previous election. Moreover, state electorates are back to making the distinction between the PM and the CM.
In 2017, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand had voted for the saffron urged by the Modi factor. Now UP has a local leader in Yogi Adityanath who is seen as an honest and decisive commander. By placing his image along with Modi’s on poll publicity material, the BJP is leveraging the monk’s potential to attract extra votes. Retaining Uttar Pradesh for a second term is necessary for the BJP’s survival. It can ignore losses in other states, but a setback in Uttar Pradesh in terms of the Lok Sabha seat calculations will not only minimise Modi’s authority but also eliminate Yogi’s spin as the future saffron mascot.
It will signal the rise of Akhilesh Yadav as the new giant killer and complete Mayawati’s decimation. However, if the BJP wins all four states, it will succeed in putting in place new and young leadership to take over the national command in the future. The electoral outcome in 2022 will decide the future relevance of the Congress and AAP, too. Should Channi pull it off, Punjab will provide Congress with a major Dalit leader after a long time.
Whatever be the final result, these polls will define both the battle lines and the contours of the new regional leadership. It can also mark the titanic shift of power from the Centre to the states. As New Delhi ages, the states are getting new vigour and vitality. For the political animals who drink from the fountain of youth, the thirst for power is an unending obsession.