A second wave of COVID-19 swept through India in the spring; the extent of its devastation is still unclear. Also unclear is whether it will have political ramifications. Will voters hold state governments accountable for how they mishandled the pandemic, and will the popularity of the central government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), be dented as well, given it should have prepared better too?
The next national elections are to be held in 2024, and no more state elections are to take place in 2021. Next year, however, will see a few of them, and most are to be organized in the early months of 2022. Judging the anger of voters regarding mismanagement will always be more difficult when a state government is ruled by an opposition party – that is, a different one than the BJP and not allied with it. It will be hard to tell how much the electorate assumed the unpreparedness was the fault of the central government, and how much fault lies with the state governments. Obviously, in an opposition-ruled state, an opposition voter may primarily blame the BJP central government, while a BJP voter may primarily blame the opposition state administration. Observing whether the pandemic left an imprint on politics should be easier in the case of BJP-ruled states.
Thus, let’s consider a state that is ruled by the BJP, has been heavily touched by the second wave, and will see elections to its legislative assembly next year — the political fallout of the pandemic may theoretically be observed (or at least assumed) in those polls. In case the BJP does well in states which fulfill these conditions, it may mean that a considerable chunk of the electorate did not hold the party responsible for the tragedy.
As I have argued previously, Modi’s party keeps an undisputed and unparalleled dominance on the level of central rule, and yet has lost in a number of state elections (and its victories in others were not very convincing). In other words, its losses in state-level elections do not necessarily signal a loss of popularity on the national level, and its supremacy on the national level does not guarantee it will keep winning in a majority of state elections. This national superiority may be upheld by such factors as the party’s enormous financial resources, the BJP’s PR machine, the assistance of a part of the media, and a lack of a national alternative. At least one of these factors – the last one – does not always occur on the state level, where in most cases there are strong regional rivals.
The states that will go to polls in 2022 include Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand. Of these, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, both BJP-ruled, should hold elections closer to the end of the year, and thus any pandemic political effects will be harder to establish. Punjab is ruled by the Indian National Congress, and whatever the results of its state election will be, despite the anti-incumbency factor it may not be a cakewalk for the BJP, since Modi’s party has been recently abandoned by its Punjabi ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal.
Which leaves us with Goa, Manipur, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand. Of these, however, the population of three out of four is comparatively not that large by Indian standards, and thus even the local electorate’s wrath with the ruling party will not necessarily indicate a change of national mood. Goa and Manipur should be considered small by this account, Uttarakhand is mid-sized. It is possible that the pandemic already indirectly affected the political situation in Uttarakhand, as the way the chief minister of the state initially responded to the challenge of the second wave was apparently one of the reasons why the BJP recently decided to make him resign, and appointed another politician in his place. But this will make the upcoming verdict of the electorate in this state a bit harder to assess.
This leaves us with Uttar Pradesh (UP). It is India’s most populous state (with over 200 million inhabitants, far more than any other region), and thus sends the largest number of lawmakers to the lower house of the Parliament, the Lok Sabha (80 out of 545, also far more than any other one administrative territory). The timing of the UP elections, two years before the national polls, was always going to be a critical political barometer, even without the pandemic.
But it turns out UP is also one of the states where the horrible effects of the pandemic were very apparent and became a hot political subject. The local government, led by Yogi Adityanath, was seen as trying to partially cover up the scale of death, even by making it harder to take photographs of cremation grounds. As for the veracity of the official number of dead, it is being debated as much in the case of UP as other states, but recent estimates and extrapolations suggest that it was indeed one of the states where the administration has hidden a significant part of the data.
In other words, it is very likely that the second wave of COVID-19 in 2021 did affect the popularity of the BJP in UP, and that this may be a factor in the 2022 assembly elections there. This may not mean that the divided opposition will seize the opportunity; however, of the state’s three major opposition parties, one has been weakened by a recent internal family feud (the Samajwadi Party), one has been so far clueless about its regional strategy (the Indian National Congress), and one has recently suffered humiliating defeats but may yet stage a strong comeback (the Bahujan Samaj Party).
When Yogi Adityanath was made chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 2017, a lot of eyebrows were raised. The politician, and until that moment the head priest of a famous temple, had a strong and devoted following to back him in his region (Gorakhpur) but was regarded as a bit of outsider, not only in terms of the BJP’s national leadership but even in state politics. It is usually more difficult to appoint an outsider to a central post, but it is also easier to push such a person out from the same position without damaging the part writ large. Once he was selected, the party threw its entire PR machinery to back Yogi Adityanath, including the strength of Prime Minister’s Narendra Modi charisma, but the internal balance can still change. In other words, like a balloon dropping its sandbag, in case the BJP assumes that Yogi Adityanath is now reducing more of its popularity than adding to it, it may drop him from the chief minister post to lighten the load. In scapegoating the outsider who was let in for the pandemic problems, the BJP could hope to salvage its national image.