With seven states will go to polls next year, the stakes are naturally high for the Bharatiya Janata Party amid concerns of an unexpected erosion of support due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. While the terms of the legislative assemblies of Punjab, Goa, Manipur and Uttarakhand end in March 2022, that of the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly will conclude in May, Himachal Pradesh in October and Gujarat in December. The challenge this time around for the BJP, which is often termed an election machine, is unmistakably different. One, there is visible anger among the electorate — even the most ardent of BJP supporters — over the manner in which the citizenry was virtually left to fend for itself during the merciless onslaught of the second Covid wave. Secondly, crucial poll-bound states like Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Goa, have witnessed some intense infighting either within the BJP or the NDA in the recent past and there are near-term concerns that the differences may escalate as polls near.
In Uttarakhand, for instance, the discontent within the party ranks was so high that the high command had to replace the chief minister. The developments in Uttar Pradesh, on the other hand, played out more openly with some party MLAs publicly accusing the leadership of turning a blind eye to the woes of the people as the pandemic ripped through the lives and livelihoods of their families and loved ones. The BJP’s top leadership was quick to sense the growing discontent within the party and its support base and knew that the damage control needs to begin fast before it causes more harm. Uttar Pradesh has been critical to the BJP’s fortunes in Lok Sabha elections both in 2014 and again, in 2019. To say that the BJP would allow the situation to spiral out of control less than a year before the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections would be naive to say the least.
With its hands full, the first clear indication of a direct attempt by the central leadership of the party to salvage the situation in Uttar Pradesh came when the party dispatched BJP General Secretary (Organisation) BL Santhosh to the state to take stock of the situation. Santhosh held one-to-one meetings with several leaders including Deputy Chief Ministers Dinesh Sharma and Keshav Prasad Maurya. Days later, CM Yogi Adityanath went to Delhi to meet PM Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP chief JP Nadda.
Following Yogi’s meeting with PM Modi and Shah, AK Sharma, a former bureaucrat and close aide of PM Modi was appointed UP BJP’s vice president. BL Santhosh again visited Uttar Pradesh between June 20 and June 22 along with BJP vice-president and UP in-charge Radha Mohan Singh. The two leaders not only held meetings with senior RSS functionaries in Lucknow and a core committee meeting of BJP leaders was then held at CM Yogi Adityanath’s official residence. For now, the BJP has manged to dispel the leadership debate going into polls in UP.
The situation, however, has not been favourable for the BJP in other poll-bound states as well. Santhosh was rushed to Goa following a lower-than-expected performance under the leadership of CM Pramod Sawant. The exit of Goa Forward Party from the NDA has already dented the BJP’s prospects and the challenge being posed by Goa health minister Vishwajit Rane, a former Congress leader, in no cause for comfort either. In Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home turf, the party is leaving nothing to chance. Having faced a formidable challenge from the Congress in the last elections, and the Aam Aadmi Party also announcing to contest all seats, the party has deputed national general secretary Bhupender Yadav to take control of things ahead of the polls scheduled for December 2022.
The concern within the party’s top leadership became apparent when Home minister Amit Shah said that the nation did well under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in controlling the second wave of Covid-19. BJP president JP Nadda mirrored the remarks. The manner in which the NDA government under PM Modi fought Covid-19 was admirable and reflected India’s strength, he said. The leaders lauded the PM for ramping up Oxygen supply and enhancing infrastructures required to fight COVID-19. The entire BJP machinery was recently involved in thanking PM Modi for providing free vaccines to all eligible citizens.
The stand suggesting that the government did well in the second wave, though unpopular, was directed more to the party rank and file to get their house in order and snub any plans of dissent in an important year for the BJP. Nadda has already asked all states to hold executive council meetings between June 21 to June 30 to plug the loopholes and strengthen the party. Nadda also held a meeting of party general secretaries earlier this month and asked them to work on their respective states to mitigate concerns.
With the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic becoming one of its biggest concerns, the image-makeover exercise to portray a positive image of the government is understandable. Going into the 2024 general elections, Uttar Pradesh remains one of the most important battlegrounds for the BJP as well as Prime Minister Modi. Any dent in the BJP’s fortunes in these states can cause irreparable harm to the party on a national scale. That is one scenario the BJP would definitely like to avoid.