The hill state’s characteristic inclination for non-Congress, non-BJP parties, and the waning popularity of the BJP, could trigger a three-way electoral contest next year, with Arvind Kejriwal’s outfit the likely beneficiary
The 21 years of Uttarakhand’s existence have been marked by both national parties—Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—taking turns to claim power. However, right since the first Assembly elections in 2002, voters in the hill state have repeatedly indicated a strong desire for a third political alternative. That propensity for a triangular contest gives new entrant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) a good chance to make waves in the upcoming polls of 2022.
In 2002, the Congress and the BJP together got just over half the votes, with 48% of the electorate picking smaller parties and independent candidates. Five years later, 38% voters preferred parties other than the Congress and the BJP—still an unusually high share. In 2012, the share declined only marginally to 35%.
It was only in the 2017 elections that the voters turned clearly towards one side: the BJP got nearly 47% votes, largely riding on the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But that factor could be on the wane as Modi has lost some of his appeal of late. Traditional dominant-caste support for the BJP could weaken in 2022, and Muslims, too, may look for new options: the other big contender, Congress, has hardly been their top choice in the past.
All this is likely to propel the AAP into becoming a serious third force in Uttarakhand politics. Arvind Kejriwal’s party has already declared Colonel Ajay Kothiyal, an ex-Armyman, as its chief ministerial candidate. This is certainly a good beginning for the party, as there is still no clarity about the CM candidates of the two big parties.
The 70 Assembly constituencies in Uttarakhand are spread across three regions of the state: Garhwal, Kumaun and Maidan. Barring a slightly stronger presence for the Congress in Kumaun, the two national parties have a support base that is more or less evenly spread across the three regions.
But so do other smaller parties, such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Samajwadi Party (SP), and Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD). This is a sign that across the state, voters have shown a uniform desire to look for a third alternative over several elections. Even in 2017, smaller parties were able to garner around 20% votes across the three regions.
The AAP, therefore, has its task cut out: tap on this sentiment, and trigger a three-way contest. It may be able to muster support in all the three regions and not just remain concentrated in one or two regions.
Even before the Congress’ rout in 2017, the BJP enjoyed the advantage of greater support from dominant caste groups such as Rajputs and Brahmins in Uttarakhand. But until then, the difference in the overall vote share of the two parties had not been much. In 2017, the BJP’s strong showing was in part due to widespread support across various caste groups.
Moreover, dominant caste groups veered even further towards the BJP in 2017, with 53% Rajputs and 52% Brahmins voting for the party, shows survey data from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).
Given the present mood of voters in Uttarakhand, where the BJP government has been mired in allegations of poor governance, one can’t rule out the possibility of some shift among dominant castes away from the party they chose in 2017. This is another factor that spells hope for AAP, as voters have already experienced Congress governments in the past with not-so-favourable results.
One source of support for the AAP could come from Muslim voters. The community, largely seen as not favouring the BJP, hasn’t shown any notable inclination towards the Congress either. The CSDS surveys in 2002 and 2007 found less than 30% Muslim support for the Congress. Most preferred non-BJP, non-Congress parties.
But it soon became clear that smaller parties did not show much promise of emerging as alternatives. In 2012, most Muslims (63%) voted for the Congress. This jumped to 78% in 2017, with the massive polarization reflecting a strong anti-BJP sentiment.
If AAP shows promise, it has a strong chance to attract Muslim voters, as it has managed to do in Delhi. Several other states have witnessed similar shifts among Muslims towards political alternatives, such as the SP in Uttar Pradesh, Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar.
With that very likely to now happen in Uttarakhand, the state looks set to witness a triangular contest early next year.
(Sanjay Kumar is a professor at CSDS, and a political analyst.)
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