Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath waving to the supporters Image Credit: ANI

Results of assembly elections in India, economic unrest in Sri Lanka and constitutional uncertainty in Pakistan — these are just three of the many current indicators that subcontinental politics may be shifting in a decisive manner.

I shall refrain from commenting at length either on Sri Lanka or Pakistan, expect to make one observation about Imran Khan’s farewell speech. It was broadcast live on all the major news channels in India.

This is the first time in living memory that this has happened. What does it signify? First of all, that both the classes and the masses are deeply interested in what is going on in the neighbourhood, especially when it comes to political processes and developments. The fact is that we care about each other, about democracy and peace in the region.

Beyond the regional rivalries, there is a common pursuit of progress and prosperity that South Asians share. India’s rushing both food and fuel to Sri Lanka, as it did vaccines earlier to Nepal and Bangladesh, is proof of this solidarity. But there is a common thread to the political culture that unites the subcontinent that we need to pay greater attention to.

What that is becomes much clearer when we look at the results of the state assembly elections in India. The most important takeaway from these elections was not anti- but pro-incumbency.

Voted back to power

In Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s largest and arguably most complex state not only in terms of political clout, but also caste and regional configurations, Yogi Adityanath’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government was voted back to power. This despite the highly publicised defections and disaffection in several parts of the state.

In Western UP, notwithstanding a year long farmers' protest, the BJP won many more seats than was predicted by the pollsters. In Eastern UP or what is known as the Purvanchal belt, again, the performance of the party was better than expected.

Generally in UP, Adityanath is perceived as a firm leader, with a no-nonsense approach to governance. One of his greatest achievements was the maintenance of law and order. Though the state’s economy actually declined during the Covid-19 pandemic, the people did not punish Adityanath. Why? Because he had won the trust of the electorate.

Moreover, post-Covid, all the stalled development projects were proceeding full speed ahead. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s and Home Minister Amit Shah’s repeated campaign visits also bolstered the confidence of the voters.

They knew that the central government was fully backing UP’s Chief Minister. Though the party’s tally has gone down by 57 seats from 312 to 255, it has still won handsomely, increasingly its vote share from 39.67% to 41.29%.

On the other hand, the main opposition party, the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party, was perceived as representing a much narrower interest-base. A Yadav dominated party, led by a single clan, which itself is dogged by infighting and splits. The BJP, on the other hand, presented a much broader coalition of caste and special interest groups, thus indicating a bigger participatory groundswell which cut across caste lines and included Brahmins, Thakurs, BCs, OBCs, as well as SCs. 

When it comes to the caste calculus, Mayawati’s ghosting herself from the hustle remains one of the puzzles of current UP politics.

Not only has her vote share shrunk from 22.23% to 12.88 %, but the once ruling Bahujan Samaj Party has now been reduced to just one seat. The Congress, which ruled the state for decades after independence, has fared worse than 2017, with just two seats.

BJP's handsome victory

The point I am trying to make will become clearer when we look at the other states that the BJP won — Uttarakhand, Goa, and Manipur. In each of these, especially the first two, the pollsters had predicted a neck-to-neck finish, with the possibility of the ruling party even losing power.

Instead, the BJP improved its tally. In Manipur, too, after ruling the state for the first time under the stewardship of N. Biren Singh, both the party and the CM were returned to power. In Uttarakhand, though the sitting CM, Pushkar Singh Dhami, lost, he was given a second chance by the party. In Goa, Pramod Sawant, who ascended the seat of power on March 19, 2019, has now been sworn in for a second term.

Bhagwant Mann, Punjab CM with Arvind Kejriwal, AAP supremo and Delhi CM Image Credit: AFP

In contrast, the Congress in Punjab, which was in power, shot itself in the foot by humiliating the erstwhile CM, Capt. Amarinder Singh, a Jat Sikh of the Patiala royal family, unleashing former cricketer-comedian Navjot Singh Sidhu against him. But by imposing Charanjit Singh Channi as the CM, and then losing the popular vote in the March hustings, it lost one of its last states.

In its place is Aam Aadmi Party, with its success in Delhi, coupled with the promise of a corruption-free government which will improve the education and health care.

The message is clear: good governance and reduced corruption trumps ideology and identity politics. BJP’s pro-incumbency was not a victory of Hindutva as some have trumpeted. Rather it is vote for a clean government that is pro-people and low on corruption.

It is not the ideology does not matter, nor that caste, region, language, and other local factors are unimportant. But these get a free and unbridled reign only when governance and freedom from corruption are out of the reckoning.

Perhaps, something similar is happening in other parts of the subcontinent too. Voters want their elected representatives to deliver. They will no longer be taken for granted over ideological posturing, whether on communal, regional, or linguistic lines. What is more, the subcontinent prefers a class of politicians who are professional rather than feudal.

What this actually means is that the chances of AAP in suddenly look brighter Himachal Pradesh, which goes to the polls in November 2022. How Punjab's new CM Bhagwant Mann and his AAP government conducts itself in the sensitive border state, which is also the breadbasket of India, will be the key to its future in North India.