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Strong local narratives are being unleashed. National parties BJP and Congress are on notice

BJP president JP Nadda has exhorted party workers to help people suffering in the pandemic and share in their grief instead of getting embroiled in political slugfests. For a party that doesn’t pull punches against rivals, this would need a marked change in approach. Seven states are headed for assembly elections next year and BJP governs six of these. If anti-incumbency is indeed building up, the goodwill that grassroots cadre can generate will prove critical. The top leadership swinging into damage-control mode without losing any time is also a measure of the party’s vitality. In contrast, Congress, BJP’s primary opponent in six of these states, is missing a regular president and organisationally scattered.

Since the 2019 Lok Sabha victory, strong regional undercurrents have undermined BJP’s attempts to bag more state governments. Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala have reiterated the electorate’s preference for sturdy regional parties. The hurriedly cobbled Maha Vikas Aghadi has weathered Maharashtra’s long-raging pandemic cohesively. Amid this resurgence of regional formations, the UP panchayat polls underscoring Samajwadi Party’s resilience will worry BJP. Negotiating the gathering local political headwinds will be BJP’s primary challenge.

Many Indian families have been affected by loss of lives or livelihoods in this second wave. Welfare schemes and cash handouts will not adequately replace lost earnings. Voter disappointment and powerful experiential collective memories will singe incumbent governments unless the opposition betrays phenomenal incompetence. BJP has narrowing wriggle room but the steady stream of Congress defectors in Gujarat, governed by BJP for 23 years, Goa and Manipur, hardly reassure voters of Congress’s political viability and programme clarity. Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand flip every five years but Congress needs credible replacements for faded satraps Virbhadra Singh and Harish Rawat, with elections turning increasingly presidential.

Punjab, where BJP is a minor player, remains Congress’s to lose. Even here Congress is its own worst enemy, as dissidence resurfaces. For a change, the toolkit controversy saw Congress stoutly defend its narrative. Yet it needs to recognise how BJP is responding promptly to a fast-changing political scenario. As the political ballast of BJP’s post-2014 ascendancy, UP will corner much of the Modi-Shah-Nadda triumvirate and RSS’s attention. In asking local leaders and cadres to step up, BJP is already on the move. The pandemic may be acting as a decentralising force in Indian politics. Will Congress wake up to what BJP may already have sensed?



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This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.



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