Head-on | How Yogi Adityanath’s rise to national prominence has been the outstanding political feature of 2021

Head-on | How Yogi Adityanath’s rise to national prominence has been the outstanding political feature of 2021

Head-on | How Yogi Adityanath’s rise to national prominence has been the outstanding political feature of 2021

On the evening of 28 January 2021, farmers’ union leader Rakesh Tikait burst into tears. He was about to be arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police. Alarmed protestors began to abandon the protest site on the UP-Delhi border.

In an omen that would come to haunt the Narendra Modi government for the rest of the year, a Central minister ordered the Uttar Pradesh police to back off. No arrest, the terse message said.

Within hours, driven by Tikait’s tears and emboldened by police inaction, thousands of farmers from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh descended on the Uttar Pradesh-Delhi border. Barriers were erected, roads blocked, passersby assaulted.

It took the government 10 months to give in to the farmers’ demands and repeal the progressive farm laws along with other reform measures. The political nature of the farmers’ agitation was exposed by the formation of the Samyukta Samaj Morcha to contest the 2022 Punjab Assembly election. The political outfit comprised 22 breakaway farmers’ unions that had led the agitation.

Why did the government surrender? The reason was obvious: Seven Assembly elections loomed in 2022. The Uttar Pradesh poll, scheduled in the first quarter of 2022, is critical for the BJP for two reasons.

One, victory will set the narrative for the 2024 Lok Sabha election. Two, the Uttar Pradesh Assembly has a rich universe of 403 MLAs. They are vital for the presidential election due in July 2022. Currently, NDA and Opposition numbers for the complex computation of MP and MLA strength that determines presidential vote margins is poised on a knife edge.

Winning Uttar Pradesh by a thin majority would drop the NDA’s current MLA count from 317 in the presidential poll. That would still be enough to get the BJP’s choice of president for 2022-27 voted in, but the margin would be uncomfortably thin.

The rise of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath to national prominence has been the outstanding political feature of 2021. Adityanath drew sharp criticism during the lethal second wave of COVID-19. In May 2021 images of bodies floating in the Ganga shocked the nation. The fact that most were part of longstanding Hindu ceremonial tradition and repeated every year, a view endorsed by the Allahabad High Court, failed to convince both the Opposition and the media.

Adityanath moved swiftly. He ramped up vaccinations and brought Covid fatalities to well below the national average. As the second wave of the pandemic abated, Adityanath turned his attention to infrastructure development. Uttar Pradesh’s state GDP during his chief ministerial tenure has leapfrogged over Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to become the second-largest in India after Maharashtra.

The 2022 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election is portrayed as being propelled by a Modi-Yogi “double-engine”. That reveals how far and how quickly Adityanath has climbed up the BJP’s leadership ladder.

COVID-19

The key concern for the Modi government in 2021 was the COVID-19 pandemic that waxed and waned through the year. In February 2021, daily cases had dropped below 10,000. Fatalities plummeted as well. But even as the first wave seemed to have abated, a second, more lethal wave triggered by the Delta variant swept through India. By May 2021, daily cases had peaked at 412,000; fatalities crossed 4,500 per day.

The government’s vaccination rollout ebbed and flowed. It began cautiously on 16 January 2021. Differences between the Centre and the states caused bitterness. The rollout stuttered.

On 21 June 2021, Prime Minister Modi went on national television to announce a revised vaccine protocol. The rollout would now be controlled by the Centre. Vaccine numbers soon spurted. The target was to fully inoculate every adult Indian by 31 December 2021.

India’s adult population is 940 million. Two doses would imply the administration of 1,880 doses of vaccines. While daily doses had averaged over seven million a day, the target of 31 December was unlikely to be met.

However, by year-end, nearly 90 percent of all adult Indians would have received at least one dose. Around 62 percent would have received two doses. At the current rate, it is estimated that 90-95 percent of adult Indians would be fully vaccinated by 28 February 2022 — just 60 days behind schedule.

Last-mile vaccination hesitancy of 5-10 percent of the adult population in a voluntary vaccination protocol that India follows is inevitable. But the attention of the government has now turned to weight the efficacy of booster shots against the Omicron variant which is more transmissible and infectious than the Delta mutant but less lethal in terms of hospitalisation and fatalities. With children between the ages of 15 and 18 eligible for vaccination from 3 January 2022, the rollout will now accelerate.

China

Meanwhile, the standoff with China in eastern Ladakh continued through 2021. Innumerable rounds of commander-level negotiations at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) have led nowhere. India’s resolute stand has both surprised and unnerved Beijing. Immersed in its own domestic economic restructuring and slowdown, China is caught between a rock and a hard place. The longer the standoff lasts, the greater China’s loss of face.

India has shown a willingness to stay the distance. The Indian Army has greater combat experience fighting in mountainous terrain at altitudes above 16,000 feet. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is used to train in the plains. It hasn’t fought a war since 1979 when tiny Vietnam battled the PLA into a stalemate.

As 2022 dawns, winter will freeze military operations in Ladakh. Temperatures have already fallen below minus 30 degrees Celsius. When the snow thaws in April 2022, it will mark two years since the PLA ingressed across disputed points in the LAC.

By then India would have deployed the second of its five S-400 air defence systems on the eastern front. Two full squadrons of 36 Rafale 4.5 generation stealth fighters would be commissioned through 2022. China’s options along the LAC are diminishing by the month.

United States

Within weeks of being sworn in as the 46th president of the United States in January 2021, Joe Biden held a virtual meeting of the Quad with the leaders of India, Japan and Australia.

The messaging was clear: China represented the most significant threat to America since the collapse of the Soviet Union over 30 years ago. Washington needs India in its corner. It knows that India will be the world’s third-largest economy and the second-largest consumer market by 2030. India’s growing military prowess makes New Delhi an indispensable US ally.

India has played its geopolitical cards with finesse. It has drawn support from five central Asian republics to counter Pakistan’s malignant influence in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Pakistan sued for peace along the Line of Control (LoC) in February 2021. The ceasefire has largely held, enabling Islamabad to focus on its chaotic western front where Taliban forces have confronted Pakistani soldiers along the disputed and fenced Durand Line that separates Pashtuns on either side of the border.

Pakistan’s obsession with India continues. Having failed to create unrest after Article 370 was nullified in Jammu and Kashmir, Islamabad has resorted to targeted assassinations of civilians and security personnel in the Valley. Here too, Pakistan has failed. Tourist arrivals are at record highs, undeterred by Islamabad’s abetment of terrorism.

Looking ahead

In 2022, India’s chief concerns are principally three-fold: One, controlling the spread of Omicron; two, tackling the malign China-Pakistan terror nexus; and three, forging deep but autonomous alliances with the US-led West.

For the Modi government, 15 state elections loom in 2022 and 2023 ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha poll.

Mamata Banerjee, following the TMC’s landslide victory in the May 2021 West Bengal Assembly election, has emerged as a challenger to Rahul Gandhi as the principal leader of a combined Opposition. The Mamata-Rahul rivalry suits Modi. A united Opposition could pose a threat to his third prime ministerial term, especially if several of the 15 state elections scheduled in 2022 and 2023 go against the BJP.

The Uttar Pradesh election next year will be a litmus test and a possible early warning sign. In politics, the mood of the nation can turn on unexpected events.

The writer is editor, author and publisher. Views expressed here are personal.​

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