The Aam Aadmi Party is taking a victory lap on Twittersphere, for clinching ‘big wins’ in the Uttar Pradesh panchayat polls.
Over 24 hours ago, the party’s prominent face from UP, and Rajya Sabha MP, Sanjay Singh hailed hurrah(!) that 70 candidates backed by the AAP have won their zila panchayat wards. Even if we take these numbers, supplied by the party, on face value, they account for a tiny fraction of the 3051 seats that were polled. While filing this piece, a quick check-in with AAP’s state president for the latest numbers revised that score upwards to around 100 wins.
But is making a small, albeit pan-UP start, being blown-up into a ‘groundbreaking win’ by Arvind Kejriwal’s party?
Politics of Pressure in Uttar Pradesh
For the benefit of our readers, let's attempt, with anecdotal evidence, to lay down the context of this contest that has been clichéd as a semi-final before the March 2022 assembly polls in UP.
52-year-old Faheem Khan first fought, and lost, the zila panchayat elections a decade ago, after he failed to get the Samajwadi Party’s backing. This time, supported by AAP, Faheem finally won, and so did 4 others from different wards of Lakhimpur Kheri. While thanking AAP, he says, “I can only tell you later if AAP’s support was a game-changer. But I am telling you that AAP helped me fight this election.”
So, now that he’s won, will Faheem’s loyalties rest firmly with AAP? Faheem says he’ll let us know “in a few days.”
Faheem’s non-committal reply reveals the kind of elbow-room winners enjoy in a local body election. More so in a state like UP, where, once candidates win, they are instantly exposed to all kinds of pressures and persuasion.
And irrespective of which party helped them win, their votes can be openly solicited by strong contenders (even rival parties) who badly need their vote to become a zila panchayat president. A zila panchayat president is a powerful district-level figure that controls the purse-strings of spends on the government’s flagship schemes.
AAP’s Performance in Varanasi & Gorakhpur
Sunita Devi, who was supported by the AAP, has now been elected as the gram pradhan of Koraiya Chamru village in Lakhimpur Kheri. Her husband, Malkhan Singh, is now a pradhan pati — common north-Indian reference for the husband of a woman candidate elected from a reserved seat. He joined the Aam Aadmi Party six months ago, and has reaped an early harvest for his association with AAP. 35-year-old Singh says: “We got the full benefit of AAP’s support. Now wait and watch how our party and our leader will become more popular in UP.”
Another stunning claim of an AAP-backed win came from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency of Varanasi. AAP’s Varanasi Chief Kailash Patel says that Radhika Yadav won from Ward Number 1 of Varanasi. This is a reserved seat for women, and soon after Radhika was declared the winner, Patel says “her phone is now switched off” and she is unreachable to even AAP workers.
Similarly, in Gorakhpur, which is Chief Minister Adityanath’s home turf, AAP Gorakhpur Chief Harender Yadav says that two of his four ‘winning candidates’ are yet to be officially declared as winners by the district administration.
When I asked him to connect me with the winners, Yadav replied: “I will try. They may be busy with collecting their certificates.”
‘Far-Fetched’ Claims By AAP
What is evident is that claims of a ‘historic win’ signaling AAP’s arrival in Uttar Pradesh politics appear rather stretched, and the panchayat election process — with its inherent design flaws — makes it hard to empirically examine the performance of the AAP that is calling it a ‘legitimate’ political launchpad.
Undoubtedly, declaring the candidates for the panchayat elections and retaining them after the results is a challenge that all parties face. It’s the obscure nature of candidate-selection and the no-party-symbol rule that gives parties adequate scope to spin the eventual outcomes in their favour. This could also be why the AAP consciously chose to test waters in this electoral format.
Meanwhile, AAP UP’s Twitter feed shows a constant cascade of winners from most of the 75 districts of Uttar Pradesh. With victory-celebrations banned, the only barometer is social media, where AAP workers and leaders are trying to amp-up the wins.
BJP’s Losses in UP
Sabhajeet Singh, AAP’s UP chief, who is also leading the social media celebrations here, says: “These winning candidates came to us asking for support. They applied, which is why we released their names in a list, and are now counting them as AAP winners. We cannot deny that they can be pressured into switching sides. Pressure politics is normal in UP. You are right that the loyalties of these candidates cannot be ensured, but nobody can take that as a guarantee in politics. But we are hopeful that those who have joined us for ideological reasons will remain with us.”
If you are a panchayat polls newbie, then claims of all parties winning handsomely will most likely confuse you. Leading local news networks go by the count of the number of zila panchayat members to arrive at a party-wise tally.
The Samajwadi Party, that interestingly did not release a list of candidates that it backed, seems to have won more than a third of the 3050 wards at the district level.
The BJP came a close second with 900 wins, the BSP won about 300 wards and the Congress and AAP about 70.
Going by the convention of crunching numbers of these results, the BJP seems to have lost more than 2000 seats, and has been beaten by the Samajwadi Party in Ayodhya, Varanasi and Mathura, that usually pulsate with the BJP’s ideology of Hindutva.
But the elections are not over yet. Stage II will see the election of zila panchayat presidents. And the BJP will unleash all its powers to woo hundreds of independents who now hold the vote to getting the BJP-backed candidates elected as zila panchayat presidents.
AAP in Uttar Pradesh: How Long Will it Take for this ‘Baccha’ Party to Grow Up?
Shifting focus back to AAP, that is the new-born baby of this election. Earlier in March 2021, a senior leader of the party candidly admitted to this journalist that AAP is self-aware that it is a baccha (child) party in UP politics, and is purely approaching these polls as a cadre-building exercise.
And those who track politics in Uttar Pradesh will tell you that it can take years, sometimes even decades, for a baccha party to grow-up into a serious contender in this ruthless landscape, where politics is still a long way from embracing the AAP model.
For now, it appears that the AAP chose a convenient baseline. So, no matter what the outcome, they look like winners and all set for UP 2022.
(Anant Zanane is a UP-based journalist who was with NDTV for over a decade. He tweets at @anantzanane. This is a report and analysis. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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