India’s most-populous state is in election mode. Unlike West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam and Puducherry, the fight in Uttar Pradesh (UP) is not for forming the government. Rather, the state is readying for rural polls. Apart from electing representatives in the three-tier panchayat system, this exercise also means testing the waters and putting the house in order before the crucial assembly polls next year. That explains the seriousness of political parties, even though the panchayat elections in UP are not fought on party symbols, unlike some states.
The rural polls, in which about 12 crore voters are expected to participate, will give parties an opportunity to train their workers for the larger electoral exercise in 2022. At the same time, while victories or defeats might not be on political symbols, the results will go a long way in signalling political hold and cultivating new grass-roots leadership from village panchayats to blocks to district panchayat levels.
THE SAFFRON TEST
For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it will also be an opportunity to gauge the mood at a time when it is challenged by a farmers’ agitation, especially in western UP.
The BJP, since the 2014 national elections, has only increased its political dominance in the state; it came to power in UP in 2017 and put up another stellar show in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. It went on to dominate urban local bodies, and teachers’ and graduate council polls, becoming a mammoth electoral machine.
Now, the BJP sees a chance to further cement its clout in rural areas. At the same time, it will want to dismiss the perception that the party is getting isolated among a section of farmers and the rural class.
The BJP has announced candidates on all 3,051 seats of zila (district) panchayat members, though polling for the same will not be on party symbols. “Our party takes every election seriously. We have ensured that among these 3,000-odd candidates, no one is a relative of any sitting MLA or top leader. Our aim is to evolve and strengthen the grass-root leadership,” says Vijay Bahadur Pathak, the BJP’s state vice-president and an MLC (member of legislative council).
That the party is taking the panchayat polls seriously can be understood from the fact that it has put in place a three-level monitoring system in every district. The party’s state secretary, Dr Chandramohan, is camping in Muzaffarnagar, which has emerged as the biggest hotbed of farmers’ protest in the state.
Chandramohan, who is the BJP’s Muzaffarnagar incharge, tells News18: “Every district has been given an incharge from the state centre, and that person is further handling a two-level team of district-level leaders.”
He adds: “Zila panchayat results will prove beyond doubt that the people of Uttar Pradesh continue to have faith in the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and UP CM Yogi Adityanath.”
SP, BSP PLAY IT SAFE
While the BJP has taken an aggressive posture, the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Congress seem to have adopted a “play safe” strategy. In the elections where the most-visible and easy-to-judge battle might be over zila panchayat member seats, more than 58,000 village pradhan posts and over 75,000 block development council member positions across 826 blocks are up for grabs.
BJP leaders say they will not officially announce any candidate below the zila panchayat level, but the party seems ready to actively intervene at all levels to ensure its workers and sympathisers win the contest. Aware of the BJP’s dominant position in state politics, the SP and the BSP seem cautious, and they are trying not to project the panchayat polls as the semi-finals before the assembly polls.
“This is a local body election, which is contested on very local issues. The party therefore is not significantly intervening in them and the decision to support any zila panchayat candidate has been left to concerned district units,” SP MLC Udaiveer Singh says.
“The BJP will not be able to douse the flames of farmers’ anger, though it will try to manipulate the results by using the government machinery,” Singh alleges.
The BSP, too, has left the task of declaring candidates to its local district units.
CONGRESS TESTS THE WATERS
For the Congress and its general secretary, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the panchayat polls are an opportunity to test the waters before the big battle. Like the BJP, the Congress, too, is going ahead declaring candidates for zila panchayats.
The Congress’s organisation secretary, Anil Yadav, says: “The party will field candidates on most of the zila panchayat seats. We have already announced more than 400 candidates, and intend to declare at least 2,000 more.”
The Congress here, under Priyanka Gandhi, has devoted a lot of time on strengthening the state organisation. The party has also strongly focused on several issues, including the farmers’ agitation. Priyanka Gandhi herself has been at the helm of protests, attending several kisan panchayats in western UP districts.
“The party further aims to reach out to people via the polls, and also wants to openly stand with its workers and leaders who are contesting independently on various posts,” Yadav says.
THE BIG PICTURE
Panchayat polls are generally fought on very local, and even non-political, issues, while more complex matters of governance, caste and communal dynamics come into play in the assembly polls. Since party symbols are not used, voting choices are often not guided by political preferences in rural elections.
“Calling it semi-finals (before the assembly polls) might be too far-fetched. But yes, the results, to a certain extent, do give a sense of the political mood. Results of zila panchayat member elections will clearly indicate the trend, and help political parties fight out the perception battle,” says Dr Pradeep Sharma, a Lucknow-based sociologist and political analyst.