Audio podcast: State polls a bellwether for our democracy, semi-final for 2024

Ashraf Engineer

February 19, 2022

Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.

2022 is a key electoral year for India. Five states go to the polls, and there is the Presidential election too. There is no greater bellwether of the political situation than these elections – they will tell us the direction India is taking and also what lies ahead for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. In fact, the BJP is in power in four of these five states and the Opposition is looking to take advantage of the various missteps taken by the state and Central governments. To give you a sense of the scale of the elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur and Goa, they will involve more than 180 million voters – that’s more than the population of Russia. In this special episode on the state elections, we will look at the high-stakes battle in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Goa, while Manipur we will examine in a future episode. What are the main issues in these states? Who are the main players? How does the electoral math stack up and what are the voters saying?

SIGNATURE TUNE

Of all the states going to the polls or having already cast their votes, Uttar Pradesh is the one everyone wants to win. It is India’s most populous state and it holds the key to the gates of New Delhi. Not only does it have a large Assembly, it has the largest number of Parliamentary seats.

Normally, it’s a multi-cornered contest but this time around it’s looking like a one-on-one between the Samajwadi Party and the BJP.

The battle includes sitting Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a 49-year-old monk with a rabid Hindu supremacist philosophy. His tenure has been marked by unashamed targeting of minorities, hate speech and a brutal crackdown on those protesting against a discriminatory citizenship law. It’s also been characterised by a shockingly poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospitals overflowed, ventilators were in short supply and there were long lines outside crematoria. Eventually, many desperate families buried or cremated their loved ones along riverbanks and many bodies floated downstream to neighbouring Bihar. There was a cataclysmic collapse of healthcare and millions lost their sources of income.

Here’s what 24-year-old Sakhi Singh, a law student and practitioner from Uttar Pradesh, had to say:

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Yet, there was a massive advertising campaign claiming that Uttar Pradesh is turning into the paragon of progress – something no one believes, no matter which way they choose to vote. The Agra-Lucknow Expressway did open to the public in 2018 and there are other major ones planned, such as the 340-km Purvanchal, 296-km Bundelkhand, 91-km Gorakhpur and the 594-km Ganga expressways. These are, however, a long way from becoming a reality.

The Samajwadi Party is led by Akhilesh Yadav, a former chief minister and son of another former chief minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav. Mayawati, who leads the Bahujan Samaj Party, doesn’t seem to be making much of an impact. The Congress, meanwhile, whose campaign is being spearheaded by Priyanka Gandhi, is looking vibrant but isn’t expected to make inroads.

The BJP’s main plank has shifted rapidly from offering economic progress to communal polarisation. There have been multiple instances of hate speech and the police and Election Commission couldn’t be bothered about it. The BJP is also using the Ayodhya Ram temple issue to garner Hindu support while promising temples in place of mosques at Kashi and Mathura too.

The outcome of the election will be pivotal for Modi’s bid for a third term in 2024. Over the last two Parliamentary elections, the BJP has won most of the 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh. If the party loses the state election, it will hugely damage Modi and his prospects in 2024.

The farmers’ protest against three farm laws, which they said would destroy their livelihoods and make them dependent on large corporations, is one of the main issues in this election. The spirited protests forced the withdrawal of the laws but the resentment is said to be still simmering in western Uttar Pradesh. This region is dominated by the Jat community, which voted for the BJP in the 2014 and 2019 general elections and the 2017 state election. In that election, the BJP won 66 of the 76 seats in this region – which propelled it to power in Lucknow. However, that support has almost certainly weakened.

The BJP is trying to counter-balance that by touting its so-called achievements in improving law and order.

Meanwhile, caste continues to be a pivotal factor. The BJP, traditionally a party of the upper castes, got its caste arithmetic right in the 2017 Assembly election by mobilising the support of the non-Yadav and non-Jatav voters, that is the other backward classes and scheduled castes. The Yadavs and Jatavs were, traditionally, voters of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party respectively. The other backward classes comprise 43%-45% of the Uttar Pradesh population whereas scheduled castes make up 21%.

The other big factor is unemployment. According to the quarterly periodic Labour Survey, the unemployment rate in the 15- to 29-year age group was 23.2% during January-March 2021. It has sparked protests and the news from the ground isn’t good on this front.

Sudhanshu Singh, a software engineer from Jaunpur in western Uttar Pradesh, gave voice to this anguish.

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Perhaps the most interesting electoral issue is stray cattle. They are destroying crops and causing accidents. Their numbers have risen because farmers and herders are abandoning cattle that are old or no longer needed because Hindutva extremists frown upon their slaughter. The country hasn’t forgotten the lynchings over cattle transport and slaughter and so farmers and herders are taking no chances. Before the BJP came to power, there was an established system of old cattle being slaughtered for their meat and hide. This was also a source of income for farmers. Not so anymore.

As far as political alliances go, the BJP is fighting in coalition with smaller parties such as the Apna Dal led by Anupriya Patel and the Nishad Party led by Sanjay Nishad. Nishad is focused on the Nishads, Kewats, Binds, Mallahs, Kashyaps and Manjhis, communities whose occupations are traditionally centred on rivers – such as boatmen or fishermen.

The Samajwadi Party, meanwhile, has teamed up with the Rashtriya Lok Dal led by Jayant Chaudhary, grandson of former Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan singh. The RLD has influence in western Uttar Pradesh among the Jats and, if the community decides to shift its allegiance from the BJP, then it’s this combine that will benefit. They have also tied up with other smaller parties such as the Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party, the Mahan Dal and the Janwadi Party.

Also in the electoral mix, not allied with either of the major groupings, is the Azad Samaj Party led by young Dalit leader Chandrasekhar Ravan. All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi is also focusing on Uttar Pradesh, with Muslims comprising 20% of the population. If the Muslim votes are split between the Samajwadi Party and his party, it will benefit the BJP.

As I said earlier, Uttar Pradesh’s 403 seats are critical in the national context. The result will give us a fair indicator of how its 80 Parliamentary constituencies will vote in 2024. The state also accounts for 31 of the Rajya Sabha’s 245 seats, so it’s the state to watch.

Let’s now come to Punjab, the other major North Indian state in the electoral mix.

The central electoral issue is undoubtedly the farm laws and their rollback. The Modi government had to capitulate on them because of the intense protests led by farmers from Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh. The anger against the BJP hasn’t dissipated and there is a real fear that the farm laws will return in some form after the state elections are over.

Here’s what Nitin Sharma, a 23-year-old businessman from Pathankot, thinks.

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The farm and rural sectors have been in turmoil – much like elsewhere in India – because of the steady economic decline witnessed under the Modi government and the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wages are falling and the number of people seeking employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is rising. Even after the lockdowns ended, the number of people demanding work under the scheme remained consistent at about 30% more than the April-June 2017 quarter.

Unemployment is an issue even in Punjab. In fact, the Congress’ promise of providing one job per family to 55 lakh families was one of the reasons for its success in 2017. When the Shrimoni Akali Dal-BJP combine left office, Punjab’s unemployment rate was 7.8% – significantly higher than the national average of 6.1%, according to the First Periodic Labour Force Survey. The rate remained 7.4% in the third National Statistical Office report for 2019-2020 even as the national unemployment rate reduced to 4.8%. Naturally, this is a poll issue, which is why the Congress Chief Minister, Charanjeet Singh Channi, made the jobs promise.

Let’s also look at the sacrilege cases, which have become politically sensitive. Recently, a man was lynched at the Golden Temple in Amritsar after an act of sacrilege. The incident brought back memories of 2015 when the holy book of the Sikhs, which they treat as a living guru, was insulted. Now there is a demand for strict action.

Lastly, the drug menace – which just doesn’t seem to go away. Being a border state, drugs are smuggled first into Punjab and many youths have become addicts. Each party claims it will eradicate the menace but this has been a longstanding promise and not much headway has been achieved. According to a report by the Ministry of Social justice and Empowerment in 2019, Punjab has some of the highest substance abuse rates among all major states.

The Congress came to power with a comfortable majority, winning 77 of the 117 seats but faced internal dissent, after which it had to replace Captain Amarinder Singh as chief minister. He has now launched his own party and is fighting the election in alliance with the BJP. However, it’s the Aam Aadmi Party, or AAP, which has emerged as the Congress’ strongest rival. It has declared Bhagwant Mann as its chief ministerial candidate and points to its performance in Delhi when campaigning in Punjab. The Shiromani Akali Dal, having snapped ties with the BJP, is now in alliance with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. However, it’s not expected to make a dent.

Punjab, too, is significant at the national level because it sends 14 MPs to the Lok Sabha and the farm laws, though repealed, will continue to have an impact on the way the state votes for the Assembly now as well as the Lok Sabha in 2024. Besides, it’s among the handful of states the Congress governs. So, it’s critical for the Congress to retain Punjab. It will not only secure its reliability in voters’ minds but also enhance its presence at the national level.

That brings me to the last North Indian state that has voted, Uttarakhand.

The ruling BJP’s internal discussions have identified the impact of the second wave of COVID-19 as a serious challenge to its popularity. The farm laws agitation has made its presence felt here too and the lack of jobs – a major electoral issue in every state – are a matter of serious concern.

There is a general sense among the young that the promises made in the previous election were not fulfilled. In a chat, students of Barkot Polytechnic said: “The quality of education should be improved so that students get better skilled and can compete on a level playing field with others.”

The Periodic Labour Force Survey for the October-December 2020 quarter found that 27% of those between the ages of 15 and 29 in Uttarakhand do not have a job. This was higher than the national average of 25%. Unemployment is at a peak; it is estimated that a third of Uttarakhand’s youth is unemployed and it ranks 10th highest among Indian states in unemployment.

As everywhere else, unemployment has a gender skew. Women’s unemployment stood at 35% compared to men’s at 25%. This indicates also that the self-employment and employment schemes introduced by the BJP have failed.

As far as the agriculture laws go, farm leaders campaigned against the BJP. “This government should be given a vote ki chhutti,” said farmer leader Rakesh Tikait. “The slogan of faslon ke daam nahi, toh vote nahi will have to be raised,” he added.

Also, Uttarakhand is perhaps the only state where education has emerged as a poll issue. Roughly 8% of government schools are in shambles, say education officials, and the people want that to change.

Since we’re speaking of social infrastructure, it’s worth looking at healthcare because the state didn’t do well in handling COVID-19. Uttarakhand has slipped two spots to 17th among states in healthcare rankings, performing badly on almost all indicators, according to the ‘Healthy States

Progressive India: Report on Rank of States and UTs’ released by the Central Government think tank Niti Aayog.

It was a one-sided battle in 2017 with the BJP winning 57 of the 70 Assembly seats but, according to Dehradun-based political commentator JS Rawat, “There is a strong anti-incumbency in the state

due to the BJP giving three chief ministers in just five years, which is all set to spoil the party’s chances. However, wherever the party wins, it will be on the strength of Modi.”

As in Uttar Pradesh, Modi has announced big-ticket connectivity and infrastructure projects in the state, such as the long-awaited Rishikesh-Karnaprayag railway line and the Char Dham all-weather road.

Bhupendra Singh, a 28-year-old event manager from Bageshwar, gave the thumbs up to the infrastructure works.

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The BJP is pinning its hopes on Modi while the Congress is banking on its old warhorse, Harish Rawat, to return to power in the hill state. AAP is contesting here too, with retired Colonel Ajay Kothiyal as its chief ministerial face. None of these parties have entered into any significant alliances.

Here’s what Pavan Kumar Pankaj, a hotel manager at the Corbett National Park, had to say.

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As to its national significance, Uttarakhand has five Lok Sabha and three Rajya Sabha seats.

Let’s come now to Goa, the last of the four states we’re looking at today. The message is clear: it’s all about the economy.

The economy in the BJP-ruled state is a mess. Tourism is its mainstay but the pandemic laid waste to that landscape. Many hotels and restaurants shut, room prices fell by 40%-50%, there was not enough work for taxi drivers. It’s no wonder that  Goa has one of the worst employment rates in India. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, unemployment in March 2021 was at 21.1% and the second and third waves of COVID-19 only made it worse. The youth are very upset because there are few government jobs and there is a rise in corruption during the selection process.

Prahlad Kamlikar, an 18-year-old engineering student, had this to say.

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Unemployment has been compounded by growing fuel and cooking oil prices. Retail prices have risen by about 10% over the past two years compared to 8% over the past five and a half years.

Iron ore and manganese mining generated many jobs but a judgment passed by the Supreme Court has halted mining work since 2018. Some reports say two to three lakh people were affected. So, every party is promising to pass a law to restart mining. AAP announced that, until mining jobs are restored, households dependent on it will get an unemployment allowance of Rs 5,000 per month.

The BJP and its allies, in power for a decade, are banking on social welfare, law and order and infrastructure. They are focusing on the roads and bridges they’ve built and a reduction in crime and road accidents. There is also a budgetary increase for tourism.

However, not everyone is impressed. Here’s what Sidharth Ishwar, a 24-year-old engineer from Panjim, thinks.

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AAP, meanwhile, has promised free electricity of up to 300 units, a resumption of mining within six months of coming to power, in addition to jobs for all and allowance for the unemployed.

The Congress promises to implement the Nyay Scheme under which Rs 6,000 would be transferred to poor families every month. It has also said it will not allow Goa to become a coal hub, which has been at the centre of a citizen’s movement.

Along with AAP, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress has entered the fray. It too has focused on jobs, promising 2 lakh new ones with 80% reservation for Goans and 10,000 vacancies in government jobs to be filled in three years. Apart from the direct benefit transfer of Rs 5,000 per month to a woman of every household and a collateral-free loan for Goan youth of up to Rs 20 lakh at a 4% interest rate, the TMC and its allies have announced unemployment insurance for up to six months.

The BJP is fighting on all 40 seats while the Congress is in alliance with the Goa Forward Party. The TMC, meanwhile, has allied with the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, which ruled Goa many years ago.

While Goa has only two Lok Sabha seats and one Rajya Sabha seat, it’s always an interesting election because inevitably there are a range of small parties in the fray. It’s also where large regional ones look to expand when they have national aspirations, as we’re seeing with the TMC and AAP.

It’s also a state where political affiliations are fluid. According to the Association of Democratic Reforms, 24 MLAs have switched parties in the past five years. In proportional terms, it’s the highest of any state. Siddharth, the young engineer we spoke to earlier, expressed Goa’s disillusionment.

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Lastly, because constituencies are small, winning margins tend to be a few thousand or few hundred votes. So, even a small swing can change candidates’ fortunes.

As you can see, it’s a very interesting – and politically crucial – time for all major political players and, in fact, India itself. This is almost a semi-final to the 2024 general election, and you can see that in the intensity of the campaigning. How these states vote will give us not only a fair idea of India’s political mood but also perhaps what direction our democracy will take. We’ll know on March 10, when the results are announced.

The reporting for this special episode of All Indians Matter was done by Apurav Shrivastava, Bhoomika Singh and Shitij Rao.

Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at editor@allindiansmatter.in. Catch you again soon.