Runners & Riders
While the BJP in UP finds itself amid a chaotic defection wind and the Congress strives to save power in a multi-cornered contest in Punjab, Goa appears to be a defending game for the incumbents and Manipur has its own issues
The stage is set for the high-stake 2022 electoral battles in five states. All parties are putting in their extra efforts to "secure" their seats from losing those to their political rivals. Ruling parties are pulling out all stops to retain their seats while Opposition parties are making their own calculations based on social engineering factors to re-correct their political arithmetic.
The states that will go to the polls amid the rise in COVID-19 cases include Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa. Of the five assembly elections, the results of politically sensitive Uttar Pradesh will have an impact on the upcoming Presidential election which is scheduled to be held in mid-July this year and upcoming Lok Sabha polls in 2024.
The assembly elections in the said states will be held between February 10 and March 7 while the counting of votes will be done on March 10. Politically important Uttar Pradesh will vote in seven phases and Manipur in two, while the remaining three states will vote in single-phase on February 14.
A total of 18.3 crore people will cast their votes in the five states, of which 8.55 crore are women. Of these over 18 crore voters, 24.9 lakh will be exercising their franchise for the first time. Elections will be held for 690 assembly seats where 1,620 polling booths are being established in accordance with the Election Commission's COVID-19 safety protocols.
Though the Election Commission of India (ECI) is a little "strict" due to the sudden spurt in COVID-19 cases and has put restrictions on rallies till January 15, it cannot be denied that parties will not follow the COVID-19 protocols in toto during the campaigning. The apex poll panel has also stressed holding virtual political rallies instead of physical public meetings.
Notably, it's for the third time that the ECI is conducting assembly elections under the COVID-19 scare. Bihar was the first state to go for assembly polls in COVID-19 era in October 2020. After that, the assembly polls were held in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam and Puducherry from March to April in 2021, when the country had witnessed the deadly second wave of COVID-19 pandemic.
The results of assembly elections in the five states will not only decide the fate of 690 assembly seats or members of legislative assemblies in these states, but it will also decide the fate of 19 Rajya Sabha seats, which are going to be vacant from three of these five states ahead of the presidential polls. Of the five states going for the polls, Uttar Pradesh has the highest 403 assembly seats, followed by Punjab (117 assembly seats), Uttarakhand (70 seats), Manipur (60 seats) and Goa (40 seats).
The challenges and challengers are out in the open with their arsenals for the mother of all assembly elections, as the electoral fight in Uttar Pradesh is going to be a triangular one. The key players of Uttar Pradesh assembly polls are Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (SP) and Congress.
Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which had once ruled the state, is "invisible" in this election while the Congress party is making all efforts to remain visible in the battleground by banking upon women empowerment agenda. The Congress is pinning hope on Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to improve its numbers from worst to better.
Uttar Pradesh assembly elections will be a litmus test for the ruling BJP. The challenge before the ruling party, which is facing the anti-incumbency factor, is not just retaining power in the politically crucial state, but also to match its historic 2017 performance.
In 2017 polls, the BJP had created a history in the state by winning 312 assembly seats with a vote share of nearly 40 per cent. This was BJP's best performance since it got into the electoral fray in the state in 1980.
The BJP had won just 11 seats in 1980, which rose to 16 seats in 1985 and 57 seats in 1989 assembly polls. The 1991 assembly elections proved to be a gamechanger for the party as it had won 221 seats, which reduced to 177 seats in the state assembly polls held in 1993 and 174 seats in the state elections held in 1996. The party's strength further reduced to 88 in the 2002 assembly polls and it shrank to 51 seats in 2007 and 47 seats in the 2012 assembly polls.
The BJP rose at the cost of SP and BSP. The SP, which ruled the state from 2012 to 2017, failed to retain 188 seats while BSP lost 77 seats to the BJP and the Congress failed to retain its 26 seats.
The 2017 assembly elections also witnessed interesting switchovers, and most of the candidates who switched their 'short-term loyalties' from BSP to BJP, managed to win their seats for the BJP. The leaders who had changed their loyalty and shifted from BSP to BJP include heavyweight OBC leader Swami Prasad Maurya and others such as Mahavir Rana, Roshanlal Verma, Om Kumar and Harvinder Kumar alias Romi Sahani. The then BJP national president Amit Shah had handcrafted the combination of backward leaders by inducting several BSP and SP leaders into the party fold.
It's well said that all days are not similar and nothing is permanent in politics. The change of stance of Swami Prasad Maurya just a few days after the announcement of poll dates for UP election by the Election Commission has come as a major jolt to the BJP's Central leadership that was banking on OBC vote bank to make a resounding comeback in the state. The BJP's OBC face has left the party to join SP along with other MLAs of the backward community. This move has "exposed" the BJP's love-for-backward class theory. Political experts read this development as a big setback for BJP and it may lead to the destruction of the political citadel that Shah had built in 2017 by "handpicking" each and every potential leader based on their social engineering merits.
Maurya's resignation has also raised questions about Adityanath's lofty claims on employment, as his own minister of labour and employment resigned citing the issue of youth unemployment. However, the chief minister has claimed that his government has provided 4.5 lakh jobs in the state.
Like Dalit leader late Ramvilas Paswan, Maurya is a seasoned politician and he is known to make decisions based on emerging political trends. Earlier, he shifted his loyalty from the BSP to the BJP and now has jumped into the SP fold when the Yogi-led BJP government is facing anti-incumbency due to the agrarian crisis and mismanagement of the second wave of the pandemic.
Swami Prasad Maurya's switch to the Samajwadi Party can be seen as a big morale booster for Akhilesh Yadav and his party's rank and file. The move is likely to have a ripple effect and bring in more OBC leaders into the SP fold ahead of the state assembly elections.
After Maurya's resignation, cabinet minister Dara Singh Chauhan, BJP MLAs Brijesh Kumar Prajapati, Bhagwati Sagar, Vinay Shakya, Roshan Lal Verma and Mukesh Verma have also resigned and all are slated to join the SP.
Imran Masood, a Muslim leader in western UP and one of the tallest leaders of Congress, has also joined the SP. Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) headed by OP Rajbhar, a former BJP ally, is also in the SP's fold.
As per political experts, it's the BJP that needs to worry. "Due to the dominance of bureaucrats in every decision-making, the party has lost its credibility among the backward classes. People belonging to backward communities compare the BJP regime with that of BSP and SP when they had a say, while in BJP-ruled state, there were no takers of their grievances," said Biswajeet Banerjee, a political commentator.
"It's an open secret that MLAs and ministers of backward communities were not able to get the work of their workers done. So, under the given circumstances, would they get the support of voters? This is the prime reason for the mass exodus of backward leaders from the BJP," he said.
In Punjab, it is going to be a multi-cornered contest with the Congress, the AAP, the SAD-BSP alliance, and the BJP-PLC-SAD (Sanyukt) battling to form the government in the state. Punjab is to witness a probable entry of farmers' front in the form of Sanyukt Samaj Morcha, as 20 farmer bodies that participated in a protest against the Centre's three farm laws have also declared to contest polls.
Punjab's political landscape witnessed major changes in the last more than one year, with the Shiromani Akali Dal breaking ties with the BJP over the farm laws issue and stitching a new alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party. After facing heat over the farm laws, the SAD in September 2020 quit the NDA and Harsimrat Kaur Badal resigned from the Union cabinet.
The SAD, in June 2021, formed an alliance with the Mayawati-led BSP under which the Akalis will fight on 97 seats and BSP on 20 seats. After the Akali Dal parted ways, the BJP, which used to contest 23 seats, forged an alliance with former chief minister Amarinder Singh's Punjab Lok Congress and Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa-led Shiromani Akali Dal (Sanyukt).
The Aam Aadmi Party, which is the main opposition party in Punjab, has announced to go alone. The SAD and the AAP have announced their candidates for the polls. The AAP is hard selling Arvind Kejriwal's Delhi model of governance; it has also made several promises such as giving 300 units of free power and Rs 1,000 per month to every woman of Punjab.
With its 13-point charter, the Akali Dal has made certain promises, including free power up to 400 units per month for all households, Rs 2,000 per month to women heads of "blue card" holder families (indicating below poverty line), and a Rs 10 per litre reduction in price of diesel for agriculture consumers.
Congress leader Navjot Sidhu has promised Rs 2,000 per month for women homemakers, as well as eight free cooking gas cylinders to them every year. The party has also promised two-wheelers to girls taking admission in colleges, and also some cash. Unemployment, drug menace, delivery of justice in the sacrilege incidents, the exodus of youth abroad, ballooning debt, and corruption are the major issues this election.
The saffron party, which is facing the heat of farmers, is aiming to get a sympathy vote over Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision to withdraw all contentious farm laws. The BJP is also trying to make the security breach in the PM's cavalcade a political agenda in the state.
In Manipur, which will vote for a new assembly in two phases on February 27 and March 3, voters would elect their representatives to address the issues of unemployment (9.5 per cent, the second-highest after Nagaland in the Northeast), political stability, internal security, and the issue of Scheduled Tribe status for Meiteis who account for 57 per cent of the state's population.
In Goa, the BJP, which is in power, is looking for a third-consecutive term while the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress and the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are going full throttle to make a mark in the electoral politics in 2022 Goa polls. Two regional outfits — Revolutionary Goans and Goencho Avaaz — are also in the fray to test the water. Besides them, the Goa Forward Party (GFP) and the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) are also in the battle.
Views expressed are personal