Lucknow: With assembly elections due in Uttar Pradesh early next year, the reverses that BJP-backed candidates suffered in the recently concluded panchayat polls are not just a reflection of public resentment against the party, but also of the demoralisation of BJP leaders and workers in the state, party members and political experts said.
ThePrint spoke to a dozen BJP MLAs, party workers and political analysts in the state who pointed to a mixed-bag of reasons for the lack of support for the party in the local government polls.
These included the role played by “rebel” candidates, the party’s failure to deliver on promises of “welfare schemes” and the Covid mismanagement in the state. Some also questioned the timing of the polls, which were held between 15-29 April, in the middle of the second Covid surge that has ravaged the country and brought UP to its knees.
Party members and most experts maintained, however, that the panchayat poll results couldn’t be viewed as being indicative of the outcome of next year’s assembly elections in the state. This, they explained, was because panchayat polls are fought on localised issues, which do not carry weight at the assembly level. Some warn, however, that resentments are not forgotten overnight.
Several of the BJP leaders interviewed by ThePrint, conceded that the party should “introspect” over the reason for its poor show in the panchayat polls, despite being in power in the state. The lack of support for BJP-backed candidates in this election is in sharp contrast to past records when the party in power in the state has almost always managed to win the panchayat polls.
Of a total of 3,050 zila (district) panchayat seats for which elections were held, the BJP claims candidates backed by the party won in 954 seats, while the Samajwadi Party (SP) claims candidates supported by it won in 1,000 seats. SP spokesperson Rajendra Chaudhary told ThePrint that another 700 candidates, who contested as Independents and won, belong to the SP and the party has their support too.
Meanwhile, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) backed candidates won over 380 seats.
Independent candidates, however, have emerged as a reckoning factor in these elections and won over 1,200 seats, the highest in this panchayat polls.
Panchayat poll elections are not fought on party symbols, but this time in UP almost all major political parties had declared their support for some or the other candidate.
Elections to panchayats are held at three levels — gram panchayats, kshetra (block) panchayats and zila (district) panchayats. According to the State Election Commission, about 13 lakh candidates were in the fray this time, for approximately eight lakh seats, across the three levels.
Along with the 3,050 zila panchayat seats, the April elections also saw people voting for village panchayat members and gram pradhans for 58,176 gram panchayats in the state and 75,852 kshetra (block) panchayat members. The president of the kshetra panchayats and zila panchayats are elected by the members of these bodies.
What has come as a jolt for the BJP is the fact that candidates backed by the party could not win even in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency, Varanasi, and other party strongholds such as Lucknow, Ayodhya and Prayagraj. The Samajwadi Party (SP) won in these districts with comfortable margins.
Where local issues hold sway
Notwithstanding the below-par performance of the party, despite being in power, a majority of the BJP leaders ThePrint spoke to said that the results were in no way a proof of things to come.
This, they said, is because panchayat polls are fought on extremely local issues.
Rita Bahuguna Joshi, the BJP’s Allahabad MP said, “These are local elections where local issues dominate. They don’t have any bearing on government formation for assembly or Parliamentary elections.”
She admitted, however, that the party is analysing the results to figure out what went wrong for the BJP in these elections.
A senior minister in the UP government, who did not want to be named, told ThePrint, “In a panchayat election, different sentiments are at play. These are very personalised elections. Candidates win based on their connections with the people in the villages, because of the community they belong to… People don’t vote on ideological lines in a panchayat poll.”
Issues like the “Ram Mandir, Hindutva”, thus, do not sway the course of these elections, he added.
Bahuguna also pointed out that in the past, both the BSP and SP, despite winning panchayat polls when they were in power, lost out in subsequent assembly elections.
Giving an example, she said that in 2010, when the BSP was in power in UP, candidates backed by the party performed well in the panchayat polls. But the BSP lost the next assembly elections to the SP, in 2012.
“Similarly, in the 2015 panchayat polls, the SP backed candidates did well. But the party failed to deliver in the assembly elections in 2017. It lost to BJP,” the Lok Sabha MP said.
Some political analysts agreed that the panchayat poll results couldn’t be viewed as being indicative of the party’s poor prospects in next year’s assembly elections.
“These elections are fought very loosely. Political parties do not get involved too much, their association is loose, unlike in legislative or parliamentary elections. Local issues, local sentiments dominate,” said Professor Badri Narayan of Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad, in concurrence with the views expressed by the BJP minister.
What the party will lose by its candidates’ loss in the panchayat polls, according to Narayan, is the control over cadres. “The pradhan (village head) backed by a particular party can mobilise resources for them. The party will get cadre, who will work for them.”
Some, however, felt that the time before the assembly polls is too short for people to let go of resentments they obviously harbour against the party, which stopped them from voting for candidates it supported.
“The prevalent public sentiment is not likely to change overnight. The panchayat poll results are an indication of public resentment against the ruling party and it will have a bearing in assembly elections next year,” said political analyst, Dr Ramesh Dixit, former head of Lucknow University’s political science department.
Agreed Ram Dutt Tripathi, a UP-based political commentator and former BBC journalist. “People saw the insensitivity with which the state dealt with the Covid situation initially. So many people died. You really think people will forget all this in the next seven to 10 months?”
Dixit also spoke of public anger stemming from the fact that the government could not deliver on what it promised.
“Migrant workers who returned to the state in thousands after the nationwide lockdown last year were promised jobs. But most of them did not get any substantive work, except under MGNREGA,” he said.
BJP leaders too admitted that the Covid crisis in the state has led to a building of anger in the people against the ruling party.
“People were dying because they could not get a bed or oxygen supply…. Also, people on the ground were angry that they did not get the benefits of various welfare schemes announced by the government,” Ved Prakash Gupta, BJP MLA from Ayodhya told ThePrint.
The timing of the election — in the midst of a Covid second surge — also upset the people, felt some.
Kaushal Kishore, BJP’s Lok Sabha MP from Mohanlalganj said he was the first one to demand that panchayat elections should be postponed after Covid cases started surging. “People were affected…,” he said.
Mohanlalganj assembly constituency is a part of Lucknow district, which is one of the worst affected by Covid-19, both in terms of new cases and deaths. In Lucknow, of the 25 zila panchayat seats, BJP-backed candidates won in just three. Meanwhile, SP-backed candidates won nine seats.
Kishore, in fact, had written to UP CM Yogi Adityanath demanding that the Election Commission cancel the panchayat elections to focus on Covid crisis and restrict the spread of infection in the state.
The resentment within
Not just the public. BJP insiders believe there is dissatisfaction with the leaders even among the party’s members.
A major reason being forwarded for the BJP’s poor show in the panchayat polls is the role played by “rebel” candidates
“Those who were expecting a ticket and were working on the ground were denied tickets. They rebelled and fought as independents from the same seats and defeated the candidate backed by us,” said Gupta.
In Ayodhya, of the total 40 zila panchayat seats, BJP backed candidates won in just seven, while SP backed candidates won 17 seats. The remaining seats were won by candidates backed by the BSP or independents.
Some of the BJP MLAs ThePrint spoke to said that many in the party were also angry because of the way party workers and the elected representatives have been sidelined by the Yogi Adityanath-led government.
“Many of our party workers and leaders succumbed to Covid because of inadequate treatment. We were helpless as even we could not get anything done. When our constituents came to us and asked for help, to get patients admitted [to hospitals] or requested us to arrange for oxygen supply, we could not do anything. This has left both party workers and leaders demoralised,” said one of the MLAs, who did not want to be named.
The MLA said that many elected representatives have avoided going out to their areas because of this. “How do we face the public when we know we don’t have the power to help them?” the MLA said.
Another MLA from a central UP district said that they were not consulted by the government on ways to battle the pandemic.
“The government never consulted us on anything related to Covid management…. What’s the situation on the ground and what needs to be done… It completely relied on a team of bureaucrats who failed to deliver,” he said.
As a result, most party leaders felt that the BJP needed to introspect on the underlying reasons for this loss.
The results, they said, should be taken as a a wake-up call for the party in the state. “Nazar andaz nahin kar sakte. Atma manthan ki jaroorat hain (We can’t ignore. There is a need for self-introspection),” the UP minister quoted earlier said.
“We have to look into the reasons, if there has been a gap in delivery of welfare schemes on the ground. If the state had allocated ample quantity of medical oxygen, why did people die gasping for breath? If we said there are adequate beds, why did people keep waiting? All these things will have to be looked into,” the minister added.
Most BJP leaders said that the independent candidates were behind the party’s poor show in the panchayat polls.
According to Joshi, about 100 rebel candidates — those affiliated to the BJP but who fought as independents after being denied tickets — had contested these polls.
The number, according to BJP Phaphamau MLA Vikramjeet, is “at least 10-12 in each ward”. “The rebels were all BJP workers, who were denied tickets. It’s these rebels, who won in many seats,” he said.
Joshi was optimistic that the rebels will eventually come back to the party. “You should always remember that when it comes to forming the government, BJP ranks close in to ensure that we win.”
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)