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2022 UP Polls: Will Covid Affect the Outcome and How Crucial were the Panchayat Elections?

File pic of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

File pic of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

Observers say it'd also be interesting to see how the BJP handles the impact of the farmers’ protest that has gained momentum in the western parts of the state.

As the second and deadlier wave of the coronavirus is receding in Uttar Pradesh, all eyes are now once again focusing back on the 2022 assembly polls. The results of the panchayat elections this month may have boosted the confidence of the Samajwadi Party, but a close look at the numbers reveals the Bharatiya Janata Party bettered its performance from the 2015 edition. It will be interesting to see, however, how the ruling party handles the impact of the farmers’ protest against the Centre’s new agricultural reforms that has gained momentum in the western parts of the state, say observers.

While the BJP says it will return to power next year with more seats than it had won in the 2017 assembly polls, the SP maintains the saffron party has failed people of the UP during the pandemic and people will express their anger through their votes.

The Uttar Pradesh assembly houses 403 seats, of which the BJP won 312 in 2017, followed by the SP with 47 and the Bahujan Samaj Party with 19. The BSP, however, polled more votes than the SP. According to data available, in the 2017 elections, the state had about 14.05 crore voters of which 7.7 crore were men and 6.3 crore women.

Are the panchayat polls bellwether for 2022?

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Many saw the panchayat elections as a semi-final for the assembly polls as they give an idea of the ground situation prevailing in the rural parts. The SP says the candidates supported by it performed extremely well as there is resentment against the government among the people in the countryside. The BJP says it fared better than it did in 2015. The polls are not contested on party symbols but candidates effectively represent one political party or another. More than 8.69 lakh posts were up for grabs in the rural polls. Of these, over 7.32 lakh seats were in the gram panchayat wards, 58,176 in the gram panchayats, 75,852 in the kshetra (block) panchayats and 3,050 in the zilla panchayats. The state election commission said more than 3.19 lakh candidates were elected unopposed.

Speaking to News18, SP spokesperson Sunil Singh Sajan said, “The mandate that the Samajwadi Party has got in the panchayat elections, even after misuse of power by the BJP and the administration working in their favour, it proves that the people are angry and fed up with the BJP. The panchayat elections are always an indicator of the ground situation in the state. The panchayat elections have also proved that they are now looking towards the Samajwadi Party and its chief Akhilesh Yadav. If the panchayat elections were held today, BJP leaders wouldn’t have been able to enter villages with the BJP flag on their vehicles. In 2022, the BJP leaders will not be able to roam around with the party flag. The farmers are also upset with them along with unemployed youth, Dalits and those who have lost their family members due to the coronavirus.”

BJP spokesperson Rakesh Tripathi expressed satisfaction at his party’s performance while maintaining that it would have done better but for the pandemic. “This was the first panchayat election of Uttar Pradesh where the BJP came out and extended full-fledged support to candidates. However, due to Covid, we could not use many of our star campaigners. But still we have done remarkably well, going by the number of BJP-supported candidates that had won in 2015. The Samajwadi Party didn’t even support the number of candidates that they are claiming have won. This was our first-time experiment and we have done remarkably well. If Covid protocols were not in place, we would have done even better.”

Will Covid influence assembly poll results?

The ruling party says it can’t be blamed for a pandemic as it is a natural phenomenon prevailing all over the world. However, the Samajwadi Party alleges that people haven’t just died because of Covid but also due to the mismanagement and unpreparedness of the government.

“The coronavirus cannot give political mileage to anyone; the entire world was affected by this and not just Uttar Pradesh. Had it been only limited to the state and caused by some political mistake, then definitely there could have been repercussions. But people today are updated through the media and social media that corona has affected people in England also, for instance, and not just India. Going by the size of the state, population, health infrastructure and per capita income, the way Uttar Pradesh has performed, it will only be a positive for the BJP,” said Tripathi. “The BJP is the only party which has, through its organisational setup, stood with the people of the state in difficult times. Others like the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party didn’t help anyone, be it this time or the last time when migrant labourers were returning to the state. We even distributed slippers to them.”

Analysts say Uttar Pradesh has so far seen politics of alliances, caste and religion, and it will be interesting to see if the coronavirus is able to alter the equations significantly.

The SP is of the opinion that Covid will be a key factor in the 2022 assembly polls. “The entire country is fighting with the coronavirus and everyone has acted responsibly barring those who should have acted responsibly. The people who are in power, who could have arranged for beds in hospitals, oxygen, medicines, such people not just showed laxity but also embezzled funds in the name of Covid. People who have lost their near and dear ones due to lack of oxygen, shortage of beds and non-availability of ambulances, how will they forget this cruel face of the BJP?” said Sajan.

Are parties prepared for the 2022 battle?

With less than seven months to go for the elections, observers say political parties have already chalked out their plan and have started to work silently towards achieving their goals.

“The Samajwadi Party has been continuously working towards strengthening its organisation. Before the second wave of Covid, our national president (Akhilesh Yadav) was visiting districts, attending training camps of the cadres and was meeting people continuously. During the first wave and the second wave, Samajwadi Party workers were helping the people. Many of those who died during the pandemic were given financial assistance by the party and even today the party has been demanding compensation for the teachers who lost their lives during panchayat election duty due to corona. Our national president is personally speaking to the families of these teachers and we will continue to do whatever it takes to help the people of the state,” Sajan said.

Speaking about his party’s preparedness, Rakesh Tripathi said the BJP will return to power. “Our party had issued a Sankalp Patra in 2017 about how we would run the government and we have met most of the promises. We have a lot of achievements to tell the people, right from farmers’ issues, jobs, fight against corruption and maintaining law and order. We will go to the public with our achievements and I am sure the BJP will return to power with even more seats in the 2022 assembly polls,” he said.

What experts say

While a slight dent has been caused to the BJP government due to over-reliance on officers, Covid won’t be able to topple it, many experts say. They also feel that Akhilesh Yadav has an advantage as people still remember the work done by him and he has strongly positioned himself as the main opposition leader in UP.

Speaking to news18, political observer and commentator Ratan Mani Lal said, “There has been a dent to the BJP and it cannot be denied, as the government relied too much on the feedback given by the officers. The government kept on issuing statements that everything was under control, which was not. If the real picture was revealed then, right and corrective measures could have been taken then only, and it could have saved a lot of lives. The people who have lost their near and dear ones are not going to forgive the BJP. The chief minister is in damage control mode but the people who have suffered will remember their sufferings. However, on the other hand, most of people have accepted that this pandemic is beyond anyone’s control. This is typical Indian mentality that many people blame it on nature and faith and they are seen absolving the government. Having said that, coming back to the political aspect, Akhilesh has emerged as the sole opposition face in UP, with an experience of five years of governing the state. The governance of Akhilesh is still fresh in the minds of the people which gives him a dual advantage.”

On the aspects of the BJP countering the narrative and changing its strategy for the elections, he said that the party may not alter its game plan or project a new face. “There is very little time for any major change. The only big thing that they might do is to include some new faces in the cabinet. But there won’t be any major change and it will be more or less the same as it was in 2017. The BJP doesn’t have time to change its CM face now and Akhilesh will be by default the opposition face and will have the advantage of his governance. As per my observation, natural calamities never become an election issue in our country as many people have accepted the pandemic as their fate and they do not blame any political party for it. The BJP might lose in some areas which were badly affected by the pandemic but I don’t think that it will affect its winnability,” said Lal. “This was the first panchayat election where the BJP went all-in; earlier it used to leave things to the second line of leaders. And whatever they have gained is because of this only. It’s like Bengal where they might have lost the polls but they gained from 3 to 77 seats. The BJP will be focusing more on the districts where it has performed well in the panchayat polls to ensure a win in the assembly elections."

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