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Last year's UP panchayat polls broke BJP's invincibility myth, 'not money, muscle power'

Bharat Dogra* 

While elections in all States are important, state assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP) always have a special importance from a national perspective. So it is this time around too as the election scene in Uttar Pradesh is being followed very eagerly.
Generally BJP is depicted to be strong in this State, but let us check this against the results of the panchayat elections held last year in UP. While nobody is saying that similar results will be repeated in assembly elections as these are after all a different game, but surely some indication of grassroots support can be gathered from there.
Panchayat election systems can differ somewhat from State to State but generally these involve elections for rural decentralization institutions at three tiers -- village ( or cluster of smaller villages), block, district. For some posts at these level people vote directly to elect representatives. The real grassroot support is reflected in this component of direct elections.
For other senior posts it is these directly elected representatives who vote in a system of indirect election, with high possibility of manipulations. These panchayat elections are not officially fought on party lines, but party affiliations and support are clearly known and widely reported.
In the UP panchayat elections in 2021, spread over April-July, first the results of direct elections, more clearly reflecting the real inclinations of people, came in. These reflected a clear trend of the BJP trailing at a rather distant second position.
The BJP tried to hide its discomfort at these results by claiming several winning independents as its supporters, but this did not get much credibility. In particular several reports emphasized the very poor showing of the BJP in its strongholds like Ayodhya, Varanasi and Mathura.
In a report updated in the “Hindustan Times” on May 6, for instance, it was stated that in Varanasi, the Lok Sabha constituency of PM Narendra Modi, out of 40 seats of zila (district) panchayat members, the BJP was at a rather distant second place and could win only 7.
In Mathura, the Lok Sabha constituency of a BJP star campaigner, the BJP was pushed to sharing even the second spot. In Ayodhya, another supposed big stronghold of the BJP, the BJP could win only 8 out of 40 seats, again getting only a distant second spot.
The BJP was pushed to the second spot in the directly contested elections despite the BJP candidates being generally much better placed in terms of resources and massive funds having been been poured in recent times into BJP strongholds like Varanasi, apart from the more general advantages of the BJP being the the ruling party .
A widely discussed analysis of these election results by a senior MP and political leader of the BJP found the BJP leading in only 67 out of 357 rural Assembly constituencies (urban constituencies were not covered in this analysis as these are not relevant in the context of rural panchayat elections).
This first phase of panchayat elections reflected the trends obtained by direct voting and hence are more relevant for knowing the public mood.
However, indirect voting was still to be held for the posts of block pramukhs ( second tier head-persons ) and zila panchayat adhyakshas or district panchayat presidents ( third- tier headpersons) in July. Due to the much smaller number of voters involved in these indirect elections, these were more prone to use of money power and muscle power, and these were won by the BJP. There were many news reports and videos of violence, intimidation, beatings and firing.
So the lessons of panchayat elections in UP last year appear to be that the ground-level support for the BJP has dwindled, but at the same time the BJP has greatly increased its capacity for post election manipulation, and this has to be guarded against.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save the Earth Now; recent books: “Protecting Earth for Children” and “Planet in Peril”

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