Panchayat polls in Uttar Pradesh should have happened last year. The term of panchayat bodies ended in December. But due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the election was not held until the Allahabad High Court intervened this year.
The high court in February directed the Uttar Pradesh government to complete the panchayat election process by May 25. In 2005 too, panchayat election in Uttar Pradesh was held after the high court’s intervention — that is, two of four panchayat elections required judicial order.
Voting for the first of the four-phase panchayat election in Uttar Pradesh began Thursday morning. The Uttar Pradesh panchayat election is being held at four levels — gram panchayat, gram pradhan, block panchayat and zila panchayat.
WHY THESE PANCHAYAT POLLS MATTER
Over 2.2 lakh seats are to be decided in these panchayat polls, which are not held along party lines. But these polls are extremely significant in Uttar Pradesh as they are being held less than a year before the state goes to the assembly election.
Uttar Pradesh is largely a rural state with about 78 per cent population living in rural areas. This means the panchayat election would cover more than three-fourths of Uttar Pradesh in terms of population, and also voters.
The panchayat election is expected to provide a measure of the political standing of all parties, particularly the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Samajwadi Party (SP), and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Even though the candidates are not contesting on a particular party’s symbol, these parties extend support to the nominees and their workers take part in poll campaigns.
The BJP released a list of candidates in a centralised manner at the state level for the Uttar Pradesh panchayat election. Several of them were spouses, children and relatives of established leaders of the party. In one case, the BJP was forced to drop a candidate.
The SP and the BSP too have given similar importance to the panchayat polls. Details of dynasty politics in Uttar Pradesh panchayat election could be seen here.
WHY IT IS A HIGH-STAKE CONTEST
The Uttar Pradesh panchayat election is being held in the middle of a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic when the cases of coronavirus infections are rising in an unprecedented manner, there is an acute shortage of hospital beds, and vaccination drive has fallen awfully short to meet demand.
Additionally, the four-level panchayat polls are being held under the shadow of unrelenting protests by farmers over three agricultural reform laws that the Narendra Modi government brought last year. Western Uttar Pradesh was one of the biggest theatres of farmers’ protest. Farm policies, anyway, have direct impact on rural economy and the lives of villagers.
Thirdly, this is the first grassroots-level election exercise in Uttar Pradesh since the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which saw violent protests particularly by Muslim groups and strict action by security forces in the state. This is expected to play a role in panchayat polls.
Fourthly, this is also the first election test after the formal beginning of the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. Construction of this temple had been the BJP’s core agenda since 1980s.
The outcome of panchayat election in Uttar Pradesh is likely to give the three main parties — the BJP, the SP and the BSP — a fair idea about how they need to proceed towards assembly election next year.
WHY RULING PARTY DEPENDS ON PANCHAYAT
Since a majority of the population resides in rural areas, the government’s policies and schemes are mostly routed through panchayats — the local governing bodies. An estimated 70 per cent of rural development funds reach beneficiaries through panchayat bodies. Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, better known as MNREGA, is one such policy.
Visible development works — such as road construction, drinking water supply, toilet construction, and housing schemes — are implemented by various panchayat bodies.
These are the works that often dominate election narrative in rural areas. Visible development or absence of it in villages practically decides the fate of a government in an assembly election.
PANCHAYAT POLLS TO SET STAGE FOR ASSEMBLLY ELECTION
In these Covid-19 times, panchayat bodies have also emerged as the nodal centres in villages for distribution of benefits announced by the central and state governments, and also in vaccination drive.
With such high stakes, many see these panchayat polls in Uttar Pradesh as a ‘semi-final’ before the ‘final’ assembly election. The ruling BJP will be looking for signs of a possible backlash over the farm laws protest and Covid-19 situation.
At the same time, the SP and the BSP would be watching out for signals of anti-incumbency to exploit over the next one year leading to the assembly election. Clearly, the Uttar Pradesh panchayat election that began Thursday morning is likely to set the stage for 2022 UP Assembly election.