Three reasons why the 2022 elections are important
The election results will tell us whether the BJP has been able to neutralise the resentment of farmers in Punjab, western Uttar Pradesh and the plains of Uttarakhand by repealing the three farm laws, which BJP leaders often insisted will help double farmers’ income by 2022.
The 2022 state polls could be called the biggest election in the country after the 2019 general elections in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi came back with a thumping majority. The elections to five states - Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur - which make up for a little over one-fifth of the country’s population come at the time when the Omicron variant of Covid-19 is surging across India with 1,41,000 Covid cases reported on Friday, the highest since May 2021. This will also be the first electoral test for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after the repeal of the three farm laws. The BJP rules in four of the five election-bound states.
The election results will tell us whether the BJP has been able to neutralise the resentment of farmers in Punjab, western Uttar Pradesh and the plains of Uttarakhand by repealing the three farm laws, which BJP leaders often insisted will help double farmers’ income by 2022. Data suggests that India is nowhere close to doubling the farmer’s income. In fact, earnings from the farm sector have almost remained stagnant primarily due to the rising input cost of fertilisers and labour, a reason for the palpable anger among farmers against the government.
Except in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, there is a direct fight between the BJP and the Congress in Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa, where the BJP is in power. In the 2017 election, the Congress got more seats than the BJP in Manipur and Goa but was not able to form the government. In Uttar Pradesh, the fight is being considered bipolar this time between the ruling BJP and the Samajwadi Party. In Punjab, the contest seems triangular as Congress faces stiff competition from the Aam Aadmi Party, the main opposition party in the outgoing Punjab assembly, and the Shiromani Akali Dal, which the Congress defeated with a huge margin in 2017.
In a multi-layered polity where caste plays an important role, the poll results will broadly answer three vital questions. First, whether farmer protests resonated with people after the repeal; second, whether hate speeches against minorities led to polarization and third, whether high inflation and Covid management had any electoral impact
First, the farm protests have the potential to impact 240 of the 620 assembly seats going to polls in 5 states. And, its first electoral impact was visible this week when prime minister Narendra Modi returned from Punjab without attending an election rally on Wednesday after what the Centre has described as a massive security breach. Punjab chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi has claimed that the prime minister returned as there was no crowd at the election rally. Across Punjab, activists of farmer unions are still targeting BJP leaders and are projecting BJP as a party against Punjabiyat.
There is no clarity whether the decision of 20 of the 30 farm unions that participated in a year-long protest at Delhi borders to contest polls in Punjab will really have a major impact on the elections. They have not even started their campaign. The Punjab elections will also be important for Shiromani Akali Dal, which walked out of the BJP led National Democratic Alliance in 2021 after the farmer protest and is looking for its political revival. AAP continues to be resurgent in Punjab though it is yet to declare its chief ministerial candidate, a sticking point for the party’s campaign in the state.
In western Uttar Pradesh, which sends 110 lawmakers to the 403-seat UP assembly, analysts are keenly watching out for Rakesh Tikait, who emerged as the face of the farmers’ voice from the region. Although Rakesh Tikait has announced that he will not contest polls, his nuanced support to any political outing could influence the elections in some regions. The BJP in 2017 assembly elections won over 80 seats in western Uttar Pradesh, the region with the highest Muslim concentration in the state. Locals say apart from farm protest, unreasonably low price of sugarcane announced by the BJP governments, increase in fertilizer costs, high electricity prices and cattle menace because of stringent slaughter rules are other issues affecting the farmers.
To pacify farmers, the UP government just last week announced slashing electricity tariffs for agriculture and a decision to clear sugarcane dues worth ₹12,000 crore. In Uttar Pradesh, there is a sizeable Sikh population in terai region of Lakhimpur, Pilibhit, Sultanpur districts of Uttar Pradesh. Four farmers protesting against Centre’s farm laws were reportedly crushed under a vehicle of Ashish Mishra, BJP leader and son of union junior minister Ajay Kumar Mishra alias Teni, in Lakhimpur Kheri district in October first week.
The farm protests will also resonate in 15 of the 70 assembly seats of Uttarakhand, especially in the plains of Haridwar and Uddam Singh Nagar, which have a sizeable Muslim and Sikh population. The BJP is already fighting huge anti-incumbency in the state, where it changed three chief ministers in 2021. The rival Congress is engulfed in intense infighting.
Secondly, the elections will indicate if there is an impact of hate speeches against Muslims at Haridwar Dharam Sansad on December 17-19, followed by another one in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, on December 29, on elections. Political observers believe that these speeches may have been a deliberate effort before the crucial assembly polls as they were aimed at polarisation. No senior BJP leader has criticized the speakers at the Dharam Sansad for hate speeches against Muslims even as they came out in support of Kalicharan Maharaj when he was arrested by Chhattisgarh police for abusing Mahatma Gandhi at Raipur Dharam Sansad. Although the Uttarakhand police registered a case for the hate speeches on December 22 and named five speakers as accused, not even one of them has been questioned so far. Only three accused have only been issued summons so far.
The third issue is governance related-- Covid management and high essential commodities inflation.
During the second Covid wave in April-May 2021, at least three of the poll-bound states - Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Goa - were in national news for their handling of the Covid pandemic during the peak of the second wave. There were photographs of bodies floating in the river Ganga in several places in Uttar Pradesh and buried at the ghats of various rivers in the state. The Uttarakhand government imposed minimal restrictions for Haridwar Mahakumbh that started in April 2021 despite experts warning against allowing the gathering. The congregation was considered a major contributor to the second Covid wave in the Hindi heartland.
Of course, the death of tens of thousands of people and allegations of Covid mismanagement were not limited to only these states as reports of suppressing actual Covid deaths and patients dying because of lack of oxygen emerged from several other states. But, the elections could give some insight if there is a political cost to the loss of so many lives.
On inflation, the consumer price index increased by 6.8% between November of 2020 and 2021, the largest 12-month increase since the period ending June 1982. Energy prices increased by 33% in the past year, the highest ever. Petrol is being sold for over ₹100 at several places and an LPG cylinder costs slightly over ₹1,000. The 2022 election is also the first election since the central government reduced petrol and diesel prices by ₹5 and ₹10, respectively, and the results might well indicate if the price cut was enough to soothe public anger over the high cost of fuel.