UP: Why BJP Publicising Zila Panchayat Chief Poll Victory as Public Mandate Is Deceptive

Not only are district panchayat chiefs elected indirectly, there have been widespread allegations of rigging, abuse of state machinery and conspiracy.

Gorakhpur: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ally Apna Dal have secured 67 of 75 seats in the Uttar Pradesh zila panchayat chairperson polls held on July 3. The main opposition, Samajwadi Party (SP), bagged only six seats. In Jaunpur, the wife of former strongman MP Dhananjay Singh was victorious while a candidate fielded by former minister Raja Bhaiya Raghuraj Pratap Singh won from Pratapgarh.

Jubilation erupted in the BJP camp after the victory was announced. It is being hailed as a ‘historic win’ by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, home minister Amit Shah, defence minister Rajnath Singh, BJP president Jagat Prakash Nadda, all of whom tweeted congratulatory messages.

“The victory of BJP in the zila panchayat elections for development, public service and to maintain law and order is a blessing from the public. The credit goes to chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s policies and the efforts put in by party workers. Hearty congratulations to the UP government and BJP party,” Prime Minister Modi tweeted. Home minister Amit Shah termed the victory ‘spectacular’ in his tweet, defence minister Rajnath Singh called it ‘impressive’ while BJP president Jagat Prakash Nadda called it remarkable.

Attributing the victory to the policies of Modi, chief minister Adityanath tweeted, “The BJP’s historic sweep in these elections is due to pro-people policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is also a reflection of the good governance model of UP.”

Poll victory as public mandate?

The local poll victory is also being hailed in the media with headlines such as ‘BJP clinches massive victory’, ‘From East to West, BJP Paints UP Saffron’.

Some newspapers went on to claim that the pair of Adityanath and his deputy Swatantra Dev Singh has done the magic in the so-called “semi-finals” before the assembly polls slated for 2022. Adityanath went a step further and predicted that the BJP would win more than 300 seats in the assembly elections.

However, these are but tall and baseless claims propagated by the BJP and the media. It is common knowledge that a district panchayat president is elected indirectly, i.e., they are chosen by the zila panchayat members. The members of the zila panchayat, on the other hand, are elected directly by the public.

Also read: Ahead of Polls, BJP Top Brass in Political Flux as Adityanath Loses Grip on UP

Therefore, measured on the scale of good governance and pro-people policies, a true victory is that of a zila panchayat member who is chosen by the public.

Elections for the zila panchayat chairperson have for long involved money, muscle and power where the powerful one usually wins the polls. When the elections were held during the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the SP rule, most of the district panchayat head posts were secured by members of these parties. If the victory in these polls is taken as a sign of a favourable public mandate and the result of good governance and public welfare policies, one must bear in mind that when the BSP and the SP were in power, they faced a crushing defeat in the assembly elections, which were held within a year after the district panchayat polls.

BJP leaders are tactfully publicising the poll victory as public mandate without mentioning the drubbing the party faced two months ago in the election of zila panchayat members. A large section of the media, which called the defeat a wake-up call for the BJP two months ago, is now promoting the BJP’s narrative.

Poor show in zila panchayat member polls

On May 2, when the results of the zila panchayat member polls were announced, the BJP’s social media handles went quiet. Not a word was uttered by Adityanath on Twitter about the party’s defeat. On May 5, he congratulated all the winning candidates in his tweet: “Heartfelt congratulations to all the candidates who have won the panchayat elections of Uttar Pradesh by getting the blessings from the public. In this challenging period, I urge you to cooperate with the local administration and join hands in the service of humanity.”

The Twitter handle of the BJP state president, Swatantra Dev Singh, was also mum on the panchayat election result.

On May 5, Singh shared a photo of him at a protest against the post-poll violence in West Bengal. However, after May 2, the Uttar Pradesh BJP handle didn’t share any tweet regarding the panchayat poll outcome.

The outcome of the district panchayat elections, contested on the basis of the party symbol, left the BJP dejected. Coupled with the party’s defeat in the West Bengal assembly elections, these developments were seen as major setbacks for the saffron party.

The polls for 3,050 zila panchayat members across 75 districts of the state were held in four phases in April and the results were announced over four days, starting on May 2. During this period, according to media reports, independent candidates won more seats with around 1,100 candidates being voted in, followed by the SP which won around 800 seats. The BJP managed to win a little over 600 seats.

The BSP camp claimed to have won over 300 seats. Congress state president Ajay Kumar Lallu claimed that the party won 270, Aam Aadmi Party’s Rajya Sabha member Sanjay Singh claimed to have won 83 and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) 65 seats.

The BJP’s performance was dismal in Varanasi, the parliamentary constituency of the prime minister, the chief minister’s home turf in Gorakhpur, and other significant BJP strongholds like Lucknow, Ayodhya and Mathura.

Soon after the Bihar assembly elections were over, former Union agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh was appointed in-charge of UP. He visited all the districts to ensure that each unit was gearing up for the panchayat polls. A standard was set and the prescribed procedure was laid down for finalising candidates. It was decided that tickets would not be handed to family members of ministers.

However, despite rigorous preparations, the BJP’s mediocre performance in the zila panchayat elections landed it in third place.

The poor show put up by the party led to a series of lengthy discussions, brainstorming sessions, and rounds of meetings contemplating leadership change in the BJP.

BJP president Amit Shah with UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath (then an MP) during an election road show in Gorakhpur district in 2017. Photo: PTI/Files

Instances of political conspiracy

With such small numbers, it was apparent to the BJP that winning the panchayat president polls in a majority of the seats was unattainable. Thus, it resorted to other tactics to win the election.

Also read: UP: BJP Claims Victory, Opposition Parties Allege Massive Rigging in ZP Chairperson Polls

The gross misuse of the state machinery by the BJP to win the zila panchayat president elections has been unprecedented. Though it has been a trend during the previous governments too, it has reached new levels under Yogi. In a viral video, Auraiya district magistrate Sunil Kumar Verma can be heard talking about shutting down a camera just before the election, making an SP candidate lose.

When an SP candidate in Siddharthnagar district did not bow down despite being intimidated and lured, the police dug the road in front of his house. In Baghpat, the police did the same to another district panchayat member house. A flurry of FIRs were filed against several SP leaders. In Sitapur, an FIR was registered against 30 people, including CPI(ML) zila panchayat member Arjun Lal and his family members for land grabbing. He was kept under house arrest for 36 hours. Charges under the National Security Act were invoked against another young SP leader in Deoria. From the day nomination began till actual voting took place, the houses of many SP leaders were raided.

In 17 districts, a situation was created so that no candidate except that of the BJP could file nominations and, here, the BJP candidates won unopposed. In Gorakhpur, a rape case was registered against a panchayat member nominated by the SP. His house was allegedly raided daily by the police. Tired of the harassment, the SP candidate caved under pressure and was ‘absent’ on the day of nomination. The SP fielded another candidate, who was allegedly abducted a day before the nomination. When the SP brought a third candidate to file the nomination papers, the police stopped him on the way. The candidate somehow managed to reach the collectorate office but found the gate locked. Eventually, the SP candidate could not even file the nomination.

In four other districts, the opposition candidates withdrew their nomination and the BJP candidates were elected unopposed. Another instance of alleged political conspiracy was the failed attempt to force the RLD candidate in Baghpat to withdraw his nomination.

There are endless episodes where district panchayat members were held hostage at resorts, or lured with huge sums in bribes. Every district had different ‘rates’ for trading candidates. A few other parties tried to partake in horsetrading in several districts, but could not surpass the BJP.

The opposition parties, however, failed to oppose the abuse of state machinery by the BJP or its politics of oppression and intimidation. They could not even milk the opportunity in their favour. The way RLD in Baghpat and CPI (ML) in Sitapur took on the government despite the pressure is exemplary. If the SP had resisted it too, the BJP government wouldn’t have been able to resort to such arbitrariness. The SP won in districts where its leaders and party workers remained steadfast and united.

If victory achieved through such manipulations, use of money power, and oppression tactics can be called a ‘blessing’ from the public and attributed to people’s confidence in welfare policies and good governance, then perhaps we need a new definition for democracy.

Translated from the Hindi original by Naushin Rehman.