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“Na Ram hai, na Ram Rajya, bas Ram bharose hai sab yahan. (‘There is no Rm, no Raam Rajya for good governance, it is all happening in Ram’s name’)”
– Ram Janam Verma, a 45-year old farmer toiling in his field near Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh.
Verma’s words on the state of governance in Uttar Pradesh amidst the election campaign rhetoric being pitched and amplified in the name of the deity Ram by the Yogi Adityanath-led Bharatiya Janata Party government is hard to forget or ignore.
Verma’s words poignantly reflect, in aggregate, shared views of voters from across UP, after our team from the Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES) spent a month travelling across cities and districts of Lucknow, Gonda, Ayodhya, while speaking to two targeted (voter) groups in particular: first time voters (students) in urban areas, and rural farmers.
A few critical observations from the field are shared here.
Radha, a first-time voter, and a student of mass communications department of BBD college in Lucknow, made an interesting observation: “As soon as elections come, promises come, which may never be fulfilled, likewise, issues may not be there but are seen to become so, when elections are around the corner.”
While Radha and her peers accept there is excitement amongst them in exercising their democratic right to vote for the first time this assembly election, they do, however, indicate the degree to which they remain sceptical on the ex-post (after) effects of their vote.
First time voters like Radha argue it is critical to be cautious and aware of the diabolical functioning of political parties oft seen during election campaigns, with respect to the package of promised announcements reflected in their manifestos, and in terms of the ‘real’ action on the ground. The gulf between ‘promised hope’ prior to elections and ‘realised gains’ after elections on promises made is massive.
What is more revealing, at least from this election, is how many voter groups (at least those we spoke to) are aware about this gap between hope and reality, and as a result put little faith in the government’s ability and competencies to act upon what it says it will do. Perhaps, that’s one of the key reasons why anti-incumbency in UP has remained so high election-after-election.
Radha, despite being a first time voter, isn’t the only one whose aware of this. Farmers from Gonda and Ayodhya agree too.
Would this election be any different?
The short answer is: It is difficult to say.
Resentment against the Yogi-led BJP government is far wide spread across western, central UP (the regions where we travelled most), and while many prefer not to voice their ‘dissatisfaction’ out in the public or put it on the record, the issues against the government’s poor performance couldn’t be clearer.
Ram Verma, from a village near Ayodhya, says,
“Ayodhya is being pitched at the centre of BJP’s election focus throughout this campaign. But, if you come here, you will get ‘confused’. Yogi ji doesn’t trust his own MLAs and likes taking everything up on his own in a centralised way. He would have come to Ayodhya 42 times, still, if you come here to see what has been done in the name of development, you are likely to be more ‘confused’ than get any ‘clarity’…There is nothing to see that can give us the confidence that one party is better-or more effective-than another…”
Rakesh, a student and a first time voter, adds a salient advice:
“Any party that contests elections in UP should have a robust plan for how they will be implementing what they promise in their manifesto. We know this because previously voters have been often misled…For a case in point, see UP’s poor performance in education and employment creation”
This was a common concern. Almost all interviewed groups was how easily parties dodge their responsibilities once they were in office, blaming either the size of the state or a lack of resources to implement what they promise.
Underperformance of BJP on 2Es in UP: ‘Employment and Education’
Amongst the first time voters whom we spoke to, there is massive economic insecurity about the possibility of getting decent jobs anywhere or across sectors:
“Employment is the biggest issue that the youth in Uttar Pradesh is facing right now. Thousands of students have been preparing for competitive exams in cities like Allahabad (Prayagraj) for years, but they don’t have jobs to show for the hard work they have put in. They are well versed in their courses, have good degrees, but there are no vacancies available to give them the opportunity they deserve,” aid Pramod from Lucknow Public College of Professional Studies.
The issue of joblessness and economic insecurity around finding decent paid work in the organised sector, according to first time voters, is one of the key issues this election. The distressing situation in Uttar Pradesh is not merely a consequence of economic downturn from the pandemic, but can be seen as part of a long drawn out process by many from a chronic failure of public institutions and the government to create enough vacancies across public sectors and departments for job-enrolment.
This has angered the youth which has led to ‘job riots’. The latest episode of job riots was seen in case of the railway recruitment drive which was put on hold amidst violent protests. This recruitment process had shortlisted 3.84 lakh candidates for almost 35,500 vacancies in the Non-Technical Popular Categories now leaving all these candidates in the dark.
“Creating employment is one thing, but the process of existing recruitment process has serious loopholes, and that is more disheartening. Sometimes exams are not held after the application process is completed, a lot of times results are not released, and, even if results are released, positions are not offered in time. The drawback of these loopholes is that it takes around 3 to 4 years to get a job. As a result, most of the youth in UP is getting disillusioned and wants to travel out of the state at the earliest for a job,” says, Karishma, another student from Babu Banarasi Das University.
On education, most of the youth from the students interviewed are grossly disappointed.
Infrastructure in educational facilities (from primary to higher education) is a critical concern, as explained and explored in a report on ‘Access Inequality’ recently released by our Centre. UP is an underperformer in almost all categories from access to education, healthcare, basic amenities, finance, and legal recourse.
Additionally, an UDISE+ 2019-20 study also highlights that Uttar Pradesh has the lowest percentage of schools in the country that provides vocational education to its students.
Digital divide induced dissatisfaction
While governments in the past have made an effort to enhance digital access in the country, this discourse has been in the spotlight in the last two years, particularly since the pandemic forced many (especially for education needs) to depend on smart phones and digital-data enabled technology for their day-to-day needs.
BJP’s 2017 Lok Kalyan Sankalp Patra (election manifesto) promised laptops and 1 GB free data to college students under the Swami Vivekanand Yuva Internet Yojana.
First time voters and students interviewed in Lucknow Public College of Professional Studies, BBD and other institutes claimed that while they did fill out forms to avail the benefits from this scheme, it did not lead to any laptops, tablets being received. Hence, this has led to growing dissatisfaction against the incumbent government.
In line with their aim to eliminate ‘gundaraj’ in the state, ensure ‘law and order’, the incumbent Yogi-led BJP government has pitched ‘good law and order’ as part of its election campaign strategy for 2022 assembly elections.
On asking women-first time voters on their safety, and on the position of law and order, it was observed how the introduction of ‘anti-romeo’ squads under the current government was aimed at protecting female students and women from incidents of harassment. However, very soon, these ‘squads’ were accused of moral policing and taking bribes, making it more difficult for women to freely express themselves.
On crime statistics, between 2020 and 2021 itself, the state of UP, where crime otherwise was grossly underreported, saw a 30 per cent rise in crimes against women. In crimes related to acid attacks (or attempts), UP has the worst state-wise numbers (with the highest reported cases after West Bengal). In domestic violence cases (including for cases reflecting ‘cruelty by husband’), UP has the highest number of reported cases (11,156) after Rajasthan (13,811).
Further, based on a survey involving more than 10,800 women respondents from across the state’s districts, only 15% of respondents who experienced physical or sexual violence by anyone agreed to have sought help. Around three-fourths (77%) of all interviewed women neither sought help nor told anyone about the violence (at the time of the study). Only 4% of the ones who agreed to have sought help, did so from the local police by reporting the case. This highlights the massive problem of under-reporting (and lack of legal aid) that still makes most women fearful of reporting acts of violence against them.
These issues have coincided at a time when there has been a national level rise in domestic violence against women seen during the pandemic, UP has seen some of the worst cases of sexual violence against women in the last few years.
All of this has happened in addition to the infamous Hathras and Unnao rape cases which were reflections of a flailing law-and-order state machinery, seen to be protecting the perpetrators.
“If we felt safe then the Unnao incident would not have happened,” said a student from a public college in Ayodhya.
The social topography of crime matters too. Instances of Hathras and Unnao shocked women coming from ‘lower’ caste-class positions, inhibiting their upward social and economic mobility. Most of those belonging to a ‘lower’ caste-class in a state where caste-politics dominates electoral outcomes feel that Yogi government practiced ‘Thakurwad’ (an informal policy of benefitting Thakurs in the caste-fabric) across public departments.
Can this election change the course of history this time?
Despite the growing resentment seen amongst farmers, first time voters from rural and urban areas on issues of joblessness, education, women safety etc., one cannot still overlook the fact that many rural voters (who we spoke to) pointed at some markers of ‘progress’ being made in areas of road, rural development that might make some to vote again for the BJP (or give the party ‘another chance’).
A few first time voters from rural areas of Gonda district, acknowledged: an improved access to water along with better electric power supply; construction of roads, and other infrastructural developments in their villages that they were happy to see. Similar observations could be made for some government schools in rural Gonda, as overall student enrolment in UP increased even during the pandemic there (though we couldn’t verify this on the field as the schools were shut because of covid-induced restrictions).
Despite poor employment expectations, a student from Ayodhya says, “I have seen my city completely change in the last four years…”
Those (mostly Hindus) optimistic about the BJP noted that these ‘positive’ changes were the result of a top-down effect from a ‘double-engine sarkar’ under Modi-Yogi rule that helped farmers receive funds (Rs 2,000) in their Jan-Dhan account (even though it’s a small sum of money) through the PM and some of the centrally-directed schemes were implemented better at a local level. Even during the pandemic, most rural interviewees were ‘satisfied’ with the food ration received from public procurement spaces.
However, there is division in thought and perspective across the same voter-groups too, as those at the other side of the aisle, echo a different tone, as summed up in Lallaihi’s words: “Having one’e stomach full isn’t enough to make a living, one needs a job to do that.”
The concern of stray cattle is a big issue in villages – and against the BJP. Gaushalas are there but there aren’t as many that can keep all stray cattle away from the fields. Most farmers are angry as they have lost a lot on their crop produce during the last few years, due to the havoc caused by stray cattle late into the night, which keeps most of them up and awake at night, guarding their fields.
As Verma says, “We respect cows but because of stray cattle we lost a lot of money and crops…the Yogi government hasn’t done much to help us in this regard.”
In summation, the general sense one gets from the field gives us a reasonable idea about the nature of issues, from joblessness to stray cattle, shaping voter’s thought process when it comes to pitching one political party against another. To what extent would each of the highlighted issues force a change in the incumbent government (and bring the opposition-led by Akhilesh’s Samajwadi Party to power) is almost impossible to speculate.
From the Hindu-Muslim voter preference guide, what one does observe, off the record, is the possibility of a Hindu-vote consolidation that can benefit the BJP in some key regional electoral axes, given how ‘Hindu’ voters we spoke to (whether from Gonda to Lucknow or Raebareli) were comfortable (or in favour) of the idea of seeing the BJP back in power a second time. Muslims, almost in uniformity, wanted to see Akhilesh win.
Also, in terms of popularity between Yogi-Akhilesh, Akhilesh was clearly the more popular and the preferred chief minister candidate according to most interviewees (across Gonda, Ayodhya and Lucknow).
Given there are serious methodological restrictions with the use of ethnographic techniques in studying voter-preferences and trends, apart from sampling issues, it might be prudent to limit the observations of this study to the locations and geographies studied – Lucknow, Gonda and Ayodhya region.
Names of respondents are changed to protect their identity. All photo credits belong to Jignesh Mistry.
Deepanshu Mohan is Associate Professor of Economics and Director, Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES), Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University. Jignesh Mistry is Senior Research Analyst and Visual Storyboard Team Lead, Centre for New Economics Studies, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University. Vanshika Mittal is Senior Research Analyst and Visual Storyboard Co-Team Lead, Centre for New Economics Studies, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University. Rajan Mishra is a Video Editor with the Visual Storyboard Team at CNES and works at Amity University, Lucknow. Krishanu Kashyap is Research Analyst, and Mohd Rameez is Senior Research Analyst with Centre for New Economics Studies, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University. Tavleen Kaur, Isha Khurana, Ruhi Nadkarni are Research Assistants with CNES.