Uttar Pradesh Must Vote for Itself, Not to Signal BJP’s Fortunes in 2024

UP elections should be a test of how independently and forthrightly people are able to make choices in their own interest, rejecting the framework of having elected a monarch or voting as they would in a national election.

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  • According to Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) data, unemployment almost doubled in UP during 2019 compared to 2018. UP Labour Minister Swami Prasad Maurya said in the Assembly that as on February 7, 2020, 33.94 lakh people were registered as unemployed, a whopping 58.43% jump over the 21.39 lakh unemployed registered until June 30, 2018.

Along with Madhya Pradesh, UP continues to top the charts ― in matters like crime statistics, especially crimes against women. The National Commission for Women reported that domestic violence is at a 21-year high this year, with most complaints received from UP. The five worst performing districts in terms of vaccine delivery are in UP. The district with the lowest proportion of the vaccinated is Kanpur (Rural), with 2.97%. A “mystery fever” is raging across districts in the region of Mathura and Firozabad, killing children. Hospitals have failed to even identify the disease. This is apart from the numerous children who are annually afflicted with encephalitis in Gorakhpur, Chief Minister Adityanath’s parliamentary seat for two decades. The second COVID-19 wave ripped through UP, unrecorded by the state but reflected in oxygen shortages, failing public hospitals and visuals of hundreds of bodies buried hurriedly on the banks of the Ganga. The UP government’s response to the second wave was to desperately control optics ― pull off Ramnaami chadars left on unmarked graves and build walls to conceal cremation grounds blazing through the night. The UP government must be answerable for all this in 2022.

To instead make the UP state elections about national politics doesn’t do its people a favour. Also, to test the trajectory of the BJP’s fortunes in 2024 nationally, on the basis of how UP votes next year in the Assembly elections, could be very misleading. The experience with three north Indian states in 2018 versus their choices in 2019 should have driven that point home. The BJP lost West Bengal comprehensively four months ago, and Delhi in 2020, despite very aggressive BJP campaigns. The home minister promoted anger openly in Delhi and went as far as to suggest that “current” should shock Shaheen Bagh. But both these stories say little about how these same states will vote in 2024.

UP and Gujarat could vote the BJP out in 2022 and the BJP may well return to power in the national elections. The converse is equally possible. With sharply polarising ideology dominating the national scene and Modi’s personality the trump card, there is no evidence that state elections are mini-national elections. Framing UP as a “semi-final” for 2024 would instead facilitate those who stand to gain by diverting attention from the performance of the state government and making all polls about social fractures. In effect, it will be a gate-pass for the BJP.

It is important that the UP state government is held to account for its (non)performance in the forthcoming polls. This has acquired urgency as the BJP seeks to alter the very basis of politics, to create a permanent voting block reflecting social identity, and throw matters of jobs, price rise and public health out of the electoral fray. This would amount to reducing the state polls to a popularity contest for personalities in the state and Centre. The biggest pushback by those in the electorate who value their wellbeing and India’s democracy would be to consistently question those they vest with power, and robustly debate the state government’s record.

‘Rights’ is a word the BJP dislikes. ‘Thank you, Modiji’ serves instead to train people to be grateful for monarchical benediction, as does the increasing use of “free” to describe rations and vaccines delivered at public expense. UP elections should be a test of how independently and forthrightly people are able to make choices in their own interest, rejecting the framework of having elected a monarch or voting as they would in a national election. That would be a different battle.

While socially very conservative, UP has displayed political dynamism and has near-consistently voted governments out since 1967. Mayawati swept to an absolute majority in 2007 and was upset by the Samajwadi Party’s majority in 2012. In 2017, the BJP came in with an even bigger margin. To conflate UP’s social stasis or what is seen as its obsession with caste and other identities, with political stasis, would be wrong. The ability of the social mosaic in UP to dramatically alter political fortunes, even if people move as community units, not as discrete individuals exercising agency but changing voting preferences en bloc, could qualify as a political innovation.

It has, so far, kept all political forces on their toes. It must be encouraged to continue to do so. UP must vote for itself, and a better life.