As 2020 drew to a close, so did the political ambitions of superstar actor Rajinikanth. However, what is interesting is that this journey ended without having ever started, as Rajinikanth never officially entered the arena of Tamil Nadu politics. After a wait of nearly three decades, on December 3rd 2020, Rajinikanth announced that he would officially launch his party at the end of the month, and would contest the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections in 2021 from 234 seats. However, things took an unexpected turn prior to the announcement, as on December 29th, citing ill-health and the COVID-19 pandemic Rajinikanth announced that he will no longer be launching his party.
In a three page statement that he posted on Twitter, Rajinikanth detailed several reasons for his decision. The actor has suffered from fluctuations in his blood pressure, following which he was hospitalised in Hyderabad on Dec 25. The doctors issued an advisory stating that he should avoid any activity that increases the risk of contracting COVID-19, including participating in film shoots. “Nobody can understand my pain in making this decision,” the actor stated.
Media, fans, and political analysts alike had been awaiting a response from Rajinikanth about the launch of his political career for almost three decades. In fact, he became notoriously known in the media for his famous one-liner “only time will tell” as a standard response to all questions about the launch of his political career and party. While fans were hoping 2021 would mark the start of his political journey, it has in fact marked its end. The question that arises now is, why did one of the most popular actors in Indian cinema, decide to join politics? And more importantly, why did he constantly delay this decision for over 25 years? Let’s take a deeper look at the political leanings of Rajinikanth since 1996, reasons for this constant delay and Tamil Nadu’s connection with politics and cinema over the decades.
RAJINIKANTH’S ‘POLITICAL ACCIDENT’
The start of Rajinikanth’s political leanings can be traced back to 1996. Perhaps this is a fact not very well known to most people, but the former Prime Minister of India, Narasimha Rao offered to make Rajinikanth the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu if he contested as a Congress candidate in the 1996 Assembly elections. However, declining the offer, Rajinikanth ended up instead offering his support to G.K.Moopanar, the founder of Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) who were set to ally with the DMK.
Rajinikanth campaigned against the AIADMK- Indian National Congress (INC) alliance especially targeting the then incumbent Chief Minister J.Jayalalithaa by stating that if she were to become the CM again, only god would be able to save Tamil Nadu. His speech against her ended up humbling the AIADMK-INC combine, as they could muster up just four seats. In fact, Jayalalithaa herself could not retain her seat and lost from Bargur.
However, Rajinikanth’s support for the DMK and TMC was short-lived. During the 1998 general elections, the party sought the actor’s support, managing to win only 9 seats out of 39. Years later speaking at a press conference, the actor said that his support for the DMK was a political “accident”. “About 21 years ago, I was involved in a political accident. It was during the time that I announced my support to a political party. It was the support of my fans and the people of Tamil Nadu who ensured victory for that party. I realise it was a mistake,” the actor said.
In 2004, yet again, Rajinikanth’s political allegiance changed yet again, as he announced his support for the AIADMK and BJP alliance for the General Elections. The actor did not apologize about his earlier comment on Jayalalithaa and her governance and instead said he was supporting the AIADMK-BJP alliance due to their resolve to find a solution to the state’s growing water crisis. However, this time his support did not yield any benefit for the alliance, and they failed to secure even a single seat in the Lok Sabha.
TAMIL NADU ASSEMBLY ELECTIONS: 1991 VS 199619911996SEAT SHARESEAT SHARE
WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN RAJINIKANTH’S POLITICAL TRAJECTORY? POPULARITY VS POPULAR VOTE
A fan wears a shirt printed with actor Rajinikanth’s photo. ANI
Rajinikanth’s touch with politics in 2021, however, should be seen as a completely different affair. He has been open to the idea of a formal political entry since 2017. The actor mentioned that his party would embark on a path of “spiritual politics’’ which would be “honest and corruption free.” He created the Rajini Makkal Mandram (RMM) in 2017 as a platform to facilitate his entry into active politics. He has been a vocal supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, and his natural inclination since 2017 has been towards the BJP. In fact, Rajinikanth was one of the first to congratulate the BJP leaders after the announcement of the scrapping of Article 370 in 2019.
However, with all that said, Rajinikanth’s political endeavours would be dependent on his own identity and the members of his fan club (RMM) rather than the BJP itself. The BJP, which was looking into gaining a foothold in Tamil Nadu, would use Rajinikanth’s popularity to propel their image into the state. Undoubtedly, the actor’s entry would have broken the pro-caste and cash for votes system common in Tamil Nadu electoral politics. He would have been driven by his identity as a larger than life superstar actor creating ripples in ways similar to former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and AIADMK supremo Dr. M.G.Ramachandran.
All said and done, what could have been the ramifications of Rajinikanth entering the 2021 Assembly Elections? Firstly, if Rajinikanth had chosen to contest alone, he would have not only eroded DMK’s vote bank but also played spoilsport for both the AIADMK and BJP. The main regional players- the DMK and AIADMK have a constant vote share of about 18-20% which would’ve been dented had Rajinikanth made a formal entry. The two other regional parties – Seeman’s Naam Tamizhar Katchi (NTK) and Kamal Hassan’s MNM would also have faced a similar situation. Although Seeman was set to rely largely on the anti-Rajinikanth vote bank, Kamal Hassan expressed more than once his willingness to join hands with Rajinikanth.
Secondly, fixing and sustaining an alliance with Rajnikanth could have become a major stress factor for the AIADMK-BJP combine. The AIADMK which has been marred by twin-leadership issues courtesy of Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami and Deputy CM O.Panneerselvam had just resolved the issue with Edappadi Palaniswami being chosen as their CM candidate. If the BJP were to add Rajinikanth to the alliance , AIADMK’s leadership would’ve seen that as a direct threat to their grip on power. BJP on the other hand lacks an independent and a powerful CM face and thus their only option would have been to go with Rajinikanth.
Thirdly, Tamil Nadu’s electoral politics and other dynamics in the state have changed significantly in the past few years. While Rajinikanth’s cross-cutting popularity is still paramount in 2021, the changes in vote bank politics and social media over the years would have gravely affected his ability to consolidate a major vote share. Political campaigning in Tamil Nadu in the recent past has been rife with using political consultancies and IT Wings to run smear campaigns against any opposition. In fact, Rajnikanth has faced the brunt of such smear campaigns in the past, and it would gravely affect his ability to consolidate his vote bank.
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COVID-19 VACCINATION GAP: WHO IS BEING LEFT BEHIND
On 21 October 2021, India passed the much-awaited one billion (100 crore) mark of administering COVID-19 vaccines in the country. The achievement was widely applauded and celebrations organized in every part of the country. As per the latest figures available on India’s online vaccination portal, CoWin, overall, 117 crore doses of the COVID-19 vaccines have been administered to the Indian population with 38 crore people having received both doses and 37.5 crore people having received one dose. The Indian COVID-19 vaccination programme which started in January 2021 (with frontline and healthcare workers) has picked up speed in the last few months, and roughly 72.5% of Indian adults will be fully vaccinated by the end of this year. India is using three vaccines – the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, manufactured locally as Covishield, COVAXIN by Indian firm Bharat Biotech, and Russian-made Sputnik V, with a few more in the various stages of approval. While vaccination in India is voluntary, the government and health experts have been running informative and public health programmes and announcements encouraging people to get vaccinated across the country.
India has a population of roughly 138 crores, so these numbers do resonate as a massive achievement. However, as highlighted in a press release by the World Health Organization (WHO), in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, we have to realize that “no one is safe until everyone is safe.” When talking about the extent of COVID-19 vaccination in India, it is important to trace which community groups, genders, and regions are being left behind or have lower rates of vaccination compared to others. Protecting such groups and ensuring their access to vaccination is improved is critical to ensuring that all of India is equipped to continue to fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
STATES WITH LOWEST VACCINATION RATES
There are huge disparities between states who have administered at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to their total population. States such as Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, and Goa, which had given at least one dose to around 75% of their total population are on one end of the scale. However, on the other end of the scale are states such as Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Jharkhand which have only administered at least one dose to around 32-39% of their population. Furthermore, state-wide averages also hide large disparities between districts.
Some districts are lagging further behind compared to others due to a lack of access and availability of vaccines or general lack of awareness about vaccinations. States such as Uttarakhand, which have good state averages of vaccination, have a large percentage point difference in coverage between their most and least vaccinated districts. In Dehradun, coverage is 74% and in Champawat, 48%. Across the country, 48 districts have been identified as lagging behind — with first-dose coverage still below 50%. 26 of the 48 districts are in the north east of India, including eight districts each in Manipur and Nagaland. Among all states, Jharkhand has the most number of districts — nine — with less-than-50% first-dose vaccination coverage as per data by the Health Ministry.
When talking about second-dose vaccination, four of the eight largest states in India have been able to achieve population coverage higher than the national average of 31%: Gujarat (55%), Karnataka (48%), Rajasthan (39%), and Madhya Pradesh (38%). However, the other four states including Maharashtra (34%), Uttar Pradesh (22%), Bihar (25%), and West Bengal (30%) are reporting second-dose coverage that is lower than the national average.
URBAN VS. RURAL DIVIDE
The gap between the most and least vaccinated districts in the country (first and second dose) reveals a clear urban bias in vaccination coverage. Vaccination coverage in Urban areas is around 10% higher than in rural areas. In fact, amongst the larger states, including West Bengal, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Telangana, Punjab, and Jharkhand the gap is much higher than 10%. In some northeastern states, the urban-rural divide in people administered at least one dose of a vaccine is stark. Some areas that stand out are in Maharashtra, where there is a 57-percentage-point difference between Mumbai and neighbouring Palghar district, which has a large Scheduled Tribe population, and in Tamil Nadu between Chennai and neighbouring Thiruvallur district. Various reasons can be attributed to the urban-rural divide in vaccination. Firstly, there is a huge digital divide between rural and urban areas, and while various government-run COVID-19 vaccination centres are now accepting walk-in vaccination appointments, earlier the only way to book a vaccination slot was through CoWin. Physical access to vaccination centres may be difficult and vaccine hesitancy is also higher in rural areas. However, some states such as Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Rajasthan have negligible urban-rural gaps in vaccination coverage. Kerala, one of the more urban states, has given more people in rural districts (70%) at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine compared to urban districts (65%).
Additionally, the rural-urban coverage also impacts migrant workers. Health experts have warned that many of India’s 140 million migrant workers run the risk of being left out of the ongoing COVID-19 vaccination drive either due to a lack of awareness, want of a targeted strategy, or digital divide. When looking at the state averages outside of the north east, the worst performers are Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Both states have large migrant labour populations which presumably could have been vaccinated in other states, however, many migrant workers who lost work due to lockdowns to control the second COVID-19 wave are reportedly still in their villages. An indication that more workers are in villages than usual during the pandemic is the reported exhaustion of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act budget in several states, under the pressure of increased demand for job work in rural areas.
SLOW VACCINATION RATES IN TRIBAL AREAS
Tribal-dominated districts in several states have recorded disproportionately lower vaccine coverage in comparison with other districts. It is important to note that members of various tribal communities and groups are much more vulnerable than others during the COVID-19 pandemic on account of their higher degree of socio-economic marginalisation, lack of access to effective monitoring, early-warning systems, and health and social services, as highlighted by the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. An analysis conducted by IndiaSpend in late October showed that of 192 districts with Scheduled Tribe (ST) population greater than 20%, 121 (63%) of them were lagging the national average of 53% coverage in terms of persons receiving at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Moreover, a majority of the bottom 50 districts in terms of coverage (at least one dose) have significant scheduled tribe populations. 36 (72%) of these districts are tribal majority districts and 40 are in the northeastern states and Jharkhand. Districts such as Kamjong in Manipur and Kurung Kumey in Arunachal Pradesh have only fully vaccinated 6% and 11% of their population respectively.
These numbers are a clear indication of how India’s Scheduled Tribes are being left behind in the COVID-19 vaccination drive as of now. The low coverage in areas and districts with high tribal populations could be attributed to the difficult terrain, dispersed populations, and lack of infrastructure in such areas which make access challenging. Populations in such areas are widely dispersed and the terrain and communication are difficult to negotiate, making access challenging. In several pockets, there may be vaccine hesitancy due to lack of right information and concerns of side effects that may affect their ability to work. In addition, the shortage of medical personnel available to administer vaccines in these areas may be another reason for the low coverage. Low levels of literacy and poor socio-economic conditions further hamper the healthcare-seeking behaviour of the tribal population.
GENDERED AND INCOME DIVIDE OF VACCINE DISTRIBUTION
As per an analysis of National Family Health Survey data, historically, full immunization is much lower among female children, and there has been significant gender disparity in the administration of BCG, DPT, polio, and measles vaccines. With roughly 48.5% of women vaccinated against COVID-19 as compared to 51.5% men, the vaccination trend this time seems to follow the same pattern. Gendered restrictions toward women have added a layer of tension and distress during the pandemic and created a major barrier to care. In India, according to our fourth National Family Health Survey (2015-16), which was released in December 2017, only 50% of women reported they are allowed to go out alone to a health facility. Restrictive social norms, gender inequality, and a lack of agency naturally lead to limited health care access. The lower uptake in vaccination is a result of these societal issues. These differences are compounded in rural areas, where women face an increased lack of access and awareness. In fact, an analysis of 544 districts, which have given one dose to at least 40% of their total population, shows that in nearly half of these distrcits, the sex ratio of those vaccinated is worse than the sex ratio of their population. The three worst-performing such districts are in the National Capital Region – namely Central Delhi, Gurugram, and Gautam Buddha Nagar (Noida). Only 62 women received a vaccine dose for every 100 men in these districts.
Members of the LGBTQIA+ community have also been facing increased difficulty in access to COVID-19 vaccinations. Data on transgender people, non-binary people, or people of other marginalised genders have not been accurately tracked, with all groups falling under a singular category of “other”. While there is no public data on the exact number of gender and sexual minorities in the country, in 2018 it was estimated that 104 million Indians, which amounts to around 8% of the total population, belong to the LGBTQIA+ community. According to news reports published in June, only around 4% of trans people have received the vaccine so far. Medical experts have pointed out that many members of the LGBTQIA+ community are hesitant to seek medical help and come forward for their vaccinations due to overall homophobia and transphobia in the medical community. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community face additional barriers to access to vaccinations as many of them do not have an acceptable or updated photo identification. This is especially a challenge for transgender persons who may only have documentation taking into account the sex assigned to them at birth. Material, socio-cultural, institutional, and fundamental barriers to access to healthcare faced by the LGBTQIA+ community in India is affecting their access to the COVID-19 vaccinations as well.
These are some of the most vulnerable groups being left behind in the Indian COVID-19 vaccination drive. While the current speed of vaccination in the country is a remarkable feat given the challenges faced by the government, states, and health ministry, it is important to pay special attention to groups that have significantly lower levels of vaccination, especially during a time when COVID-19 cases in the country are at an all-time low. On 27 October, Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya said the Central government would undertake door-to-door vaccination. It is important that the government guard apathy towards COVID-19 vaccination which creeps up when COVID-19 cases are low. The government in conjunction with health agencies and local bodies needs to take the programme ahead with full speed to remote corners of the country and perhaps address the issues of vaccination in each district in a decentralized manner.
Contributing reports by Damini Mehta, Junior Research Associate at Polstrat and Devak Singh, Megha Pande, Vrinda Tulsian, Interns at Polstrat.
UP 2022: ALLIANCES, YATRAS, PROMISES, CASTE ENGINEERING
With less than four months left for the Uttar Pradesh (UP) Assembly Elections, political parties are going full steam ahead in an attempt to woo voters in the most populous state in the country. Uttar Pradesh, where 403 Assembly seats will be contested, is going to be instrumental for any party looking to increase its presence in the lower house of India’s national parliament in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Being held in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and being the first UP election after laying the foundation of Ram Temple in Ayodhya and the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, the upcoming assembly polls will also be a testing ground for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity ahead of the 2024 general election.
The BJP was able to capture the state in 2017 with a staggering majority, winning 312 seats in the 403 member Assembly with a 39.67% vote share. While the party is hoping to recreate its 2017 victory in 2022, it faces tough competition from the Samajwadi Party, which won 47 seats in the 2017 elections. The election is pivotal for regional parties such as SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), both of which have previously ruled the state with a clear majority. The BSP won only 19 seats in the 2017 state elections which was its lowest tally since 1991 when the party won 12 seats. Both parties are trying to revive their hold in the state and emerge dominant. Issues of unemployment, price rise, and law and order continue to dominate the minds of the electorate and parties are trying to use a combination of promises, alliances and caste engineering to win the populous state. Let us take a look at what the major parties are doing in an attempt to woo voters in the final months before the elections and the major issues the voters have in mind as the year draws to a close.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
BJP LEAVING NO STONE UNTURNED
Ahead of the Assembly elections, last month, the BJP finalised an alliance with seven smaller regional parties, keeping in mind its caste arithmetic to create an appeal amongst different social groups. These parties are part of the Hissedari Morcha, a coalition of smaller parties that came together this year with an aim to give their communities a bigger voice, with representation from various Other Backward Caste (OBC) groups, including Bind, Gadariya, Kumhaar, Dhivar, Kashyap, and Rajbhar. Other parties include the Bharatiya Manav Samaj Party, Shoshit Samaj Party, Bharatiya Samata Samaj Party, Prithviraj Janshakti Party, and Musahar Andolan Manch aka Gareeb Party. The party launched its “Jan Ashirwad Yatra” in the state on August 16 to connect with the electorate. The yatra aimed to touch 120 assembly constituencies and cover more than 3,500 kilometres.
Senior party leader and Union Home Minister Amit Shah visited Varanasi on 12 November during which he held an ‘election meet’ with nearly 700 leaders and reviewed the preparations for the Assembly polls. BJP presidents from all 98 districts and in charge of all 403 constituencies along with all regional BJP presidents and all senior functionaries attended the meeting. Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Purvanchal Expressway in the state on 16 November. Shortly after this, the Prime Minister, along with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, is scheduled to visit Jhansi on the 193rd birth anniversary of Rani Laxmibai. The party has also announced ‘river yatras’ in an attempt to woo the Nishad community. The ”Kamal Nauka Yatra” will have members of fishermen and boatmen communities travelling by the BJP boats, talking about the party’s initiatives for the community which is politically dominant along the banks of the Ganga and the Yamuna. The BJP is also making a conscious effort to win over a section of the minority vote by wooing Muslims. Around 44,000 members will be sent out across the state to speak to Muslim families and make them aware of the welfare work carried out by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath in the state. The BJP’s social media team is also campaigning for a return to power. As per reported information, BJP video vans have started rolling out to villages from 11 November and they will display 30-minute-long films highlighting the achievements of the Yogi Adityanath government.
SP: GAME OF STRATEGIC ALLIANCES AND SUPPORT
The Panchayat Elections conducted in early 2021 clearly saw the Samajwadi Party emerging as the principal opposition party in Uttar Pradesh.
SP president Akhilesh Yadav announced on 14 November that the party will not be sealing an alliance with any major parties for the crucial election, making it clear that the party will not be joining forces with the INC as it did in the 2017 polls. Instead, the SP is choosing to strategically align itself with smaller, but electorally significant regional parties. The party has joined hands with the Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party which has a substantial influence in eastern Uttar Pradesh and leads a coalition of many other caste-centric parties. Analysts estimate that SBSP’s standing amongst the Rajbhar and other similar communities can swing the outcome in 153 assembly seats, particularly in close contests. The party has also forged pacts with outfits such as Keshav Dev Maurya’s Mahan Dal and Sanjay Chauhan’s Janvadi Party (Socialist) amongst others. Additionally, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), which enjoys support among farmers of western Uttar Pradesh is also likely to announce a tie-up with the party.
Yadav also took out the first leg of his “‘Vijay Rath Yatra”’ from Kanpur to Hamirpur in October. The rallies have attracted huge crowds and Yadav has used them as an opportunity to attack the incumbent BJP government on a range of issues, including its failed promise of cleaning the river Ganga, increased price of electricity, and “anti-Constitutional” activities, among others. The party is also undertaking its ‘Jan Mann-Vijay’ campaign and ‘Har Booth Par Youth’ programme to reach out to the people of the state and ensure the success of its overall campaign. Senior party leader, Shivpal Yadav, has also initiated a ‘Samajik Parivartan Rath Yatra’ from Mathura after offering prayers at the Bankebihari temple. The yatra will end in Raebareli after covering the entire state in seven phases. The SP has traditionally relied on the support of Muslims to win, however, analysts have observed that the party is taking steps to appease Hindu voters and change its image of being a pro-Muslim party. In order to do so, Yadav and other party members have visited a number of Hindu temples and proclaimed that Yadav was a “bigger” and “better” Hindu than the leaders of the BJP.
Source: Wikimedia Commons | Flikr: Al Jazeera English
BSP: GOING BEYOND THE DALIT-BRAHMIN FORMULA
The Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which has not won in the state since 2007, has also announced that it will not be entering into an alliance with any major party in 2022. The party has revamped its election strategy and announced events focused on youth and women. Mayawati’s party is going beyond its traditional Dalit-Brahmin social engineering formula and presenting itself as a party of sarva dharma sambhaav (equality of all religions). While announcing its ‘Brahmin Mission’, the party has been organising Prabuddh Sammelans across the state. Several of the party’s new initiatives are being taken up by the party’s national general secretary and Rajya Sabha MP Satish Mishra and his family members. Mishra’s wife has been holding meetings under “Prabudha Mahila Vichar Ghosthi” and “BSP Mahila Sammelan” initiatives for interaction with women’s groups from Brahmin and Dalit communities. The party is still continuing to push its Dalit-Brahmin formula — both communities together have a 36% vote share — with meetings that stress brotherhood between the two. The party has also adopted its new slogan of, “Jai Bhim, Jai Bharat, Jai Parshuram”.
INC AND OTHERS
The Congress began its statewide ‘Pratigya Yatras’ in October. Priyanka Gandhi, the AICC General-Secretary for Congress in the state, flagged off all the rallies from Barabanki. During the course of the yatras, the party communicated its seven pledges to the state apart from its election manifesto. The party has also promised to reserve 40% of seats for women in ticket distribution for UP elections. It has announced a complete waiver of outstanding farm loans and freebies like smartphones and scooters for girls along with free medical treatment up to Rs 10 lakh for the citizens of the state. Additionally, the UPCC minority department in September 2021 launched a campaign to distribute a 16-point election manifesto containing promises such as the withdrawal of cases registered during the protests against CAA-NRC (Citizenship Amendment Act-National Register for Citizens) with the motive to appease the Muslim population.
Other parties in the fray, including the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (AIMIM), launched their campaign for the assembly elections from the Ayodhya district in September. The party is likely to contest roughly 100 Assembly seats with a special focus on western Uttar Pradesh which has a sizable Muslim population. Similarly, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) launched a Tiranga Yatra in Ayodhya in September, attempting to make distinct inroads into the political landscape of the state ahead of the 2022 Assembly polls. The AAP has held Tiranga Yatras in various cities such as Lucknow, Agra, and Noida, and will travel to all UP districts within 2021. The party has also made promises such as providing 300 units of free power to people, waiver of all pending bills within 24 hours of getting elected, free power to farmers for agricultural purposes, and 24 hours of uninterrupted power supply.
Contributing reports by Damini Mehta, Junior Research Associate at Polstrat and Devak Singh, Vrinda Tulsian, Interns at Polstrat.
2021 BYPOLL ELECTIONS: WHO WON AND WHERE?
By-elections for 30 state assemblies and three Lok Sabha seats were held on 30 October 2021. Of three Lok Sabha bypolls, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won in Madhya Pradesh. The party lost the Mandi seat in Himachal Pradesh, which it had won in 2019 by a whopping margin of four lakh votes. The Lok Sabha seat of Dadra and Nagar Haveli was won by the Shiv Sena. While overall the results of the bypolls were a mixed bag for both the Indian National Congress (INC) and the BJP, the national political landscape continues to be in favour of the BJP, as it is still the ruling party in the majority of states. Some BJP leaders, however, have said that the party’s losses in some states have been due to ticket distribution at the local level and infighting in the state party units. Experts also suggest that the by-elections should be a warning to the BJP for the states going to polls next year to resolve party infighting. Let us take a deep dive into the bypolls for the Lok Sabha and Assembly seats and find out what happened.
WHAT HAPPENED IN THE THREE LOK SABHA SEATS?
Three Lok Sabha seats, including Dadra and Nagar Haveli Lok Sabha Constituency, Khandwa Lok Sabha Constituency in Madhya Pradesh, and Mandi Lok Sabha Constituency in Himachal Pradesh went to polls. Bypolls were conducted in all three constituencies due to the death of the incumbent Member of Parliament (MP). Dadra and Nagar Haveli Lok Sabha Constituency is a Scheduled Tribe Reserved Parliamentary Seat in the Union Territory (UT) of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu. The Shiv Sena had fielded the late MP’s wife Kalaben Delkar for the bypoll while the BJP had fielded Mahesh Gavit, a tribal leader, for the bypolls. The seat was won by the late MP’s wife Kalaben Delkar, who received 1,18,035 votes, defeating her rival BJP candidate Mahesh Gavit by a margin of 51,269 votes. This was the first major win for the Shiv Sena outside of Maharashtra.
The BJP managed to retain the Khandwa Lok Sabha Constituency. In Khandwa, BJP Candidate Gyaneshwar Patil won by a margin of 82,140 votes against the Congress candidate Rajnarayan Singh Purni. Experts also point out that the state which has the highest fuel prices across the country had no impact on electoral results even though the INC raised the issue while campaigning. In Mandi, Congress candidate Pratibha Singh, wife of the six-time Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh won by 7,490 votes, defeating Khushal Thakur of the BJP. The constituency was earlier held by BJP MP Ram Swaroop Sharma. A sympathy wave following the death of Virbhadra Singh this July is being seen as one of the key factors behind the Congress’ win in Mandi. The Mandi seat is significant as it is the home turf of Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur. Factors like poor governance and anti-incumbency with barely one year left for the 2022 polls seemed to have swayed the votes in favour of Congress.
A LOOK AT ANDHRA PRADESH, ASSAM, BIHAR, AND HARYANA
In Andhra Pradesh, elections were held in Badvel Vidhan Sabha Constituency due to the death of the previous MLA. It is a Scheduled Caste reserved constituency and is a part of the Kadapa Lok Sabha constituency which has been held by the YS Rajasekhara Reddy family for more than thirty years. The seat was won by Dasari Sudha, wife of the former MLA, on a YSRCP ticket. She won the seat with a huge margin of 90,411 votes over Panathala Suresh of the BJP.
In Assam, elections were held for five Assembly seats, including Gossaigaon, Bhabanipur, Tamulpur, Mariani, and Thowra Vidhan Sabha Constituencies. With the victories of Phanidhar Talukdar (from Bhabanipur), Sushanta Borgohain (from Thowra), and Rupjyoti Kurmi (from Mariani), the BJP’s tally in the 126-member assembly has gone up to 62 for the first time in Assam’s political history. The party is now just two short of touching the simple majority mark on its own. Jiron Basumatary and Jolen Daimary of the ruling United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL), which is an ally of the BJP, won the Gossaigaon and Tamulpur seats. After the bypoll results, the strength of the main opposition, the Congress, in the Assam assembly has been reduced to 27.
In Bihar, elections were held for Kusheshwar Asthan and Tarapur Assembly seats after the death of the previous MLAs. The Janata Dal (United) [JD(U)] retained both the seats defeating its primary rival RJD. As per experts, the bypolls were a test for the RJD to look beyond its traditional Muslim Yadav (M-Y) support base. Due to the same, Tejashwi Yadav decided to field a Baniya candidate in Tarapur, despite knowing that the community had traditionally supported the BJP, was to gain new voters. Similarly, in Kusheshwar Asthan, the party had tried to woo Musahars, a Scheduled Caste community. The Congress had a negligible impact in both seats, coming in fourth with a vote share less than 5%.
In Haryana, elections were held for the Ellenabad Vidhan Sabha Constituency which fell vacant after the incumbent Indian National Lok Dal MLA Abhay SIngh Chautala resigned to protest against farm laws. INLD leader Abhay Singh Chautala won the Ellenabad bypoll after defeating his nearest rival, Gobind Kanda of the BJP, by a margin of 6,739 votes.
KARNATAKA, MAHARASHTRA, MEGHALAYA AND MIZORAM: BREAKDOWN
In Karnataka, elections were held for the Sindgi and Hangal Vidhan Sabha Constituencies after the death of the previous MLAs. Bhusanur Ramesh Balappa, fielded by the BJP, won the Sindgi constituency by a margin of 31,185 votes over Congress’s Ashok Mallappa Managuli. Congress’s Srinivas Mane won the Hangal constituency by a margin of 7,373 votes over the BJP’s Shivaraj Sharanappa Sajjanar. Hangal is in Haveri district, which is the home district of Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai. Meanwhile, in Maharashtra, Congress’ Jitesh Antapurkar won the Deglur Assembly bypoll by a margin of more than 41,000 votes over his nearest rival and BJP candidate Subhash Sabane. The Congress fielded the former MLA’s son, Jitesh, as its candidate from the constituency, while the BJP banked on Sabane, a former Shiv Sena MLA from the area, who had joined the party.
In Meghalaya, elections were held for Rajabala, Mawryngkneng, and Mawphlang Vidhan Sabha Constituencies. The ruling Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA) wrestled three seats from the opposition Congress. The Mawphlang seat was won by UDP’s Eugeneson Lyngdoh with a margin of 4,401 votes. Overall, the main opposition, Congress, lost two seats while the ruling MDA alliance increased its strength by three. In Mizoram, Mizo National Front (MNF) won the bypoll to the Tuirial assembly seat in Mizoram by securing 39.96% of the total 14,593 votes polled, as per the Election Commission (EC). In the 40-member assembly, the ruling MNF now has 28 MLAs, Congress has five, ZPM and BJP have one MLA each. There are five Independent MLAs, who are allied with the ZPM.
FINAL SET: NAGALAND, RAJASTHAN, TELANGANA AND WEST BENGAL
The Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) in Nagaland retained the Shamator-Chessore assembly constituency in the bypoll with its candidate S Keoshu Yimchunger declared elected uncontested on 13 October by the state chief electoral officer’s (CEO) establishment. With Yimchunger’s victory, the NDPP’s total strength in the house of 60 now stands at 21, while NPF has 25 MLAs and BJP has 12, and two independent legislators. In Rajasthan, elections for both Vallabhnagar and Dhariawad Vidhan Sabha Constituencies were won by the INC. The main opposition BJP not only lost the elections, but also its candidates stood third and fourth in the Dhariawad and Vallabhnagar segments, respectively.
In Telangana, elections were held for the Huzurabad Vidhan Sabha Constituency after the resignation of the incumbent MLA Etela Rajender who then joined the BJP. The BJP candidate Etela Rajender defeated Gellu Srinivas Yadav of the TRS. Rajender won his consecutive seventh term as MLA. He has won six times as a TRS candidate from 2004 to 2018 and now as a BJP candidate. The Congress lost its ground despite having a cadre base in the region. During the December 2018 polls, Congress had secured over 60,000 votes in Huzurabad.
In West Bengal, elections were held for the Dinhata, Santipur, Khardaha and Gosaba Vidhan Sabha Constituencies all of which were won by the ruling All India Trinamool Congress (AITC). Sovandeb Chattopadhyay, who vacated the Bhabanipur seat for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, won the Khardaha constituency with a margin of over 93,000 votes, increasing Trinamool’s winning margin more than thrice from 28,140 to 93,832 votes in the bypoll. In Santipur Braja Kishor Goswami, who enjoys the legacy of spiritual guru Bijoy Krishna Goswami, became the second Trinamool candidate to win from Santipur. The TMC had lost the seat in May by 15,000 votes. The BJP suffered an erosion of support among the refugees and due to a shift in CPM’s voter base which had earlier voted for the BJP. Overall, the TMC has improved its tally to 215 in the 294-member West Bengal Assembly while the BJP has dropped from 77 to 75.
Contributing reports by Damini Mehta, Junior Research Associate at Polstrat and Devak Singh, Intern at Polstrat.
EXTREME WEATHER EVENTS IN INDIA: IMPACT ON GDP, ECONOMY AND ECOSYSTEMS
India suffered an average annual loss of around USD 87 billion in 2020 due to extreme weather events, such as tropical cyclones, floods and droughts as per the State of the Climate (SoC) in Asia 2020 report by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The report, released last week, highlights the impact of extreme weather and climate change which, in the past year, has caused the loss of life of thousands of people, displaced millions and cost the country hundreds of dollars because of the impact it has had on infrastructure and ecosystems.
In 2020, countries across Asia faced the extremely difficult task of managing the devastating impact of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic while mitigating the disaster relief efforts due to such extreme weather events. This was particularly challenging for both India and Bangladesh, which suffered the onslaught of Cyclone Amphan in May 2020, wherein millions of people were displaced and billions of dollars in lost in property and infrastructure. Extreme weather events and climate change act as threat multipliers to poverty, and the SoC highlights the disproportionate impact such events have on already vulnerable populations and climate-sensitive industries, including agriculture, water resources, health and energy.
WHAT DOES THE SoC STATE?
The State of the Climate (SoC) in Asia 2020 is a multi-agency report aimed at providing
science-based knowledge on the state of the climate in Asia and its inter-connection with sustainable development in the region. The report highlights how extreme weather and climate hazards, especially floods, storms, and droughts have a significant impact on many countries in Asia, particularly, India, China and Japan, and affect agriculture and food security. This, in turn, contributes to the increased vulnerability of migrants and those displaced by such extreme weather events. It also increases health risks and leads to a major loss in natural ecosystems. The report highlights that the COVID-19 pandemic further complicated disaster management efforts for countries as they faced the dual challenge of tackling the pandemic as well as climate change-related hazards with limited resources and time. Extreme weather events covered in the purview of the report include floods, storms, excessive rain, sandstorms, heatwaves and cyclones.
The report mentions that in 2020, floods and storms affected around 50 million people, including around 5,000 lives lost. In absolute terms, India and China suffered the most from such extreme events: USD 26.3 billion and USD 23.1 billion, respectively. This impact translated into the percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), which in India exceeds 0.5% of GDP. Climate and weather events had a disproportionate impact on those displaced in the population. Most of the disaster-related displacement recorded globally in 2020 took place in China, Bangladesh and India, which recorded some of the highest figures globally of about 4-5 million new displacements each.
The report also speaks of the impact such events have on food security and nutrition, where improvements have already slowed down in Asia and are not on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal targets of ending hunger and all forms of malnutrition by 2030 (targets 2.1 and 2.2). It is estimated that in 2020, 48.8 million people in South-East Asia, 305.7 million in South Asia and 42.3 million in West Asia were undernourished. There was larger scale undernourishment recorded in countries affected by other drivers particularly climate-related disasters. Extreme climate events can wipe out thousands of hectares of produce and agricultural land, impact the supply chain of essential commodities, functioning of local markets, limit the availability of or access to firewood and safe water and directly impact the prices of food.
Additionally, climate change and related extreme events have direct negative environmental effects including causing damage to healthy ecosystems. These include pollutants and hazardous chemicals from flooded industrial sites entering groundwater, rivers and oceans; and wildfires, floods and storms defoliating forests and disrupting ecosystems.
Source: Creative Commons
IMPACT OF CYCLONE AMPHAN
The impact of Cyclone Amphan which hit the very densely populated coastal areas in Bangladesh and India during the rapid spread of COVID-19 in May 2020 is detailed in this report. In West Bengal, 86 people lost their lives and 13.6 million people were affected. The damage to infrastructure and property amounted to approximately USD 14 billion. Bangladesh reported total damage of more than USD 130 million. A total of 10 million people in 19 districts were affected, and more than 330,000 houses were damaged due to the cyclone. The cyclone hit the countries when the first wave of COVID-19 was surging across the world, and both governments faced the incredibly difficult task of mitigating disaster relief efforts owing to major restrictions imposed during the pandemic and the disruption of supply chains
The cyclone displaced around 2.4 million people in India, mostly in West Bengal and Odisha, and 2.5 million people in Bangladesh. Around 2.8 million homes have been damaged, leading to widespread homelessness and prolonged displacement. As many did not have access to evacuation centres they were compelled to take shelter in tents or in the open on embankments. The damage associated with Cyclone Amphan affected all forms of infrastructure and agriculture. This includes social infrastructure such as housing, schools and hospitals; physical infrastructure including access to energy, transport, water and sanitation; and communication networks and agriculture, including damage of crops and livestock.
ECONOMIC IMPACT OF EXTREME WEATHER EVENTS
The specific damage and losses caused by extreme weather events vary from event to event due to the characteristics of the affected region. However, all such events have large impacts on major sectors of the economy and have a major implication on socioeconomic indicators, such as transportation cost, employment, food security and trade. The SoC mentions that in the past few years, the economic costs of extreme events have been rising due to the high proportion of critical infrastructures being located in multi-hazard risk hotspots. This leads to a major disruption in economic activity when natural disasters occur. Climate change often acts as a threat multiplier to poverty, through cascading effects and compounding risks that need to be addressed in disaster risk reduction efforts.
India is exposed to increasingly frequent floods, droughts and cyclones and as per the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), 12% of India’s total land area is exposed to flooding and 68% of cultivable land is exposed to drought. 80% of the total coastline is exposed to cyclones and tsunamis. The country is also witnessing associated events corresponding to that of the heatwaves, cold waves, extreme rainfall, landslides and avalanches as a new normal due to changes in the microclimate and surface temperature. With only about 9% of the world’s arable land, agriculture in India feeds about 17.2% of the global population and over 56% of the country’s total agricultural area is rainfed. This means that India’s food security and agricultural livelihoods depend heavily on the monsoon, making it extremely vulnerable to climate change. The impact of such events is even higher in some states which have a history of frequent extreme weather disasters. This includes states such as Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh which are prone to severe droughts as well as the states of Bihar and Assam, which are faced with floods almost every year. Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal experience regular cyclones. On average it is estimated that USD 2.3 billion was paid for crop losses by insurance companies. Additionally, increased heat and humidity can lead to an effective loss of outdoor working hours, putting between USD 2.8 trillion and USD 4.7 trillion of GDP in Asia annually at risk by 2050, on average. In 2020, a larger number of Indian cities reported temperatures of 48°C or more.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
According to Germanwatch’s 2020 findings, India is the seventh-most vulnerable country with respect to climate extremes. The SoC calls for the need to build climate-resilient economies and societies which have become more necessary than ever to “build back better” from the COVID-19 pandemic. This can be done by enhanced monitoring of climate drivers at regional scales and increased funding for climate observing and early warning systems, and associated services. It also involves an improved understanding of risks of climate change, as well as investment in frontier technologies, health and social protection of those most vulnerable to extreme weather events.
The improvement of all adaptation measures, including the implementation of early warning systems (EWS) has been highlighted as the key component to reducing Asia’s exposure and vulnerability to extreme weather events. Additionally, there are still major gaps in the availability of climate observations in the region, particularly in South and Southwest Asia. There is an increasing need to promote climate change-related outcomes in climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture, water resources, health and energy. This has been highlighted in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as the top priority for decision-makers and policymakers around the globe.
Source: Creative Commons
Contributing reports by Damini Mehta, Junior Research Associate at Polstrat and Abhilasha Rawat and Devak Singh, Interns at Polstrat.
MOSQUIRIX: WORLD’S FIRST APPROVED VACCINE AGAINST MALARIA
On 6 October 2021, the World Health Organisation (WHO) approved the world’s first anti-malaria vaccine called the RTS,S or Mosquirix. The vaccine, in the making since 1987, was developed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and London-based pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). In 2019, an estimated 22.9 crore cases and 4.09 lakh deaths related to malaria occurred worldwide. Children under five years of age are the most vulnerable group affected by the disease.
According to the WHO, India has an estimated burden of 1.5 crore malaria cases with 19,500–20,000 deaths annually. Out of this, roughly 20 lakh cases and 1,000 deaths are actually reported each year. Mortality from the disease varies notably from state to state. For instance, in Vellore, Tamil Nadu the mortality is only 7.9%, whereas, in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, and Rourkela, Odisha, it is as high as 25.6% and 30%, respectively. It is difficult to control the spread of the disease due to such a high variation in incidence and mortality across states and districts. In such a scenario, the vaccine will act as a first-hand tool for prevention against a disease discovered nearly 130 years ago.
WHAT IS MOSQUIRIX?
Mosquirix or RTS,S/AS01 is a recombinant protein-based malaria vaccine. It is the world’s first malaria vaccine and the first vaccine to address the parasitic infection. The development of the vaccine began 30 years ago in 1987 and involved a cost of more than US$750 million. The WHO’s recommendation of the vaccine is based on an ongoing pilot vaccination programme in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi since 2019. More than 23 lakh doses of the vaccine have been administered in the three African countries to date.
According to the pilot programme, the vaccine’s efficacy ranges from 26% to 50% in infants and young children. While it has led to a 30% reduction in severe and deadly malaria cases, it has a modest efficacy when compared to other childhood vaccines. The vaccine has the potential to make a significant dent in the disease burden, which, according to the WHO’s World Malaria Report 2019, killed an estimated 4.11 lakh people in 2018 alone.
NEED FOR A MALARIA VACCINE
Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by parasites and transmitted to humans through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. The disease is preventable and treatable. According to the WHO, vector control is the most effective method to prevent and reduce malaria transmission and it mainly recommends two forms of vector control measures– insecticide-treated mosquito nets and indoor residual spraying. Despite all the measures to control the disease, in 2019, nearly half of the world’s population was at risk of malaria. Children under five years are the most vulnerable group and accounted for 67% of total malaria deaths worldwide in 2019. In the initial phase, the vaccine will specifically target children.
Since 2000, the progress in malaria control has been primarily due to vector control interventions. However, increasing mosquito resistance to insecticides coupled with ease in the transmission of the disease (mosquito bites) has threatened these gains marking the increasing need for a malaria vaccine in fighting the disease.
In October 2021, the WHO endorsed Mosquirix for “broad use” in children in sub-Saharan Africa, home to the deadliest malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, making Mosquirix the first malaria vaccine candidate to receive this recommendation. The vaccine acts specifically against P. falciparum, the most deadly malaria parasite globally. In 2018, P. falciparum accounted for 99.7% of estimated malaria cases in the WHO African Region, 50% of cases in the WHO South-East Asia Region, and 71% of cases in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Plasmodium parasites which causes malaria enters the human body through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. Measures such as indoor residual spraying are used to control the mosquito population
Source: Wikimedia Commons
INDIA’S MALARIA BURDEN
India has come a long way in its fight against malaria. After several initiatives undertaken by the government, malaria cases dropped from an estimated 7.5 crores in 1947 to a mere 49,151 in 1961. However, the late 1960s saw a countrywide resurgence in the number of malaria cases, owing to the mosquito’s resistance to insecticides and the parasite’s growing resistance to antimalarial drugs. As a result, anywhere between 20 to 60 lakh malaria cases were reported yearly from 1970 to the 1990s. The cases dropped gradually to around 20 lakh a year by the late 1990s. Between 2005 and 2015, malaria cases in India remained in the range of 8 to 15 lakh every year. Since then, ending malaria has remained a top priority for the government as it launched the National Framework for Malaria Elimination (2016-2030) in 2016 with the target of a malaria-free India by 2030.
The National Vector Borne Disease Control Programme (NVBDCP), launched in 2003, integrated malaria control with other vector-borne diseases. The programme adopted common strategies such as chemical control (eg. indoor residual spraying), environmental management, biological control (eg. larvivorous fish), and personal protection strategies (eg. insecticide-treated bednets) to control all such diseases. As a result of the continued efforts, India reported the world’s largest absolute reduction in malaria cases from about 2 crores in 2000 to 56 lakh in 2019 (according to the WHO’s World Malaria Report 2020). However, malaria cases officially reported in India continue to remain much lower.
Initiatives such as the National Framework for Malaria Elimination (2016) and the National Strategic Plan for Malaria Elimination (2017) introduced large-scale implementation and use of insecticides in states and districts with a high incidence of malaria. Owing to these measures, India achieved an 83.34% reduction in malaria morbidity and 92% reduction in malaria mortality rates between 2000 and 2019. Through this, India also attained Goal 6 of the Millennium Development Goals which called for a 50-75% decrease in malaria case incidence between 2000 and 2019.
WHY INDIA NEEDS A MALARIA VACCINE
For India, the malaria vaccine could be effective in controlling the incidence and burden of disease in high prevalence states such as Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Meghalaya, and Madhya Pradesh. These states accounted for nearly 45.47% of malaria cases and 70.54% of P. falciparum malaria cases in 2019. In the same year, these states also accounted for 63.64% of malaria deaths in India. Increasing incidence of the Plasmodium falciparum variant, which is sometimes prone to develop severity in disease and death, makes the need to control the disease even more urgent.
Additionally, Bharat Biotech’s dominance in manufacturing the Mosquirix vaccine will place India at the centre of this initiative. By 2029, Bharat Biotech is slated to be the sole global manufacturer of the vaccine. It is the global technology transfer recipient from GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). According to some experts, a pan-India rollout of the vaccine would not be necessary. Keeping in mind India’s goal of eliminating malaria by 2030, the government should focus on vaccinating people in high burden states and districts.
There are some reservations about the efficacy of the vaccine in controlling the disease in India. According to some experts, since the Mosquirix vaccine acts only on the falciparum variant, it will be of limited benefit in India. The vaccine’s low efficacy also limits its chances of inclusion in India’s vaccination programme as a vaccine has to show at least a 65% efficacy to be included in India’s programme. Moreover, because of malaria’s sensitivity to rain and other such weather conditions, the need to continue implementing preventive measures such as spraying insecticides to get rid of the malaria parasite cannot be discounted even after the vaccine is introduced.
There is a huge gap between the malaria cases and deaths that are reported and the actual number of cases and deaths that occur in India. This leaves room for interventions such as the malaria vaccine that can help overcome the poor implementation of other preventive measures and the poor availability of treatment, especially in high incidence regions. In high malaria incidence states, most cases are reported from tribal populations living in foothills, forested or conflict-affected areas where controlling the mosquito population becomes difficult given the environmental conditions. Since the implementation of preventive measures such as nets and spraying insecticides is challenging in these areas, the vaccine may help create a wall of protection.
WHEN WILL THE VACCINE BE AVAILABLE IN INDIA?
According to industry experts, the vaccine for malaria will take anywhere between two to four years to hit the Indian market. Indian firm Bharat Biotech is due to receive the technology for the production of the vaccine from GSK and will be the sole supplier till 2029. Most of the vaccines will initially target African countries, providing them with nearly 1.5 crore doses annually. However, according to some sources, it would take a few years before the vaccine becomes available either in African nations or in India.
The vaccine’s availability in high incidence regions of the world such as India will go a long way in eliminating the occurrence of and the burden that malaria brings. Although India’s share in the overall malaria caseload is only 3%, the economic ramifications of the disease are huge. In total, the disease cost the country around 1.42 lakh crore rupees, according to estimates from 2014 published in the WHO South-East Asia Journal of Public Health by Indrani Gupta and Samik Chowdhury.
LAKHIMPUR VIOLENCE IMPACT ON BJP IMAGE IN UP
On 3 October 2021, the visuals of a convoy of vehicles running over protesting farmers in the Lakhimpur Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh were plastered over mobile phones and television screens. Eight people, including four farmers, died in the ensuing violence which was intended to be a protest to block UP deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya’s visit to Banbirpur village. The protest was part of the farmers’ agitation that has been going on in several areas of the country for over a year, with farmers from different states unhappy with the three new farm laws passed by the Central government. Shortly after the incident, more protests by farmers’ organizations and opposition parties erupted across the country, demanding the arrest of Ashish Mishra, the son of Union Minister of State Ajay Mishra, who was allegedly driving the car involved in the incident. Police arrested Ashish Mishra on 9 October.
POTENTIAL FALLOUT AS A RESULT OF LAKHIMPUR VIOLENCE
The arrest of Mishra, and two other accused, has not silenced opposition parties and farmer groups. The delay in arresting the accused and overall investigation by the Uttar Pradesh government has been criticized by the Supreme Court and the general public. The Yogi Adityanath-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, which is already facing a lot of backlash from farmer communities, is in hot water due to the involvement of Mishra’s son, who used to be an office-bearer in the BJP’s Lakhimpur Kheri unit. The ripples of the incident are likely to be felt in the upcoming Assembly polls in the state, as opposition parties are unlikely to brush it under the carpet.
The ramifications of the violence in Lakhimpur Kheri are likely to be paramount for the government in UP. The district is one of the largest in the Terai region of UP and has eight Assembly segments, all of which were won by the BJP in the 2017 Assembly elections. In 2012, the party had only won one seat out of eight in the region. The party had managed to significantly increase its vote share across all the eight assembly segments in the region in 2017, securing a vote share increase of roughly 40% in Palia AC, 45% in Gola Gorakarannath AC, 30% in Dhaurahra AC and 38% in Kasta AC. Dominant communities in the region include Sikhs, Brahmins, Kurmis and Muslims.
The agitation in UP had been confined to western UP to a large extent. The farm unions’ mobilization in UP is concentrated in western UP as sugarcane farmers in the region are unionized. In other farming dominant areas of UP, including Bundelkhand, Awadh, and eastern UP, farmers are not unionized to the same extent. With the Lakhimpur incident, the farmers’ agitation has penetrated deeper into Central UP and could have spillover effects in adjoining districts such as Pilibhit, Shahjahanpur, Hardoi, Sitapur, and Bahraich, where the party had recorded major victories in the 2017 elections by winning 37 seats of the 42 across the six districts.
Another important political ramification of the fallout is going to be the spotlight on MoS Ajay Mishra, who is a Member of Parliament (MP) from Kheri, and is considered a prime Brahmin face for the BJP in the state. Mishra, along with Jitin Prasada, was inducted into the Union Council of Ministers in July this year, in an attempt to reach out to the Brahmin community in the state. Brahmins have traditionally been strong supporters of the BJP – but lately, they have reportedly been expressing discontent with the Yogi Adityanath administration. Brahmin leaders have expressed feeling an “anti-Brahmin” sentiment amongst the ranks of BJP leaders, who they allege have been giving preferential treatment to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Dalits at the cost of the Brahmin community. Brahmins in the state are angry at what they see as atrocities against them going unpunished in the Vikas Dubey encounter case and murder of journalist Vikram Joshi. This brewing discontentment among Brahmin groups is unlikely to completely shift the vote bank to opposition parties, but it could, however, impact the electoral prospects of the BJP in the state.
FARMERS AND THE BJP: A LONG STRAINED RELATIONSHIP
Over the past year, tens of thousands of farmers from the country have camped on major highways at the borders of the national capital region of Delhi to oppose the farm laws, in India’s longest-running farmers’ protest against the government. Farmers have been protesting against the three agricultural acts passed by the Indian Parliament, which would allow them to sell produce at places other than Agricultural Produce Market Committee
(APMC)-regulated mandis, enter into contract farming, and stock food articles freely. Protesting farmers believe the move towards greater privatisation in food markets is a ploy by the government to relinquish its responsibility of being the guarantor of minimum support prices (MSPs). MSPs work in the formally regulated APMC mandis, and not in private deals. Traditional farmers are afraid of the entrance of “big companies” into farming markets and feel the new laws will leave them vulnerable to corporate exploitation.
In November 2020, farmers’ groups led by the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) held sit-in protests across several districts of western Uttar Pradesh, blocking highways in support of the farmers of Haryana and Punjab, who marched towards New Delhi. Most of the farmers’ protests had so far been in western UP, which is the major agricultural belt of the state. Similarly, other western UP districts including Baghpat, Muzaffarnagar, Meerut, Bijnor, Hapur, Shamli, Bulandshahr, Ghaziabad, Noida, Moradabad, and Saharanpur also witnessed sit-in protests by the farmers. In September 2021, more than 5,00,000 UP farmers gathered in Muzaffarnagar to form the biggest rally against the BJP-led central government demanding the repeal of the three farm laws.
The political scenario in western UP has dramatically turned against the BJP since the farmers’ protests erupted – leaders of farmers’ organizations such as the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), BKU (Bharatiya Kisan Union), and AIKS (All India Kisan Sabha) have collectively maintained that the BJP regime is “anti-farmer” for bringing in the three contentious farm laws. The Jat community in UP, dominant in the western part of the state, had shifted allegiance to the BJP in the past few elections. However, many have now turned against the party because they believe that the BJP is not willing to take back the farm acts which they have been protesting against for the past several months. The opposition parties, including the Indian National Congress and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), have adopted the strategy of attempting to win over the aggrieved farmers’ votes by consolidating their anger against the ruling BJP. They have organized a series of mahapanchayats, to continue to brew the simmering discontent against the BJP. The only major opposition party in UP which has not been vocal about the farmers’ protests is the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
While the INC has been organizing mahapanchyats and protests against the BJP government, political analysts state that due to the lack of prominent faces in the state, the efforts by the Congress will not necessarily convert into votes and that the Samajwadi Party (SP) and RLD are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of the anger towards BJP. SP leader Akhilesh Yadav has explicitly supported the farmers’ protests and called for the three acts to be repealed. He has also announced the repeal of the three farm laws as one of the key campaign promises for farmers for the upcoming Assembly polls. The RLD, with the active participation of former MP Jayant Choudhury, has also seen a resurgence in the state since the farmers’ agitation began. According to political analysts, the coming together of Akhilesh Yadav and Jayant Chaudhary could impact the political fortunes of the BJP in the state.
This is not the first time that farmers in Uttar Pradesh are expressing their anger against the BJP ahead of an election. In 2016, they had shown ire towards the party because of demonetisation and its harmful impact on the agricultural economy. Additionally, the farmers in UP were also upset with the government in the run-up to the 2017 assembly polls and before the 2019 Lok Sabha election, in the face of a declining economy and subsequent rise in farmers’ suicides, as well as the issue of non-payment of dues by sugar mills.
In the last few months, apart from the dissatisfaction against the three farm laws, farmers in UP have also complained about the rising prices of electricity, raw materials, and low minimum support prices compared to the cost of production. In an attempt to win farmers back, the BJP-led government has announced various Centre and state-sponsored welfare schemes and organized a huge farmer outreach programme, visiting 140 assembly segments in the state to hear the issues of the farmers.
Contributing reports by Damini Mehta, Junior Research Associate at Polstrat and Animesh Gadre, Damayanti Niyogi, Kavya Sharma, Interns at Polstrat.
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