खबर लहरिया Premium Episode- 37: Panchayat Polls in the time of a Pandemic

Episode- 37: Panchayat Polls in the time of a Pandemic

The pandemic has brought a reckoning to our doorsteps. So say several prominent editorials in these past weeks. At Khabar Lahariya, reporting from the villages and small-towns considered synonymous with violence, deprivation and hollowed out infrastructure — an ‘inevitable’ fact of life for a country as large as India — the suffering the middle classes are newly experiencing, is no stranger. Every time KL reporters venture forth they hear a familiar refrain: “Sunwayi nahi karte” (They don’t give us a hearing). 

These are the disasters of everyday Bundelkhand where response ideally comes from the local administration — the gram panchayat pradhan (the village Panchayat leader). But what we overwhelmingly hear: No hand-pump in the Dalit basti? No sunwayi. No FIR registered for a sexual assault? No sunwayi. Tractors running roughshod over farmland? Nice try, but no sunwayi. Don’t get us wrong — there is no part of our hearts that don’t feel broken this week. But we want to say again — this pandemic is still not an equaliser, because Twitter + working-internet connection + smartphone in hand, the middle classes still have it better than the vast majority of India, that is to say  the villages and small towns of U.P. The very places that have been told (with threat of property being seized) that there is no shortage of oxygen — and there is definitely no virus making its way back from the Kumbh, encouraged by the Prime Minister —the biggest Pradhan of them all.

This profound disconnection between the ones at the top (brb, starting a petition saying, NORMALIZE! BULLYING! ADAR POONAWALA!) who have an office in a one million dollar private aeroplane, and the people KL reporters live and report among — is the only explanation for a vaccination drive that depends on (1) an identity proof which excludes the most marginalised, (2) a centralised registration system that depends on an internet connection and highly gendered and caste-mediated access to phones or technology, and (3) expensive vaccination. To quote Phoola Devi from Banda, a frequent commenter and friend of KL, “Most of us women here never even went to school — how will we operate a smartphone?” To quote Twitter: dafuq?

Why we bring this up, why we attempt to cope in tweetspeak is because in the coming few days U.P will declare the results of the Panchayat Polls 2021. 29 April is the final day of counting votes and the results are to be declared on 2 May.

These are the polls that will determine the Pradhan (Panchayat head) of the gram (village), kshetra (block) and zila (district) level i.e the local government units in U.P. These are the polls that determine who will be the latest person in a long line to not do a sunwayi. Or perhaps change the picture entirely. These are also the elections that have taken place throughout the past month while the graph of coronavirus infections spiked into a vertical and the country’s Pradhan encouraged devotees to take a ‘shahee’ dip (holy bath).

During the Panchayati Raj Chunav (Panchayat Polls) in U.P, KL found there have been no protections put into place vis-a-vis the spread, neither by the administration nor the panchayat candidates. In Naraini Banda, KL senior reporter Geeta found last week a thriving crowd of thousands, jam-packed to buy election symbols, campaign, and excited to win. This enthu-crowd also included several women, particularly because of the recent reservation policy. 

The voters were not wearing masks nor following social distancing protocols at the voting booths as directed by the Allahabad High Court. Recently the Yogi government said, amid heavy criticism for the Covid-crisis in the state, that they had not wished to carry out a 4-phase election but were helpless before the High Court order. This order came in context of the fact that panchayat elections were due in 2020 but delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Previously in 2005, the U.P panchayat elections were also held upon court order. 

Still, the Yogi government’s conveniently feigned helplessness doesn’t sit right with its previous refusal to implement a lockdown order by the High Court among other progressive Allahabad HC rulings . It definitely does not explain why the administration could not adhere to — or rather joyously did away with social distancing and masking protocols. Meanwhile teacher’s unions in U.P allege that 577 teachers and support staff who were put on panchayat poll duty have died. 

“We had requested the State Election Commission, after there was a surge in cases on 12 April, to postpone the polls but our request was ignored,” said Dinesh Chandra Sharma, president of the U.P Shikshak Mahasangh (Teachers Union) on 29 April. “We may be forced to boycott counting duty.” The court meanwhile has scheduled a hearing on the deaths to the Election Commission … on 3 May. A day after the counting. 

So perhaps you begin to understand why with these Panchayat polls amid the pandemic, we are thinking about the ways and directions in which power flows. 


How does all this work and why is it important?

The U.P panchayat elections set the scene for the upcoming state government elections next year.

While panchayat polls are ostensibly not held along party lines, the over 2.2 lakh seats to be decided by these polls cover about 78 percent of the state’s population living in rural areas. Meaning that the direction of voters’ affinities indicate their proclivities for the various parties. From the perspective of the state elections, it is a dress rehearsal. 

In U.P the parties with the most heft in the past decades have been the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Samajwadi Party (SP), and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). While panchayat candidates don’t contest on a party-symbol or seat-ticket like Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) do in state elections, the parties do extend support to the nominees and party-workers are active in campaigning. 

The other contending parties are the Congress, and three other parties making their debut this year in U.P’s panchayat polls – the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in alliance with the Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party, and Bhim Army chief Chandra Shekhar Azad’s Azad Samaj Party. 

The panchayat polls come as a temp-check after a host of hot-rod political issues have rocked U.P in the last two years including the Ram Mandir construction at Ayodhya, the NRC-CAA Act and protests, the continuing farmer protests against the three agricultural reforms in 2020, and the Adityanath government’s failure to grapple with the Covid-19 crisis currently decimating the state. 

Further since most of U.P’s population is concentrated in rural areas, government schemes like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, (MNREGA)  are largely implemented through panchayats — the local governing bodies. Across India, panchayats implement nearly 70 percent of rural development programmes — an effective tool to build a political support base. 

States with stronger decentralized power like Kerala have done much better in containing the spread of Covid-19 than those with weaker panchayat institutions. Panchayat-level politics can bring tremendous repercussions in the political landscape of a region. For instance journalist Shoaib Danyal of Scroll, lays the inroads of BJP into West Bengal in recent years, heavily at the door of the Trinamool Congress’ rigging of the 2018 panchayat elections by in many cases, violently preventing opposition candidates from filing nominations. Faced with annihilation, Daniyal writes, Left supporters moved almost en masse to the BJP. This anger and the memory of injustice—the prevention of exerting one’s political will still rankles the rural voters of West Bengal.  

Overall, the stakes are high, with panchayat-level politics often leading to violent scuffles. In one such incident this month, a gram panchayat Pradhan hopeful, Abhishek Rawat, was attacked by pipe and lathi-wielding opposition party-workers in Mahoba’s Mangrol Kala village, Jaitpur block. Leading the attack was the Pradhan of the past 20 years, Arjun — reportedly said to be as uninterested in doing actual pradhan-duties as he was enthusiastic about inflicting injury on Abhishek. Panchayat campaigns, much like state-level and LS polls, see plenty of drama in Bundelkhand with effigy burning, and campaign-sabotage. 

On 16 March, SP workers in Karvi, Chitrakoot burnt an effigy of CM Adityanath in retaliation for an FIR against SP chief Akhilesh Yadav. Soon after they were arrested for treason, and SP senior leader, Shyama Charan Gupta told the press the Adityanath government was making a mountain out of a molehill for political gains— as burning effigies is hardly novel in India. It’s true, there is a long tradition of effigy burning carried out in India over the years, from disappointed cricket fans to ‘patriotic’ U.P residents burning effigies of Chinese President Xi Jinping last year to support the China boycott.

Angry Indian cricket-fans in Agartala burn posters of the Indian cricket team after they lost the World Cup semi-final to Australia in 2015. Photo: PTI. 

Angry Indian cricket-fans in Agartala burn posters of the Indian cricket team after they lost the World Cup semi-final to Australia in 2015. Photo: PTI.

“Our candidates will win the elections from jail!,” he said.

Throughout April candidates have been making the rounds of houses, appealing for votes, and taking to social media to wage Whatsapp wars. The most prolific of these social media stormers come from of course, the BJP who announced plans in May 2020 to “contest the three-tier Panchayat elections under the party banner” for the first time in U.P, that is going beyond the zila and kshetra level to nominate gram panchayat candidates for some 59,000-odd seats. Their strategy has included creating tens of thousands of Whatsapp groups, equipping district offices with video-conferencing, enlisting the services of Audio Bridge for conference calls, and recruiting ‘election warriors’ — in their penchant for war-rhetoric. Should we reference the so-dubbed ‘Covid-warriors’ here, the healthcare workers for whom the party made a din and ruckus of bartans and plates last year while ignoring their appeals to keep the masks on? No, perhaps best to move on. 

The BJP has also in parallel stepped up efforts to engage women politically, especially as voters, despite historically blocking an increase in reserved seats.

In Ayodhya’s Janabazar gram panchayat, Tarun block that covers 28 villages, there are 12 panchayat hopefuls for a General seat. Five of them Yadav, four Varma, one Gupta, one Sharma and one Muslim candidate — needless to say Pradhans from dominant castes rarely lend a ear to their marginalised caste constituents. In fact, villagers allege that even reserved OBC or SC seats are subverted from any liberatory agendas once the candidate is actually elected. The system works only to uphold itself— so a Dalit Pradhan in a sea of Sharmas, is not going to find it easy to push social reform or anticaste politics. 

Asha Devi of Janabazar told KL that the incumbent Pradhan, Romi Modanlal had not done any work befitting his office for the five years of his tenure. “Neither has a single villager been able to avail of the Housing scheme (government support to built pakka houses), nor has a single toilet been built in our homes,” despite Bollywood paens to the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan Mission

Toilet Ek Prem Katha poster starring BJP poster-boy, Akshay Kumar.

Toilet Ek Prem Katha poster starring BJP poster-boy, Akshay Kumar.

Toilet-humour aside, Pradhan Romi Modanlal is representative of the Pradhans we’re familiar with — whenever the villagers would take their grievances to him, he would not give them a sunwayi. “This time, on a run for reelection, he has been making the house-rounds, finally,” Asha said. “We’re definitely not going to vote for him.” Instead the Janabazar villagers spoke favourably of Sher Bahadur,  who has entered the campaign fray for the first time, with a reputation for “honesty and helpfulness”.

Sher Bahadur, Janabazar gram panchayat Pradhan candidate, asks voters to choose him.  

Sher Bahadur, Janabazar gram panchayat Pradhan candidate, asks voters to choose him.

Meanwhile, another Pradhan candidate campaigning hard for the Janabazar seat is Divijay Singh of Maniyarpur village. Singh had previously played in the under-19 cricket team for Ghaziabad, a distinction he wears prominently in his haav-bhaav (attitude). A smooth talker, he told KL if elected he would be known by his “naam” (name) for his “kaam” (work) but was largely vague on what exactly the work he wanted to do, was. He promised instead an administrative efficiency. “This coming period belongs to the youth,” he said with much more confidence than we’d expect someone to have during the worst unemployment crisis the country has seen in decades. “The government should give a chance to educated people,” he said in a snide aside about aarakshan (reservation for OBC, SC, ST seats). “The youth can do anything they want — get a government job, play cricket…anything,” he said.

While the consensus for Janabazar panchayat Pradhan largely tilted towards Sher Bahadur as the most deserving and a village-favourite in early April, there was still a chance that Romi Modanlal might continue his winning streak of a do-nothing Pradhan. The reason? His ‘one weird trick’ of distributing money in exchange for votes from villagers. In a year beset by not one but two-reverse migrations, and a desperate scramble for essentials like food, we fear it might just do the trick. 

Digvijay Singh, Janabazar gram panchayat Pradhan candidate in Ayodhya said this era belonged to the youth, in April 2021.

Digvijay Singh, Janabazar gram panchayat Pradhan candidate in Ayodhya said this era belonged to the youth, in April 2021.
Digvijay Singh, Janabazar gram panchayat Pradhan candidate in Ayodhya said this era belonged to the youth, in April 2021.


On the Question of Reservation

On 1 April KL interviewed Kailash Baudh, a Dalit Ambedkarite in the running for the zila panchayat in Chitrakoot’s Prasiddhpur village, Pahadi block. Having maintained for

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