Come February the Fourth, and five Indian states go to assembly elections. Needless to say, Uttar Pradesh (UP) is the elephant in the room that everyone will keep an eye on. The other states are Manipur, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Goa, in order of importance, at least as far as I am concerned. What should be an otherwise routine exercise of conducting assembly polls every five years, has been complicated to a certain extent by a mix of events, three to be specific, all independent from the other. This kind of a disruption may cause the election to just turn over its head.
Firstly, the Honourable Supreme Court recently ruled that political parties can’t seek votes in the name of “religion, race, caste, community or language”. The Judgment becomes all the more contentious as it was passed by a narrow 4-3 majority in its favour. It is not always the case that there is only negative campaigning is carried out on the grounds of caste or religion. Moreover, the constitution provides for reservation on the grounds of caste in the Parliament as well as State Legislative Assemblies. Let’s talk some numbers.
Out of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, a total of 131 constituency seats are reserved, 84 out of which are for SC and remaining for ST. UP has a staggering 17 seats for SC out of the 84. In the UP Legislative Assembly, 85 out of the total 404 seats are reserved for SC. This is not taking into consideration, the Muslim dominant constituency seats. In all these constituencies, caste based campaigning is bound to happen. Similarly, Punjab has 33 seats reserved out of 117. Uttarakhand 15 from 71, and the tribe heavy Manipur where 20 out of 60 seats are reserved, 19 for ST. And why shouldn’t political parties campaign on the basis of caste or religion? Caste gives a deep sense of belonging and community to most people. A lot of Government schemes are targeted to the poor which form the majority of these castes and tribes. Indeed, many of these castes are in desperate need of economic and social upliftment. The Honourable Supreme Court should have drawn a clear line between campaigning on the basis of negative caste/religion based discrimination and affirmative action.
Secondly, the socio-political fabric in UP, Manipur and Uttarakhand is extremely delicate. The incumbent Chief Minister (CM) of UP, Akhilesh Yadav, has been suspended from the Samajwadi Party (SP) by his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav. The SP Party won the last assembly election with a clear mandate, leaving arch-rival Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to a meagre 80 seats. Though, this happened two years before BJP coloured the state saffron in the Lok Sabha elections, a first for it. Mayawati preceded Akhilesh Yadav as the CM of UP. In Manipur, Irom Sharmila or the ‘Iron Lady of Manipur’ has formed her own political party by the name of PRAJA or Peoples Resurgence and Justice Alliance. Manipur has been an Indian National Congress stronghold with CM Okram Ibobi Singh winning the elections for three times in a row. With unrest regarding Afspa escalating, Congress Party will also face anti-incumbency issues. Uttarakhand recently saw by-elections and suspension of MLAs from its Legislative Assembly.
Thirdly, the Union Budget date was announced to be 1st February, instead of the usual 28th February every year, pitting it exactly three days before the assembly elections. This clearly puts the ball in BJPs court, if the CEC doesn’t look into it. 2012 is a precedent for this, where the Union Budget dates were shifted in order to accommodate assembly elections. If BJP takes right and clever steps, it can enter into the Legislative Assembly in UP with the incumbent majority party in shambles. Winning UP or even Manipur will clearly show people’s mandate for or against demonitisation, if or if not BJP announces special development packages for the respective states in the budget.
Given all these distortions, the upcoming assembly elections are like none other. It remains to be seen if the SP split is permanent or not, and if the CEC intervenes and shifts either the election dates or the Union Budget dates. It will be very interesting to see the regional parties to battle it out with BJP.