Pegasus focus might let BJP run away with UP polls

Have the Opposition parties taken their eye off the ball in Uttar Pradesh (UP)? While the intrusive use of Pegasus spyware has seriously damaged India’s democratic institutions, exclusive focus on it may prove counter-productive. Public attention must be brought back to areas where the BJP government has failed resoundingly--managing the Covid-19 pandemic, the precipitous slide in the economy, increasing unemployment and growing hunger. The failure is most vivid in UP which goes to polls next February. While the Opposition’s poll strategy for UP is unclear, the BJP’s re.....
Have the Opposition parties taken their eye off the ball in Uttar Pradesh (UP)? While the intrusive use of Pegasus spyware has seriously damaged India’s democratic institutions, exclusive focus on it may prove counter-productive. Public attention must be brought back to areas where the BJP government has failed resoundingly--managing the Covid-19 pandemic, the precipitous slide in the economy, increasing unemployment and growing hunger. The failure is most vivid in UP which goes to polls next February.

While the Opposition’s poll strategy for UP is unclear, the BJP’s reliance is on a coalition of the upper castes, non-Yadav OBCs and the non-Jatav Dalits--enveloped by its Hindutva agenda. It has built bridges with the smaller caste-based parties like Apana Dal (Sonelal) and the Nishad Party. Seven new ministers from UP in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s latest cabinet expansion amply reflect the party’s caste calculations -- two Kurmis, one Lodh, one Koeri, one Pasi, one Gaderia-Dhangar and one Brahmin. The announcement of an all-India OBC and EWS quota in medical colleges on July 29 was also made with UP elections in mind, a day before  Prime Minister Modi inaugurated nine medical colleges in UP.

Aware that mishandling the Covid pandemic is its soft underbelly, the UP government is splurging on creating a counter-narrative. Rs.160.31 crore have been spent on TV advertisements between April 2020 and March 2021. Another ad blitz in print media showcases Chief Minister Adityanath’s ‘dedication, commitment and vision’ to fighting Covid-19. The news-magazine, India Today, carried a 24-page advertisement in its August 2 issue, describing Adityanath as a “Karma Yogi”, celebrating his “Success in neutralising third wave of Covid” and declaring “Uttar Pradesh Numero Uno in Corona Testing”.

Another campaign highlights the offer by “A sensitive government in difficult times” of Rs. 10 lakh ex-gratia payment to families of journalists lost to Covid. Similarly Rs.30 lakh each is being given to the kin of 937 teachers who died of Covid after compulsory panchayat polling duties. Clearly, Chief Minister Adityanath hopes to bury his incompetence with largesse drawn on tax-payer’s money.

On the Covid deaths in UP alone a discussion should have been forced in Parliament considering that the nation saw dead bodies floating in the Ganga or buried in shallow graves on its banks. Instead, the government got away with officials briefing Opposition leaders outside Parliament.

The UP government’s lies must be called out. According to the news-site “Article 14”, the death toll in 24 districts of UP in the nine months up to March 2021, was estimated to be 10 to 135 times higher than the official figure. Registered deaths between July 2019 and March 2020 in these districts jumped in the following year from 178,000 to 375,000, an increase of 110%. Admitting that some deaths may be attributed to non-Covid causes or due to the diversion of health resources, the report nevertheless calls into question UP’s official Covid-19 death toll of just 4,537 for all 75 districts till end-March 2021. Even these damning figures are an underestimate as they do not count Covid deaths due to the second wave.  

Besides the loss of lives, the Opposition must highlight the UP government’s failure to address worsening unemployment, hunger and indebtedness due to the pandemic.

Azim Premji University’s report “State of Working India 2021 – One year of Covid-19” shows that job losses were greater for states with higher average Covid case load like UP. In a sample survey, including UP, 44% of respondents claimed a fall in casual daily wage rate due to the lockdown. In UP itself, households unable to get employment under MNREGA was 23%.

The exacerbation of hunger in UP is indicated by heart-rending reports, some even from Prime Minister Modi’s constituency, Varanasi. Despite the state government announcing free food grain for May and June, in addition to Central grain allocations, for 14.5 million poor beneficiaries, experts believe this will not tide them over the second year of the pandemic. Even with free dry rations (limited only to those with ration cards, Aadhar cards or registered with MNREGA), the beneficiaries may not be able to afford oil, fuel, vegetables and medicines.

The Hunger Watch survey conducted by the Right to Food Campaign across 11 states including UP showed that both the quality and quantity of food intake of vulnerable groups had decreased. Around 77% of “particularly vulnerable tribal groups”, 76% of Dalits and 54% of adivasis reported reduction in quantity of food in September-October 2020 compared to the pre-lockdown period. About 53% reported a decrease in wheat and rice consumption. The decline in consumption of lentils (64%) and green vegetable (73%) was greater. About 71% of non-vegetarian households could no longer afford eggs or meat. Overall, with family incomes contracting, there was a steep decline in expenditure on nutrient rich foods.

Spending even on poorer diets has doubled as price rise slashed disposal incomes. Besides the rise of diesel and petrol prices, the price (May 2020-May 2021) of edible oil has increased by 50-55%, loose tea by 28%, pulses by 5 -15%, salt by 11%, and milk by more than 5%.

Parliament was informed by the government that UP accounted for 43% of a total of 9 lakh severely acutely malnourished children (6 months - 6 years) in India as of November 30, 2020.  This would have only worsened by the continuing pandemic, loss of livelihoods, over-burdened health system and disruption in anganwadi services, which provided meals for children under six and lactating mothers.

These issues directly affect the lives of voters. The BJP which claims to run a ‘double-engine’ government in UP and the Centre, must be cornered for its “engine failure”. Otherwise, it will get away with describing Covid-19 entirely as a natural calamity rather than one worsened by governance failure.

Unless electoral battles are won, Indian democracy and its institutions cannot be saved. The Opposition, therefore, needs to rethink its strategy. Just as the Rafale scandal did not sway voters earlier, Pegasus may not either.



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