Home / Opinion / Columns /  Three public policy cues that point to nearing UP polls

Imagine you’ve just returned from an extended holiday on Mars. You open the morning newspapers, scan the stories and it suddenly dawns on you that elections to the Uttar Pradesh (UP) legislative assembly are around the corner. Three political-economy developments offer pointers to the poll season coming up.

The first one is the ongoing unseemly spat between social media platform Twitter and the Indian government, specifically minister for law and justice Ravi Shankar Prasad, who also holds the portfolio of communications, electronics and information technology. Almost everyday, Twitter is accused of violating Indian laws. But the daily barrage of allegations and counter-claims obfuscates some of the core issues. A look at the chronology shows the spat intensified after Twitter called out a document, tweeted by a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member claiming it was circulated by the Congress party with malicious intent, as allegedly ‘manipulated’. The platform also tagged many other senior BJP members who had retweeted this. This resulted in the Delhi Police landing up at Twitter’s office. The war of words intensified over the next few weeks, with ministers and sundry party functionaries even accusing Twitter of subverting the “laws of the land", especially rules for “intermediaries" under the Information Technology Act. In the interim, Twitter’s pointless provocations (deactivating Prasad’s Twitter account) and silly missteps (such as allowing a wrong map of India on its platform), provided BJP functionaries with additional fuel.

At a policy level, the issue highlights flaws in India’s IT rules, specifically the government applying a one-size-fits-all policy for “intermediaries" to all internet service providers ( But, bizarre as it may sound, a government obsessed with blue ticks on Twitter handles in the midst of a raging second wave, marked by accelerating fatality rates, could be aiming not just to divert attention from lack of oxygen or hospital beds, but also to prime its core constituency for the approaching UP elections. The playbook is smudged with familiar BJP fingerprints: when all else (including governance) fails, try patriotism or religion. Plus, Twitter has become a handy electoral weapon, useful for spreading propaganda, polarizing messages or phony facts (a la West Bengal). Twitter’s activism over fake messages could possibly blunt a key electoral weapon.

Another minister seems to have borrowed from the same script. Commerce and industry minister Piyush Goyal has been publicly raging against multinational e-commerce companies, namely Amazon and Walmart. Predictably, Goyal has also evoked slights to Indian sovereignty. Again, chronology is important. First, the US-based e-com companies have been trying to obtain a court order staying a year-long Competition Commission of India investigation, which seems to have incensed the minister. Second, the ministry of consumer affairs, food and public distribution (which too is helmed by Goyal) has issued new draft rules under the Consumer Protection Act. If finalized, these will not only skew the playing field, but further muddy the existing regulatory overlaps between various ministries.

Goyal’s outbursts are not random; they look aimed at placating owners of mom-and-pop stores. It is almost ritualistic how every election season the BJP tries to mollycoddle this constituency. Shopkeepers have traditionally been part of its core support base, especially in many parts of UP. Before every election, there are routine noises made which fade once the votes are counted.

It can be argued that the government’s actions against Twitter, WhatsApp or e-commerce giants like Amazon and Flipkart are aligned with those of other governments across the world trying to curtail Big Tech’s extra-constitutional powers. That is a fair claim. But, the poor drafting of rules, the confusing and contesting overlaps between regulating ministries and the overblown reasons for vilification actually penalize consumers without achieving any of the stated objectives.

The third pointer to UP elections is sugar politics. There are about 120 sugar mills in UP, with nearly 5 million farmers cultivating sugarcane and another 700,000 people employed in the industry. Consequently, sugar plays a pivotal role in UP’s electoral politics. Typically, sugar mills do not pay farmers cane dues for two-three years and then release arrears in an election year. This year too, UP ministers have issued statements about cane dues reducing over the past three-four months, apart from the government approving additional sugar crushing capacities that is likely to increase cane offtake from farmers. In parallel, on 5 June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi advanced the target of 20% ethanol blended petrol (it’s 8.5% currently) by five years to 2025, triggering a rush to increase ethanol distilling capacities. As a result, stocks of many UP-based sugar companies are close to their 52-week highs. There is also speculation that the government will soon announce an increase in cane prices and minimum selling prices for sugar to keep farmers and mills happy.

The UP polls will probably be held next January or February, and the BJP is likely to keep this pot on the boil. In a recent speech, Supreme Court Chief Justice N.V. Ramana alluded to the unfortunate practice of recurrent electoral cycles determining public policy, disconnected from a truly democratic and participative process.

Rajrishi Singhal is a policy consultant, journalist and author. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal.

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