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Beyond The Rise Of Regional Parties: 3 Key Lessons From The State Assembly Elections Of 2016

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By Sabah Kochhar:

The future of Indian politicsAs the recent Assembly elections have proven, there are many important messages for political parties and pundits alike. But, going beyond data and numbers, the results pose serious questions for strategists and intellectuals creating a world of speculation. Here are three key lessons learnt from the election results:

1. Populism Is Here To Stay:

With the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) resuming power, “Amma” Jayalalithaa is the undisputed star of the show as she proves anti-incumbency theorists wrong. The victory is not a sign of the AIADMK’s win so much as it is the sign of Amma’s power and the message that pro-poor development schemes are the way ahead.

Another case in point is the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC)’s victory in West Bengal, once again fighting the ghost of anti-incumbency looming over the state. The TMC, who won 184 seats in 2011, significantly improved their tally to win over 210 seats in the 294-member assembly.

In her tenure, Jayalalithaa set up many social welfare schemes including Amma canteens, Amma water, Amma Baby Kits, Amma Cement, Amma pharmacies and Amma seeds. She also introduced schemes for women and even ensured that freebies such as fans, laptops and mixers were given to Below Poverty Line families in the rural hamlets of the state. She reportedly provided a 100% subsidy to small and micro farmers. All of these combined worked in the favour of the AIADMK party.

Mamata also expanded her support base with several welfare schemes for the youth and the needy. These include the Kanyashree scheme, which offers a monthly scholarship of Rs. 750 to girl students from financially weak families and the ‘Sabuj Sathi’ scheme under which cycles are distributed to students. The TMC also planned a monthly dole of Rs. 1,500 to one lakh unemployed youth in the state under the ‘Yuvashree’ scheme, calling it an “assistance” to meet their expenses.

Unsurprisingly, both Mamata and Jayalalithaa have been criticised by middle-classes, “intellectuals” and opponents alike, with many citing their reforms and schemes as being too opportunistic for “doling out sops and money”. The fact remains that despite all of the BJP-ruled center’s aspirations for bullet trains and fancy technology, there are more than enough numbers of Indians whose basic needs are yet to be met. Even as the aspirational upper classes might scoff at the freebie culture, poverty and lack of access to primary resources remains a fact of life in India.

The message is clear: People here voted less for caste, religion or ethnicity oriented identity-based politics, and more for basic resources, infrastructure and social development. What’s dismissed as “populism” is a new kind of identity being created: one of an overarching political notion for the poor.

2. The End Of The Congress Era?

With the Congress winning only Puducherry, India’s ‘Grand Old Party’ has now lost stronghold in Assam and Kerala only to be reduced into a regional level outfit. The party’s loss in Delhi to Kejriwal’s AAP was only the beginning of what’s turning out to be a gradual erosion. With further losses in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, among others, many had been predicting such a downward slope for the past few years. Presently, the few places it has contested power have been with the help of regional allies instead of solely through its own merit (the RJD-JDU alliance in Bihar, the Left Front alliance for the recent Bengal elections and the DMK partnership for Tamil Nadu all proving this).

Many have criticised the party’s excessive dependence on Nehru-Gandhi dynastic politics and the current face of the family’s prospective leader, Rahul Gandhi, has been dubbed “Pappu” by the public and media alike (a sign of their attitudes to nepotism and inefficient leadership). With the party stronghold being seen as corrupt coupled with a lack of clarity for the country’s future, even Shashi Tharoor said that it was high time the party cease introspection and take strict action instead. “The party’s core problem is that it can neither dispense with the first family nor, under current circumstances, live with them,” says Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Centre for Policy Research.

As the Congress loses out in Assam this time, the question of whether it can reclaim the narrative of Nehruvian pluralism so as to win more seats will be the test of time. With the next two years bringing key elections in Gujarat and Karnataka, it remains to be seen if the party takes hold of the situation or bites the dust.

3. The BJP Is Now A National Level Party:

Now that the BJP’s Sarbananda Sonowal scored a major victory in Assam, the party has made inroads into the erstwhile Congress bastion in the North-East. Going hand in hand with the Congress’s defeat in Kerala and the pre-eminence of regional parties in Delhi, Bengal, Tamil Nadu and UP, the BJP has managed to cement itself in an otherwise fragmented polity. What worked for the BJP in Assam was the focus on local level leaders and a shift from characteristic Hindutva politicking, replete with indigenous faces like Sarbananda Sonowal and Himanta Biswa Sarma. The focus on the issue of undocumented or “illegal” Bangladeshi migrants in Assam managed to swing the tide in the BJP’s favour, showing the dangerous influences of nativist identity politics.

In defeating the incumbent Congress in Assam, the oft-promised “Congress mukt Bharat” refrain might just be turning into reality.

What lies next in store for the BJP is the fate of Uttar Pradesh’s elections. Even though Mayawati’s BSP has been predicted to mark a comeback, the BJP can play up its Hindutva cards this time in UP, even if it didn’t work in the case of Delhi or Bihar. Already the BJP has climbed to the status of the only national party, but this might just be consolidated further. By building on anti-Muslim sentiments in parts of UP, they might just take on regional parties too.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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