The desire for development among Uttarakhand’s voters grew even stronger this election. When voters were asked in Lokniti’s post-poll survey which issue had mattered to them the most while voting, without being prompted with any options, well over-two fifths spontaneously said vikaas (development). In the 2017 election, the proportion of those who had mentioned vikaas as the main issue had been much less at 28%.
Despite an increase in the State’s working-age population and a simultaneous decline in the employment rate, the issue of lack of jobs was the main voting issue for only 14% of voters in Uttarakhand, two points lower than 2017. Similarly, despite the soaring costs of essential commodities, inflation was the key voting issue for only 6% of Uttarakhandis as opposed to 11% last time.
It is quite possible that many important issues that may have been on the minds of voters got subsumed by the issue of vikaas since we asked people to give us only their most important voting issue. They may have also resonated less in the backdrop of the pro-BJP choice of the voters.
Hence, in order to get a better sense of the issues that mattered to the voters, we read out to them, one by one, select issues and asked them to tell us the extent to which each of these had been important to them. It is here that unemployment and inflation along with development emerged as key issues. Over four-fifths said that joblessness and inflation had been ‘very important’ to them while deciding their vote. Corruption came next with 69% stating that it had been ‘very important’ for them. The issues of having a double engine government (raised by the BJP) and of making Gairsain the permanent capital (a promise of the Congress) do not seem to have mattered much. Only about one-thirds said that the two had been highly important voting considerations.
Notably, what does seem to have mattered a lot to voters (at least in relation to many other issues that were read out) were environmental protection (48%) and protecting the State’s culture (47%). But these were mentioned by the respondents only when listed as part of the menu of issues and not spontaneously. While Congress leader Harish Rawat had made Uttarakhandiyat a central theme of the Congress’ campaign, Congress gained little from the segment that attached great importance to State pride. The BJP managed a lead of 8% over the Congress among such voters.
As for environmental protection, given that there has been growing concern among some Uttarakhandis about the effect that massive infrastructural projects (such as the Char Dham highway development project) are having on the State’s ecosystem and geology, it is again noteworthy that many claimed that it was an important issue for them. So, we pressed voters further on the matter and asked them what they would prioritise – development or environmental protection, if the two come in conflict with each other. Most voters (59%) gave a middle-of-the road answer: they said both should be given equal attention. Only 15% explicitly opted for prioritising the environment and 16% opted for prioritising development over the environment. Moreover, the proportion of those giving precedence to environmental protection has reduced drastically in the last five years. In 2017, when the same question was asked, many more had opted for environment (27%) over development (12%). Interestingly, preference for either of these two did not make much difference to vote preference: among both groups the BJP won decisively. It was only among those who chose the middle road that the party performed below par.
We also sought voters’ opinion on the Char Dham project that has been opposed by many environmentalists, ecologists and geologists. Nearly three-fifths (56%) of the voters said Uttarakhand stands to benefit more than lose from the project. Only 16% thought otherwise. The remaining 28% did not have a stand. Clearly, the constituency in favour of the environment is yet to shape and consolidate in the State.
Shreyas Sardesai is with Lokniti-CSDS; Rakesh Negi is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University, Sringar, Uttarakhand