[This reporter has been criss-crossing UP’s hinterland, reporting from the 53 constituencies that would have completed polling by Monday, May 6. Here are his impressions and some sort of sense of what he saw and heard till now.]
It has been more than one and a half months since I have been on the road, covering the parliamentary election campaign in India’s biggest state Uttar Pradesh. There seems to be only one factor that everything is revolving around, and that is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Every other issue finally converges on him. And, this has left the society divided on communal and ideological lines. Emotions are high, partisanship entrenched and simmering violence just below the surface.
About a month ago, I was talking to a friend who is a source of much information, while enjoying a glass of lassi at the Ghanta Ghar of Meerut city, when I observed two men engaged in a heated debate over Modi. One of them must have been a Muslim because he was wearing a skull cap and had a beard. He was criticising the zubani (only in words) developmental work that the BJP brags about with nothing concrete on the ground. The other man was countering him with the news of air strikes in Balakot, as well as praising the Ujjwala scheme (cooking gas for poor families) and other achievements. The argument got so heated that local shopkeepers had to intervene and calm them down.
“This is what Modi ji has given to our country. People are ready to fight and even lynch others over politics,” said my friend after we moved away from that very uneasy situation.
A few days later, my colleague who was reporting with me, found himself surrounded by a mob of intolerant BJP supporters at Modi’s rally in Meerut. He could have been beaten up for saying that important issues like agrarian distress were not even mentioned by the PM in the rally.
In Shahjahanpur district in central Uttar Pradesh, during the third phase of polling, a discussion between some young friends on the merits and demerits of work done by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) quickly degenerated into fisticuffs. One of the boys had to be rushed to a local dispensary for first aid with blood oozing from his face.
Two things can be readily given as reasons for this fraught divide: both sides are comparable in scale of support, and both sides are highly motivated. As we all know, Modi’s BJP is being challenged by the Gathbandhan, an alliance of Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal, representing a broad rainbow coalition of non-upper castes and mostly poorer sections.
Anti-BJP voters are not vocal about their opinions
Another observation was that people who are not convinced with the policies of, and the work done by, the BJP government at the Centre, are not vocal about their choice of alternative or who they will vote for.
It was in Kanpur, while having an early morning breakfast at the iconic Thaggu Ke Laddu shop, that I bumped into several middle-aged people who were on the cusp of retirement. They were severely critical of the policies of BJP government but were unwilling to say anything in favour of any other political party. Their outrage with the saffron party primarily stemmed from the decline of industries in Kanpur – which was once a major industrial city - and the problem of sending their kids away from Kanpur in search of jobs.
This could be because these middle class gentlemen, presumably from the upper caste, were not able to bring themselves to support a backward caste- dalit combination represented by the Gathbandhan, although there are several upper caste candidates of the alliance too.
But in most cases, common people who do not clearly voice support for the Opposition even while criticising the BJP, are slightly apprehensive of the repercussions. They are cowed down by the overt display of power, the media blitz, the social media dominance, and an unease with sticking their necks out.
Some Are Confused
It could also be that the alternatives are genuinely leaving them confused, like a group pf Muslims that I talked to in Lucknow, who were against Modi but were unclear whether to vote for the Gathbandhan or the Congress. But there was no doubt that the state capital is a divided city – divided over Modi.
In Barabanki district’s Zaidpur, I met a couple of handloom workers from the Sunni sect of the Muslim community who said they were ready to vote for BJP in the hope of receiving Rs 15 lakh and many other perks -- as promised by the BJP. However, they were of the opinion that the issues of Rafale deal or attacking Pakistan were of no use to them. All they wanted was better schemes to uplift their lives and livelihood.
Senior political commentator Rudra Pratap Dubey says people have become more vocal with their opinions since 2014 and with the advent of social media, cheaper data and other resources, it has become easier for them to express themselves freely.
‘Nationalism’ - A major issue?
While returning from Basti district, we stopped at a roadside dhaba to grab some dinner and the conversation veered around to ‘nationalism’ – which is perceived as putting down Pakistan. The dhaba owner, who belonged to the Nishad community (a Scheduled Caste) said he would vote only for BJP as the party had “blown Pakistan out of the map”. On being asked where he got this information from, he told us that he had been receiving text, video and audio messages proving this.
“Saheb kuch bhi ho vote to BJP ko hi denge. Rahul Gandhi to pappu hai aur Mayawati, Mulayam ne hamare liye abhi tak itne saalo me kuch kiya nahi. Modi ko aur time dekar dekh lete hai,” [Saheb, whatever happens, we will vote for BJP only. Rahul Gandhi is a novice (pappu) and Mayawati, Mulayam have not given us anything in all these years. Modi should be given some more time], he told us.
The dhaba owner’s imaginary version of the Balakot air strike is a product of the large-scale all-media publicity blitz carried out by BJP and its affiliates portraying Modi as a no-nonsense strong leader.
This sense of ‘national pride’ in striking at Pakistan seamlessly converges with BJP’s other main plank, that of portraying Muslims as the ‘other’ and even as the enemy. It is not difficult to see the convergence, and BJP has played it to the hilt.
The big question, however, is this: has the BJP converted non-BJP voters to become its voters through this strategy or not. As in the case of the dhaba owner, it appears to have acted more in stemming erosion of its voters’ base, not in adding to it.
There is an equally big section of people who are untouched by the ‘nationalism’ narrative. At a stone’s throw from the dhaba was Ram Diwakar’s big grocery store on the Gorakhpur-Lucknow highway who, when asked about his voting choice, simply said-- EK Hi Bhool Kamal Ka Phool, which means only one mistake, the lotus flower. The words are crystal clear: voting for BJP’s symbol of lotus was a mistake. In other words, Diwakar seems to be saying that he has crossed over from being a BJP supporter to a becoming a critic now.
When asked more about it, he said he was against the BJP due to demonetisation, goods and services tax and stray cattle menace. These three issues are roiling the state in every nook and cranny, and are specific to the BJP’s policies. Both Modi and the state chief minister Yogi Adityanath are in the dock on these counts. Yogi, because it is under his two-year regime that the stray cattle menace has assumed frightening and destructive dimensions.
Clearly, in this case, BJP’s muscular ‘nationalism’ is floundering against certain hard realities – and losing out. This is not an isolated case obviously. That’s why critics of BJP, mainly the Gathbandhan in UP, are finding sufficient traction on the ground.