Electorally analysing jigsaw puzzles like India or Uttar Pradesh is a daunting task. Multiple layers of castes and communities and differing regions baffle political pundits and professional pollsters who often fail to predict election results correctly.
One group who have been astonishingly accurate in their poll analysis and predictions over many elections are the humble mallahs or traditional boatmen of Allahabad. (Their forecasts were commented on by me in the Hindustan Times of May 1, 2004, April 28, 2009 and May 5, 2014.) They daily row thousands of yatris (pilgrims) from all over the country to take a holy dip at the Sangam, the sacred confluence of the waters of the Ganga and Yamuna. The boatmen quietly listen to the chatter of the pilgrims and after much coaxing divulge the electoral opinions of the yatris.
I have been visiting the boatmen as a political pilgrim since the momentous 1977 election when Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime was sent packing and the boatmen had told me of the impending victory of the Janata party. This is the seventh time I am visiting the boatmen during an election, though the first time during an assembly election. The other six visits were during national elections.
My most reliable analyst during the past three Lok Sabha elections has been Rajan Kumar Nishad, the head of the boatmen’s association at present. This time, he claims “Ab bhi Modi kee lehar hai” (Even now there is a Modi wave.) He and his fellow boatmen had also foreseen a Modi wave in 2014, much bigger and more accurate than that predicted by the professional pollsters and pundits.
I ask him the reasons for Modi’s continuing popularity despite being unable to fulfil all the electoral promises he had made in 2014. Nishad says that unlike other leaders Modi is working for all Hindus, regardless of caste. Every caste now favours Modi. Asked about notebandi (demonetisation), Rajan Nishad says that it caused some initial problems but got rid of big black money including that of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati and Jayalalithaa. Rajan is confident that entirely due to Modi the BJP will get at least 50 % of the 403 seats in the UP Assembly. If required, Mayawati’s BSP may support him in the state legislature.
Santu Nishad, aged 21, nods in agreement. He will be voting for the first time in this election and it will be for Modi. I question him and other young Nishads (all the boatmen use their caste name), about the failure of Modi to provide the mass employment that he had promised to young people in his 2014 election campaign. The Nishads have an instant answer. The UP government led by Akhilesh during the past five years gave jobs only to Yadav youngsters. They expect that Modi, through the coming BJP government in Lucknow, will create employment for all.
To test the predictions of the boatmen, I ask Santu to row me to the Sangam where we intercept several boats carrying families and clans from various districts of UP. We ask each boatload who they will vote for or who they have already voted for in the seven-phase election. We manage to question nine boatloads who have come from villages and small towns in nine districts – Banda, Bareilly, Basti, Bijnor, Etawah, Kanpur, Lakhimpur Kheri, Meerut and Sitapur which roughly represent the geographic spread of UP.
Seven of the nine boatloads respond that they have already voted for or will be voting for “kamal ka phool” (the lotus symbol of the BJP). The yatris from Etawah shout from their boat that they will vote for the Samajwadi Party while those in the Bijnor boat ignore our queries.
The next day, I visit two villages near Bamrauli on the outskirts of Allahabad. I had also visited them in the past three elections. Barwah, which is a totally Brahmin village, is committed to voting for the BJP, according to their spokesman, Prem Narayan Tiwari, whom I am meeting for the fourth time during an election.
Bhagwatpur is a village with a population of 70% Dalits and 30% upper castes. Here Mahavir Saroj, a Dalit young man, has become angrily anti-Modi as not one promised job was provided to the village youth. Arguing against Mahavir, Krishna Kant Dwivedi, a Brahmin who owns a tiny grocery, openly declares “I am a proud Hindu”. He will vote for Modi whose mix of promises, powerful rhetoric and incendiary Hindu nationalism continues to be a big attraction in the UP election.
I also visit Noorullah Road, a Muslim locality of Allahabad, for the fourth time. The Muslims here seem to be quite divided about which party they will vote for. In 2014, they had voted largely for the Congress Party.
Jawid Laiq is a political commentator. He has been analysing nationwide elections since 1977.
The views expressed by the author are personal.