Every day, hundreds of pilgrims from different parts of the country visit the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna, the sangam, in Allahabad to take a dip. The nishads (boatmen) row them to the sangam and listen to their chatter, which includes their voting preferences during elections. I have been visiting the sangam as a political pilgrim since the 1977 Lok Sabha elections, the momentous contest that led to the collapse of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime.
During the 2004 and 2009 elections, the forecast of the professional pollsters had under-rated the performance of the Congress and over-rated the BJP’s tally while the boatmen and their pilgrim-clients were relatively accurate in their predictions. I reported this in Hindustan Times on May 1, 2004, and April 28, 2009.
This time, the nishads and the yatris (pilgrims) predict a mega Narendra Modi wave across the country, leaving aside a few arid islands controlled by regional parties and the Congress. The boatmen suggest that the Modi wave will be much more forceful than that has been forecast by some election surveys commissioned by different media groups.
In 2004 and 2009, Ranjan Nishad, a member of the boatmen’s committee, had confidently told me that the Congress would get significantly more seats than the BJP. The election results proved him right. This time, Ranjan (who now heads the committee) tells me after careful consideration, the BJP will capture 60 out of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh.
Nationwide, he foresees Modi and his allies in the NDA winning close to 400 seats. Sitting on a sandbank, a dozen other boatmen agree with this assessment and add that Modi is the great saviour. The BJP rarely gets a mention.
I am astounded and curtly ask Ranjan how he has come up with this forecast. He says that his predictions are based on what he and his colleagues have been hearing from the pilgrims who hire their boats.
The nishads say that yatris believe that Modi will bring development and progress and provide employment. (Modi has aroused great expectations but those will be impossible for any single person to fulfil and could lead to what Rajiv Gandhi experienced a couple of years after he won 414 seats in the 1984 election.)
The boatmen and pilgrims have also heard that Modi would firmly stop the privileges enjoyed by Muslims and save Hindus from Muslim “aggressiveness”. One of the alleged privileges is that Muslims are provided electricity and water during Eid while Hindus get no such help during their festivals. Another Sangh parivar rumour that is widely believed in these parts is that UP minister Azam Khan will rebuild the Babri masjid. This is in sharp contrast to 2009, when the boatmen had told me that there was not even a hint of any ill feeling between the Hindus and Muslims.
I decide to test the boatmen’s predictions by hiring a boat to take me to the sangam. The first boatload I meet are a group of about 20 from Vijayawada in coastal Andhra Pradesh.
P Rama Rao, a bricklayer, says that they will be voting for the Modi-Chandrababu Naidu combine in the Lok Sabha and assembly elections being held there. DVK Murthy, a district revenue officer from Visakhapatnam, also supports the Modi-Naidu duo.
I hail a boat carrying yatris from Sargaj village in Sonepur district in Odisha. Bishwanand Mishra, the village school’s PT instructor, says: “A Modi sarkar would be good for the country,” and adds that he has voted for the BJP in the Lok Sabha poll and for the Biju Janata Dal in the assembly election. Leading a boatload of yatris from Bidar in Karnataka is Prakash Rangdal, a government employee. He says he has voted for the BJP and is confident that it will get 15 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats from his state.
Dilip Vishwakarma, 21, is from Varanasi. He sells mobile phones and will be voting for Modi because he “supports businessmen”. Another young man, Virendra Singh, a farmer from Bhiwani in Haryana, chimes in from a neighbouring boat to affirm that he has already voted for Modi. A boat filled with sadhus from Panna in Madhya Pradesh passes by. Damodar Das, a mandir priest, says that he has voted for “kamal ka phool”, the lotus symbol of the BJP.
There are exceptions to the Modi-BJP chorus. Ram Varan Verma, a farmer from Pratapgarh in Uttar Pradesh, is a BSP supporter. Then I come across a vehemently anti-Modi pair of seemingly prosperous builders from Rajkot in Gujarat. Mohanbhai Patel and Mukundbhai Patel boldly declare that “Modi baat kartey hain, kaam kuch nahi kartey” (Modi talks, does no work). “Modi claims that he provides water but in Rajkot we do not get even 15 minutes of water supply in a day.” They are convinced that the Congress will win 16 seats while the BJP will get 10 seats in Gujarat.
Next morning, I visit Noorullah Road, a Muslim locality of Allahabad, where I meet Imran Hussain, who sells ice blocks. In 2009, he had told me that the Muslim vote was divided between the Congress and the BSP. This time, he says, the Muslims of his locality will vote en bloc for the Congress in a vain attempt to keep the BJP out.
(Jawid Laiq is a political commentator. He has been reporting on the national elections since 1971. The views expressed by the author are personal)