Travelling across north and east India — particularly Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal — over the past five months, on the campaign trail, one has heard a common refrain — India has never seen a battle like 2014. As these polls draw to an end, it’s time to look at what makes this democratic exercise distinct from the rest.
National and local
At a massive rally in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, in January, BJP president Rajnath Singh said people must remember they are voting for Narendra Modi as PM, and the local candidates did not matter. The party’s gamble to turn the contest into a presidential one, focusing on Brand Modi, has clearly done far better than analysts predicted last year.
Driving me through UP the past week is Anand Verma, of Unnao. He says, “I went home to vote only for Modi. I don’t even know the MP candidate’s name.”
But this is not true across the board. In Bihar, on the back of his traditional Muslim-Yadav coalition, RJD chief Lalu Prasad has presented a formidable challenge to Modi. Each seat is keenly fought, and candidates, local alliances, and issues matter as much, if not more, than a national brand.
Religion and caste
The logical corollary of turning the contest into one national battle was an attempt to break traditional political categories, especially of caste. The BJP tried to do this in three ways. They used the ‘secular’ narrative of development and governance to strike a chord.
They also laced the campaign with Hindutva and aggressive nationalism. But this was done subtly, and the best proof was the preliminary speakers who warmed the crowd before Modi arrived.
In Gorakhpur, and in Katihar, Bihar, I heard speakers proclaim that come May 16, Pakistan would be taught a lesson. They also repeated the narrative of Muslim appeasement. And in more public instances, Modi’s speeches on who constitutes a refugee and Amit Shah’s ‘revenge speech’ in Muzaffaranagar catered to this sentiment.
The third element of the strategy was Modi re-emphasising his backward caste origins. As a BJP leader once explained, “OBCs have tasted power at the provincial level, never at the national. We have always succeeded when upper castes and backwards have come together. That was the formula in the early ’90s.”
But will the entrenched caste-based parties of north India fade away? Unlikely, as Lalu’s fight-back in Bihar shows. In UP, only the results will tell whether Dalits have remained with Mayawati or veered away and whether Yadavs have shifted loyalties. But the attempt to pit one form of identity politics against another was a key feature of the campaign.
From Raiganj in north Bengal to Araria in north-east Bihar, from Phulwari Sharif in Patna to Byaspur in Chandauli in UP, Muslim mohallas are experiencing similar emotions — of anxiety and nervousness. The biggest failure of the Modi campaign has been the failure to bridge the gulf with India’s largest minority community.
As a Varanasi weaver said, “We don’t fear Modi, we fear only Allah, but we don’t like him. He doesn’t count us as citizens. We want to defeat him.”
Complete Muslim consolidation is a myth, but the community does try to vote ‘tactically’ in order to defeat the BJP. This was happening in a more organised way in Bengal and Bihar, and somewhat less so in UP. The campaign has left India polarised and divided like never before.
It may be a distinct election, but one thing that has remained constant is the size of Lok Sabha constituencies. And this is the bane of every politician in the fray. With anywhere between 1.5-2.5 million voters in many constituencies in the region, Lok Sabha contenders have struggled to reach out to their voters, and meet their expectations. On top of it, the line between what a voter expects of an MP, MLA and the local administration is often blurred. As the battle ends, kudos to the Indian politician who has braved the scorching sun to travel through his or her constituency to renew the Indian state’s social contract with its citizens.