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PM Modi wave resurfaces in UP, but faces alliance challenge

In Moradabad’s Kanth town, a group of young men are smoking cigarettes at a small grocery shop. Rinku Saini owns the outlet, but jokingly says that it is more a space for his friends to get together.

lok sabha elections Updated: Mar 13, 2019 08:06 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times, Kairana/Moradabad/Pilibhit/Etah/Hathra
PM Modi,Prime Minister Narendra Modi,PM Narendra Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Yogi Adityanath(PTI file photo)

In Moradabad’s Kanth town, a group of young men are smoking cigarettes at a small grocery shop. Rinku Saini owns the outlet, but jokingly says that it is more a space for his friends to get together. They pursue different ambitions. Avneet Bishnoi studies hotel management in Dehradun and is back home for a break. Shubham Chauhan works in the electricity department. But they have a common political preference.

“Narendra Modi must come back as Prime Minister. No one in the Opposition can match him. Have you seen how he has improved India’s image? Have you seen how he taught Pakistan a lesson? Rahul Gandhi would never have been able to do it,” says Saini. His friends agree.

When asked if employment was an issue for them, given that the government has been criticised for its track record on job creation, Bishnoi says, “Yes, we want more jobs. And government recruitments have opened up more in the past few years. But the government can’t create jobs for everyone. We have to work hard. It is time to stop blaming Modiji and support him.”

Pilibhit, up in the Terai belt, represents a different setting from Moradabad. Some distance from the main town square is the Rutpur Kamalu village. A group of men are playing cards. They belong to different castes. And as soon as the conversation turns to politics, their enthusiasm for Modi becomes evident.

Vijay Awasthi credits Modi for building roads and expanding electricity generation. But he says he is proud of what the government did recently. “Modi took revenge and ensured 350 terrorists were killed when they attacked our jawans.” (The figure has never been officially confirmed, and has been contested by various sources.) Thakur Das Prajapati, a small farmer, agrees. “Modi is our protector. Our head is held high because of him.” Makhan Lal, a barber, chips in. “This time, Hindu samaaj is not seeing biradari, caste. We are all united for Modi.”

In Banat, in Shamli district, on the way to Muzaffarnagar, it is evening and tea shops are busy. Vidhyadhar Sharma is a septugenarian, with substantial land holdings. He is a Modi supporter. “He has given housing and gas to many poor people in the village. But for me, above all else, he has shown Pakistan its place.” Sanjay Kumar Kashyap mocks the opposition alliance. “All thieves have come together against one man. And why? Because he has been like no other PM, thinking about the entire nation.”

Return of the base

The surnames of the interviewees — Saini, Bishnoi, Chauhan, Awasthi, Prajapati, Lal, Sharma, Kashyap — tell a story. They represent the social groups, upper castes and smaller Other Backward Class (OBC) groups, which propelled the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to resounding victories in the 2014 general elections and the 2017 assembly polls. In 2014, the BJP won 71 of the 80 seats in the state. In 2017, it won 312 of the state assembly’s 403 seats. And members of these social groups appear to be most enthused about the party, and Modi, yet again.

A week after the Balakot strike, Hindustan Times visited nine west UP constituencies: Saharanpur, Kairana, Muzaffarnagar, Moradabad, Bareilly, Pilibhit, Budayun, Etah and Hathras. Unlike three months ago, when the BJP’s own base seemed disillusioned with the party and the government, the pro-Modi mood is visible. Upper castes were then resentful that the government was “pro-Dalit” and had done little for the construction of the Ram temple; and OBCs, particularly smaller farmers, blamed the government’s policies at the menace of stray cattle destroying farms.

But all of this has receded from the discourse at the moment. And what you have on the ground is a highly enthused BJP cadre; vocal supporters sitting in public squares; village tea shops actively building opinion in favour of a second term for Modi; and increasing public support.

The return of the base is key in BJP’s calculation. According to a top party strategist, their strategy is simple. “Both in 2014 and 2017, we knew that a majority of Yadavs, Jatavs and Muslims will not vote for us. They together constitute about 35-40% of the vote. We had to focus on the other 60% — upper castes, non-Yadav OBCs, non- Jatav Dalits. We succeeded. But this time, we need these groups to back us in higher numbers because the Opposition is more united. After Balakot, our voters are back home. Now in fact, we will go aggressive and try and break into the opposition vote bank too.”

A caveat is essential here.

In the form of a Samajwadi Party (SP)-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)-Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) alliance, the BJP confronts a challenge that it did not last time. The demographics of key constituencies, the arithmetic of the alliance, and the popularity of some of the candidates from the Opposition is such that BJP will face a formidable challenge in a range of seats. The BJP won eight of these nine constituencies in 2014 (it lost Budayun then, and has subsequently lost Kairana in bypolls). And it will find it hard to replicate the performance, and faces tough contests in at least three additional seats now — Saharanpur, Muzaffarnagar and Moradabad. But the takeaway for the party, at this stage in the campaign, a month before elections, is one of slow consolidation of its vote share. There is no way to assess with any certainty how it will translate into seats.

Shift in narrative

“Pulwama ne mahaul badal diya (Pulwama changed the mood),” said Netra Pal, from the Dhangar caste, an OBC grouping, in Hathras’s Rajapura. “The country is secure under Modi. He has increased India’s stature.” Munna Lal, a Brahman worker affiliated with the BJP in a neighbouring bazaar in Hathras, claims that the strikes have increased the BJP’s vote share by two percentage points. “It will be the difference between victory and defeat.” But while there is little doubt that the strikes have boosted the morale of supporters, swung back the fence sitters, and introduced an emotional component in the campaign for the BJP, voters offer two other reasons for supporting Modi.

The first is the creation of rural assets and the direct farm income support initiative. Gyanendra Sharma, a lawyer in Hatisa bazaar of Hathras, said, “Why had Indian Prime Ministers before this not thought of providing gas cylinders? Why had they not thought of giving money directly into bank accounts and eliminating middlemen? Why had they not thought of rural housing? And why had they not given farmers money directly?” All of this, he claimed, meant that both “good people” and “poor people” will vote for Modi. (Two of Sharma’s claims do not entirely correspond with facts on the ground. The previous United Progressive Alliance government had initiated direct benefits transfer, while it is indeed true that National Democratic Alliance has expanded it. And rural housing initiatives have been pushed by previous governments too, while once again it is true that the NDA has scaled it up.)

But the other reason for support is palpably the absence of leaders on the other side who are in the reckoning directly for Prime Ministership. Indeed, this vacuum in the Opposition could even help the BJP break into the SP and the BSP vote bank partly.

Durgesh Kumar, also known as Collector, a Yadav farmer in Etah constituency’s Mirachiya bazaar, said, “I will vote for Modi in the national elections. For the assembly, I will vote for Akhilesh Yadav. What is the point of voting for SP right now when it won’t have enough seats to become a national player?” Rakesh Yadav, a BJP worker in the same bazaar, was riding a motorbike with the party flag. He said, “You will see Yadavs will not vote that easily for BSP candidates. They would prefer Modiji in those seats.”

With a month to go for elections in this belt of west UP, a lot could change. The Opposition is not yet on the ground in any effective manner. Once all the candidates are declared, contests could assume a more local hue. The euphoria surrounding the government’s response to the terror attack in Pulwama could dissipate. Despite maintaining or even increasing its vote share, the BJP will find it hard to overcome the united challenge of the SP and BSP in seats in which Muslims, Yadavs and Jatavs are in substantial numbers, supplemented with the Jat support of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD). And the nature of the campaigning could alter the mood. But for now, the BJP has reason to smile. As in 2014 and 2017, the appeal of Modi could help swing a high number of seats in India’s most critical state for the party yet again.

First Published: Mar 13, 2019 07:12 IST

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