Poll Pitch: The top five places to go to, by Ruchir Sharma
Four phases of the election will be over by April 29. The remaining three phases are on May 6,12 and 19. Ruchir Sharma, author of Democracy on the Road, tells HT readers which are the best places to witness the remaining campaign battlesUpdated: Apr 27, 2019 19:32 IST
If you were a political tourist looking for the best place to follow the 2019 election, where would you go? Here are my top five places to watch 2019’s remaining campaign battles:
Madhya Pradesh is a critical state because Modi and the BJP swept it in the 2014 general election, taking 27 of the 29 Lok Sabha seats. Then Congress bounced back last December, eking out a narrow victory in the state assembly election. Historically, parties that win an assembly contest typically win the next national battle in that state if it follows within a year, as this one does. If the pattern holds, Congress has the edge but in MP it could be thwarted by Modi’s nationalist magnetism. MP voters talk about tough battles as “katte ki takkar” – neck and neck – and this is one of them.
The ideal MP base camp is Bhopal. Our first visit in 2008 revealed this city so closely associated with the gas tragedy of 1984 as an unexpected gem – one of the greenest, best organised metropolises in India, the shores of its lakes uncluttered by the usual flotsam and illegal shacks. Aspiring Bollywood stuntmen rode motorcycle wheelies down the graceful boulevards. Bhopal has gotten livelier since, with a new airport and wider roads, and many of its landmarks rechristened with Hindu names. It remains a BJP stronghold and the party has nominated the controversial Pragya Thakur to contest from here. Meanwhile, the Congress has dispatched Digvijaya Singh—known in jest as the “Smiling Assassin”—to help take back one of the BJP’s safest seats.
Rajasthan is another state where Congress could pick up a large chunk of seats if it can sustain the momentum of its comeback assembly victory in late 2018. Only here the Modi factor looms larger, since Rajasthan has a western border with Pakistan, and patriotic fervour over the recent border clashes is still pretty hot. Given the deep community loyalty of many Indians, we always look for the voters who might change their minds, and the ones to look for here in Rajasthan are those who swung to Congress in November. Will they now switch back to Modi?
Jaipur and its colourful neighbouring constituencies is the place to find out. The capital of this former princely state, it is home to one of India’s most spectacular palace hotels and a place where royals still matter in politics. No state explodes to life more vibrantly at election time than Rajasthan, where cities have signature colours (Jaipur’s is pink) and voters swarm the streets adorned in saffron, light blue and other party hues, and love to talk about the battles of the day.
My companions and I have chased campaigns in all 10 of the largest states but have visited none more often than the largest and electorally most important, Uttar Pradesh. Only months ago I thought there was no point going back this year because hardening community loyalties appeared to assure victory for the new alliance between the leading UP caste champions, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav. Now the patriotic surge behind Modi, and the religious fervour behind his UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, have made it a contest again.
By late April, voting will be over in western UP so campaign watchers need to go east, ideally toward the holy city of Allahabad. It is a good place from which to foray into the surrounding countryside, where elections are always decided in this heavily rural country. It is also close to Modi’s constituency in Varanasi, Adityanath’s base in Gorakhpur, and thus a good barometer of the religious and nationalist pressure systems building around these figures. One must-do in Allahabad: chat up the Ganga river boatmen. They have become famous for distilling their conversation with pilgrims from all over India into strikingly accurate election forecasts.
When we first visited Bihar in 2005 the deeply backward state was about to reject the playful Lalu Prasad Yadav for the development promises of Nitish Kumar. Since then Bihar has transformed under Kumar, and his alliance with the BJP gives Modi the upper hand in this state. But with Lalu now in jail, and his son Tejashwi serving as the youthful face of his RJD party, the RJD-Congress alliance could put up a fight.
Our early Bihar trips took us into the Wild East around Bettiah, known then for Maoist rebels and kidnappers. Our hotel was a few plywood and plumbing-free rooms above a sweetshop buzzing with flies. Lizards falling from the ceilings would trigger screams in the night, yet for all the stories of carjackers and deadly snake bites, we didn’t felt unsafe. In fact, rural India has never lived up to the tales we hear about its dangers. To hardy travellers I would recommend Bettiah, a great place to see how far Kumar’s development programs reach, and how much of a boost his alliance support will give the BJP in Bihar.
The BJP is looking to Bengal, the fourth most populous state and rich with Lok Sabha seats, as the battleground where it could make up for possible losses to the alliances rising against it in UP and Bihar. The opportunity is unique, because the Marxist party has been in disarray ever since Mamata Banerjee ended its three decade reign, and now the BJP hopes to set itself up as her main rival. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the BJP is trying to fill the opposition role by playing the majority card, casting Mamata as pro minority.
On our 2011 trip we saw evidence of voter disgust with the Marxists, even in provincial towns and cities where land reform once made them popular. Packs of stray dogs, water tanks reserved for Marxist party members, rudimentary health clinics. Our shabby hotel in the town of Medinipur, inaptly named the Ritz Bengal, was close to ground zero of violent battles between disgruntled local Maoists and the Marxist state government. It too is not a place for the comfort loving traveller, but it would be a good place to see whether Mamata has kept her base intact and insulated herself from the BJP challenge.
First Published: Apr 27, 2019 18:41 IST