Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in an Indian Air Force helicopter to address an election campaign rally in Meerut in Uttar Pradesh on Thursday.(Reuters)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in an Indian Air Force helicopter to address an election campaign rally in Meerut in Uttar Pradesh on Thursday.(Reuters)

Lok Sabha elections 2019: In and around PM Modi’s rally, voices of support — and dissent

Modi’s first rally showcased the BJP’s biggest brand to its constituents in west UP. Polls here are crucial because it is in the first phase -- and the party believes that this will set the mood for future phases.
Hindustan Times, Meerut | By Prashant Jha
UPDATED ON MAR 29, 2019 02:00 PM IST

It is mid-morning on Thursday in Meerut’s Sardhana town, shops are opening; groups of people are catching up over the news; and some have begun leaving for a ground near the toll plaza on the highway, 15km away, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi is kicking off his Lok Sabha election campaign.

When asked about the chunaavi mahaul, the buzz around elections, Om Pal, who is sitting at a tea shop with four others, starts off by saying it is too early. But aren’t elections a mere fortnight away? Meerut votes on April 11. He smiles: “But things change overnight. For now, advantage is with Modiji.” Pal sells vegetables on a roadside cart and belongs to an Other Backward Class (OBC) group.

Omkar, sitting alongside, is more certain. “Modiji will be back. He is making India a mahashakti, a superpower.” When asked about his background, Omkar says he served in the army in multiple locations - Jabalpur, Jammu, Himachal and Punjab. Were the Balakot strikes a major turning point for him? “Our policy should be simple. Don’t kill. We won’t kill. But if you kill, we will kill too.” While impressed with Modi’s response to Pakistan, Omkar says the key reason for his support is actually the work done in rural areas. When asked about his caste, he replies, “I am a Jatav.” Jatavs, a scheduled caste subgrouping , have largely supported the Bahujan Samaj Party.

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A third person in the group, Vinod Kushwaha, also from an OBC group, introduces himself as a lawyer. With a tika on the forehead, he says, “Our MLA is Sangeet Som. We have some problems with him. Our MP is Rajendra Agarwal. He has implemented government schemes well. But the reason we are voting for BJP is only one -- Narendra Modi.”

There is a fourth person who has remained quiet so far. When asked about his choice, he is hesitant. Kamil is a Muslim, and when others encourage him to speak up, he says that he is with the Mahagatbandhan, the alliance of Samajwadi Party (SP) Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD.

Some distance away, Mohammad Danish, who runs a small counter aiding people with filing paperwork, legal documents and getting Aadhar identity numbers, is far more vocal about his views.

“We are fully with the alliance. The BJP regime is completely one-sided. Muslims have no voice. Earlier, they accused SP of goondagardi, hooliganism -- but the BJP practices the same. And they harass mostly Muslims.” Danish adds that if Modi had actually practised Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas (with everyone, and for everyone’s development, one of the party’s campaign slogans in 2014), things would have been different.

It is these voices of support and discontent that describe the BJP’s political prospects and challenges in the western Uttar Pradesh region. The party will be reassured by the solid support of OBC groups that Kushwaha and Pal represent; it will be heartened at the fact that it has even been able to break into the Jatav vote bank although Omkar could well be an exception; but Muslim opposition remains steadfast. And the party is confronting an alliance.

Modi was stepping into address his first official rally of the 2019 campaign in this backdrop -- with the aim of keeping his core vote enthused and intact; seeking to break into the votes of SP-BSP; and projecting a sense of inevitability of his victory and creating a hawa (atmosphere) to sway the fence sitters.

Back in the rally ground, crowds have slowly begun strolling. Supporters have gathered from four constituencies -- Meerut, Baghpat, Muzaffarnagar and Bijnor. Many of the people HT spoke to have come specially for the rally, bussed in on vehicles organised by the party and local candidates. They are his supporters. And therefore, they represent only one broad political view. However , their comments illustrate their morale and their reasons for sticking to the party.

A group of OBC men from Muzaffarnagar admit that the contest in their seat will be tough, for incumbent Sanjeev Baliyan now faces RLD supremo Ajit Singh. But one of them, who wishes to remain unidentified since he is a BJP worker, says: “Our margin will reduce drastically. Baliyan won by four lakh votes last time. This time, we will win by less than a lakh votes. Baghpat is also a close seat for us this time.” There, RLD’s Jayant Chaudhary is contesting against minister of state Satyapal Singh. “The Jat vote will be important in both seats.”

A little later, when Modi speaks, he pays tributes to Jat leader, the late Chaudhary Charan Singh (Ajit Singh’s father) twice -- in a clear signal to Jats in the region that RLD is not their only option and they should consider sticking to BJP, which respects the former PM’s legacy as deeply.

The rows at the back of the ground are still relatively empty at 11am, the scheduled time for Modi’s rally. UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath arrives. Preliminary speakers -- primarily MLAs from the region -- warm up the audience, their speeches revolving around Modi’s pro-poor governance and surgical strikes. People come in over the next half an hour, some with Modi T-shirts, others with Modi masks, and many with BJP flags.

Among them are Harendra Singh and Mahendra Singh. Both say they are Jatavs from Meerut’s Kila Parikshit and joined the BJP in 2017, after Adityanath’s election. They claim that it was primarily the work done by the government in their area -- providing housing and toilets, and most importantly for them, electrification -- which made them stick to BJP.

But what about unemployment? Mahendra Singh, the younger of the two, says: “People are not able to manage their homes. Modi is managing the entire country. Things will take time. The UP government has started recruitment in a fair manner.” Would Congress’ announcement of providing 6,000 per month sway the scheduled castes ? Singh says: “People don’t know much about it right now.”

As Modi appears on the stage, the crowd stands up on chairs, waving, and responding most loudly to slogans like Phir ek baar, Modi sarkar (one more time; Modi government). The contrast is stark with the preliminary speakers, including the party’s candidates, who drew limited response from the crowd. Modi’s attacks on Pakistan and the opposition draw most applause.

Strikingly though, about 15 minutes or so after Modi begins speaking, both Harendra and Mahendra Singh gradually make their way out, as do many others. This is unlike rallies in 2014 when there was a higher curiosity value about Modi, and people who made their way in usually stayed until the very end.

There is, however, no accurate way to judge how many people turned up in total. Organisers exaggerate figures; the Opposition downplays it; people came in and went out and it wasn’t static; and independent assessments are difficult to get.

Modi’s first rally showcased the BJP’s biggest brand to its constituents in west UP. Polls here are crucial because it is in the first phase -- and the party believes that this will set the mood for future phases. The rally revealed his continued popularity, while at the same time, showed that he will have to continue to reinvent his messaging to keep it fresh till May 19.

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