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What drives PM Modi’s appeal

An overwhelming majority out of those returning home to Uttar Pradesh for a short break from Mumbai said they would vote for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

lok sabha elections Updated: May 16, 2019 16:52 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Chandauli
Modi voter,PM’s appeal
One of the most striking elements on the campaign trail is the degree of faith in the PM.(Santosh Kumar / Hindustan Times)

Mughalsarai railway junction, now renamed Deen Dayal Upadhyay junction, punctuates the journey of hundreds of thousands of commuters every day. The station is crowded but clean. People are swarming around waiting for their trains, loading and unloading luggage, negotiating with shopkeepers on the platform .

From those returning home to Uttar Pradesh for a short break from Mumbai, where they work as taxi drivers to those on way to villages back in Bihar or Jharkhand from Gujarat where they work in furniture or diamond industries of Surat, from the auto drivers of Chandauli district ferrying passengers across to Varanasi, to those manning reservation counters, HT spoke to close to three dozen individuals. An overwhelming majority said they would vote for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Their reasons differed, but the choice was common. Indeed, the 2019 election may be complex, with fragmented voices in each seat, in each state. But there is an overarching common thread — Modi. The mood in the railway station was uncannily similar to voices one has heard across Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and UP in recent travels. Here is an attempt to understand the motivations of those voters who have decided to back Modi again in 2019. A caveat is essential here. This is not to suggest that there aren’t strong voices opposed to Modi, or that the presence of supportive voices in themselves would translate into high numbers of seats for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It is instead an attempt to understand the reasons that drive Modi’s popularity.

The trust voter

“Modiji pe vishwas hai (We have faith in Modi).”

One of the most striking elements on the campaign trail is the degree of faith in the PM. Often, voters do not offer a tangible reason to explain their support for him. But they pin it down to one word - trust. This trust has gone a long way in helping voters overlook what could be considered areas of weaknesses of the Modi government. Take unemployment for instance. At a Nishad village in Mirzapur, a group of young men were playing cards. They were ardent Modi supporters, but had no jobs. When asked if they would hold Modi responsible for the absence of job creation, one of them responded: “Will Modiji come and feed us? We have to become capable ourselves. We have to work hard. We have to find jobs ourselves. He cannot do everything. He is looking after the nation.” The trust finds expression in other forms. At a Dalit village in Unnao, a small farmer, when asked about Modi’s alleged failure to increase farm incomes, said, “We cannot manage a family of four or five people and struggle to meet everyone’s needs. And here, Modiji has to take care of the whole country. How can he do everything in five years? He will take care of all of us in due course.”

The TINA voter

“Aap hi bataiye. Modiji nahin toh kaun hai? (You tell us. Who else is there but Modi?)”

If the trust vote stems from a positive impulse, the “there is no alternative” (TINA) vote stems from a degree of scepticism about Modi but laced with a sense of inevitability about his return. This itself is an outcome of the BJP’s campaign to make the election centred around electing a PM, rather than members of Parliament in each of the 543 constituencies. What people perceive to be a lack of alternatives for the position of PM is responsible for a substantial element of support for Modi. Rahul Gandhi of the Congress is no longer an object of ridicule, but he is still not viewed by many as “prime ministerial”. And in key states, especially UP and Bihar, accounting for 120 seats, the Congress is not a major player.

Regional leaders have strong pockets of support but even their voters see them more as state-level leaders who should have a say in Delhi rather than as leaders ready to take over the reins of government nationally.

All of this has led a section of voters who may not be entirely enthused by Modi to think of giving him one more chance till a stronger alternative appears. As a small shopkeeper in Bihar’s Vaishali constituency said: “I don’t think the Opposition is ready to run this country yet. They need to become more organised and come up with a stronger leader. I will vote for Modi once more and then shift to the Opposition in 2024.”

The honesty voter

“Imaandar neta hain. Dekhiye, koi parivar nahin hai (He is an honest leader. Look, he has no family either).”

In 2014, Modi’s perceived integrity — in the face of the alleged scams of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government which made daily headlines — helped the BJP. It is remarkable that five years later, this faith in his integrity is largely intact. When Rahul Gandhi recently suggested he would dismantle Modi’s image, he was perhaps speaking of eroding this perception of honesty. Indeed, Gandhi has run a spirited campaign centred around the Rafale deal. But in extensive travels, one did not find people raising Rafale as evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the PM. There were some voices which alluded to Modi’s links with big business, but these were in a minority. Many voters buy into the narrative that the PM has little incentive for financial impropriety — and is not a man driven by material possessions. The fact that many opposition leaders face credible corruption allegations adds to Modi’s appeal.

The national security voter

“Mazboot neta hain. Pakistan ko jawab diya. Bharat ki izzat badhayi (He is a strong leader. He responded to Pakistan. He has enhanced India’s image).”

The Balakot strikes infused a strong emotive element to the BJP’s campaign, enthusing its cadre and giving a talking point across north India. Television played its part in showcasing the strike as an achievement. Ratnakar Prajapati, a Surat-based worker returning to Koderma in Jharkhand, was at the Deen Dayal Upadhyay junction. He said, “Modi could not do as much vikas for the nation as he did in Gujarat. Jobs are scarce. But there is one thing he did. He made the country secure. We are safe under him.” The references to Pakistan and Balakot still draw the most applause at Modi’s rallies, even if the impact has dissipated somewhat compared to early March. Many voters also believe that Modi has finally got India its due and given it a place on the high table globally. The fact that Manmohan Singh signed the nuclear deal, or that Atal Bihari Vajpayee began a period of rapprochement with the US after the nuclear test, or that PV Narasimha Rao broadened Indian foreign policy outreach after the end of the Cold War, or that economic reforms post 1991 have helped make India attractive globally is not considered or discussed at all.

Perhaps this is because these leaders did not make foreign policy a centre piece of domestic campaigns. But Modi’s high profile foreign visits, his seeming personal rapport with foreign leaders, his speeches to packed audiences in stadiums in foreign cities, and the relentless publicity of foreign policy achievements have contributed to the perception that he is the only leader to have enhanced Indian image.

The vikas voter

“Gaon gaon main ghar and shauchalaya bana, bijli aayi, cylinder aaya. (In villages, houses and toilets were constructed, electricity was provided, gas cylinders distributed).”

From villages in north Bihar bordering Nepal to reserved tribal constituencies in central India’s Madhya Pradesh, from eastern UP’s small kasbas to Awadh’s rural constituencies, many are quick to reel out Modi’s achievements in terms of rural asset creation. Housing, distribution of gas cylinders, and improvement in the supply of electricity comes up often.

His supporters claim that by directly transferring money into the accounts of beneficiaries, Modi has eliminated middlemen and reduced corruption on the ground. These schemes have critics too — gas cylinders are too expensive to refill; toilets are often left incomplete; village pradhans still find a way to take kickbacks on money meant for the poor. Indeed, the direct benefits transfer that Modi has pushed was pioneered by the Congress. But the dominant narrative is that “vikas” has reached villages and it is due to Modi.

The Hindu voter

“Hindu neta hain (He is a Hindu leader).”

This sentiment is expressed in different forms. Sometimes, it manifests itself in anger — with voters claiming that the Congress cheated Hindus all these years, despite India being a “Hindu rashtra”, and everyone but BJP was somehow suspect.

Sometimes, it manifests itself in pride , with voters claiming that Hindus are truly ruling the country and finding their rightful place after centuries. But most often, it manifests in prejudice and hate; it is not uncommon to hear voters suggest that Modi’s singular achievement is “showing Muslims their place”. This is a very strong subtext in conversations in UP and Bihar in particular, and spans across Hindu castes. Among other factors, Modi’s image because of the 2002 Gujarat riots, his unequivocal assertion of religiosity, the government’s emphasis on cow protection, its hard approach to Kashmir (read Muslims), the ticket to Pragya Singh Thakur, and the proposed Citizenship Amendment bill, have all meant that the core Hindu vote remains with Modi in this election.

All of this put together has made Modi the most important talking point of this election. It has also meant that whatever support the BJP draws is primarily due to Modi rather than any local candidates. The BJP has made an enormous political and financial investment in building and sustaining the Modi brand. It has been aided by large sections of electronic media and the party’s strong penetration across social media platforms.

The BJP may win or lose this election; it may succeed or fail in forming the government. But the fervent support to Modi has been a significant strand in 2019.

First Published: May 16, 2019 07:31 IST

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