By Shivam Vij
(This article first appeared in ThePrint on 15 March 2019.)
Phulpur/Jaunpur: There’s a lot that has changed in eastern Uttar Pradesh since 2014. Thanks to the Ardh Kumbh Mela, the government has laid out the best roads. On either side of these shiny new roads, stray cows chew away farmers’ fragile incomes. Smartphones are now ubiquitous. Yet, there’s one thing that has not changed: The popularity of Narendra Modi.
The Lok Sabha seat share of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh increased from 10 in 2009 to 71 in 2014. Apart from the Modi wave, this stupendous rise came on the back of non-Yadav OBCs: Small caste communities you don’t hear of in the headlines. Their caste names go by Bind, Mallah, Nishad, Kevat, Prajapati, Maurya, Sonar, Pal, Kushwaha and so on.
It helps the BJP that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is himself identified with one such community: Teli.
Not many are into their caste occupations these days. They tend to have a small piece of land and some or the other source of income. These communities have always been the swing voter in Uttar Pradesh (and much of India).
Their block as a whole could be more than 30 per cent of UP’s population: This large chunk used to be divided among different parties. Since 2014, it has not been with the BJP. It has been with Modi.
These are also communities that should be the most hurt by farm distress, stagnating, if not falling, rural wages, and rising unemployment rates.
Ask them about unemployment and pat comes the reply: Yes, jobs are an issue, they say, but who else can give us jobs, anyway? When has there been an abundance of jobs?
So what is the major issue this election? Modi.
Recent military tensions with Pakistan are only one of many reasons why Modi continues to be popular with the lower OBCs. For the upper castes, the BJP’s core supporters, it has addressed their flagging enthusiasm. BJP workers define this election as “nationalism versus caste”, but they don’t need to work that hard.
It is the upper castes and the BJP workers who will tell you how terrible it was for Congress president Rahul Gandhi to address Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar with the respectful suffix “ji”. These are also the people more likely to say they’re voting for the BJP rather than Narendra Modi.
‘Roti mein namak’
For the lower OBCs, there is only one political party: Modi. Ask them why, and they’re more likely to cite development and welfare schemes than Pakistan. Many have benefited from at least one big government scheme. It’s either a gas connection, or housing, or a toilet, or the recent PM-KISAN, which gave farmers Rs 2,000 every four months as minimum income support.
Isn’t Rs 2,000 a pittance? “Roti mein namak kisko bura lagta hai (Who minds some salt with their chapati)?” says one voter. Not that many have received the amount yet. But it will come, they have been assured, their names were noted in registers. Like 2014 and 2017, the Modi cycle of postponing desire works just as well.
A number of things they cite have to do not with the central, but the state government: Regular electricity supply, rural roads, sewage lines, and so on. The credit all goes to Modi.
The blame for the Modi government’s failings always goes to someone else, including the state government. So it was bank officials who were to blame for the failure of demonetisation, not the “good-intentioned” Modi.
It is the “corrupt” sarpanch who’s making sure someone is not receiving the reimbursement for making a toilet under Swachh Bharat. It is the local bureaucracy that is making sure someone is excluded from the PM-KISAN list of beneficiaries.
‘Desh ka chunav’
In the end, everything boils down to this: Modi is the only national leader, warts and all, who these voters feel can run the country. Nobody else appears prime ministerial.
To that extent, Modi and his party have made sure the election continues to be presidential-style, just like 2014, and not relapse into a matrix of local factors.
Why are these voters not attracted to the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party (SP-BSP)? “Woh toh UP ki parties hain. Yeh to desh ka chunav hain (They are UP parties. This is the country’s election),” as one BJP worker puts it. “Even if SP-BSP win 80 seats, they can’t run the country with that. They’re not winning any seats from other states.”
The demarcation between state and central, local and national, is crystal clear in the minds of at least the swing non-Yadav OBC voters. Modi is good for the *country* whether or not he’s good for this village.
Arithmetic versus chemistry
The SP-BSP-Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) alliance has arithmetic going for it. But that’s about all. They have no chemistry and no campaign on the ground.
When ordinary people repeat the BJP workers’ line of argument, you can tell the iron grip the party has on the narrative.
Through Hindi news TV, WhatsApp and a burgeoning army of party workers, the BJP makes sure everyone is aware of their argument, their point of view, their defence. The SP-BSP are reduced to merely making sure voters transfer to each other smoothly.
If the SP and BSP’s votes in each of the state’s 80 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha election were added, they would have won 41 seats. Similarly, if the SP and BSP’s votes for each assembly constituency in the 2017 election were added, and the total extrapolated to Lok Sabha seats, they would have won 47 seats.
As in the case of mutual funds, past performance can be a risk predictor of future results. This Lok Sabha election in Uttar Pradesh is a unique one. It is difficult to recall the last time UP had a bipolar contest. The Congress is too weak to make it a three-cornered contest in most seats. This unique bi-polar election in UP could again throw up an unexpected result.
If chemistry trumps arithmetic, Modi is comfortably ahead of the ‘gathbandhan’, the alliance.
Just the frustration with which Yadav voters talk makes it clear they know it’s the third Modi wave they are battling. Not even Pasis, the main Dalit community other than Mayawati’s Jatavs, are saying anything other than Modi. You can even meet an odd Jatav or Yadav chanting the Modi mantra.
The BJP has tried to limit the SP-BSP to only their core voters: Jatavs, Yadavs and Muslims. The SP-BSP expect their arithmetic alone to win them 50 seats. The BJP thinks they will win 50-plus seats because, apart from the “Modi magic”, they have better arithmetic — upper castes and non-Yadav OBCs are together estimated to comprise over 50 per cent of the voters.
The silver lining for the SP is that the same non-Yadav OBC swing voters say they would have voted for the party if this was an assembly election because Akhilesh Yadav was a much better chief minister than Yogi Adityanath. The assembly election is three years away, and Yogi has enough time for that.