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Bud In The Mud
The 15-storey building near Nataraj Talkies in the Rathyatra locality of Varanasi is easy to spot from a distance. It’s the tallest building here, with huge glass windows and in a very modest neighbourhood. As one approaches the gate, overcrowded suvs race in and out with saffron-wrapped men straining inside. Step inside and the building is milling with serious-looking faces. Saffron, though, remains the dominant colour. Headgear and clothes apart, there are saffron and green BJP flags and banners announcing the imminent arrival of good times. Every now and then, an impromptu ‘Abki baar, Modi sarkar’ reverberates across the rooms as the faithful sit around, jostling for space under whirring fans and in the open verandah. Further inside are the AC rooms where the local and national netas are busy brainstorming. Welcome to Seva Ashram, Narendra Damodardas Modi’s election office in the holy city.
When Outlook reaches at 10 in the morning, several meetings are already on. There’s the local Varanasi campaign to be taken care of, then there’s Modi’s rallies across Uttar Pradesh scheduled for the next few days and also the persistent media to be attended to. Through all of this, some of the party’s better-known TV faces dart in and out, instructing cadre on what next to be done. Eastern UP is to vote in the last leg of the polls. And the BJP and its enthusiastic cadre has its task cut out: maintaining a fever-pitch campaign in Poorvanchal which is banking solely on Modi’s mojo and might. Outside on the streets of the temple town, a bunch of young abvp men on motorcycles hold their own roadshow, shouting hopeful slogans of “Modi aane wala hai”. As if inspired by this, just outside the Kashi Vishwanath temple, in one of the myriad bylanes leading into the centuries-old Shiv temple, Dashrath, 10, tries jamming to the chorus of Har Har Mahadevs emanating from the throng of temple devotees with his own “Modi, Modi ghar ghar Modi.” Meet his eye and Dashrath blurts out, “TV pe dekha tha (saw the slogan on TV).”
Dashrath’s admission is a common refrain throughout the poor, dusty, undeveloped terrain of Poorvanchal, from Lucknow to Azamgarh and back. Driving through Gonda, Bahraich, Faizabad, Gorakhpur, Deoria, Ballia, Jaunpur, Machlishehar, Lalganj and more, where the lack of bijli is compensated by the ubiquitous diesel gensets, Modi and his “Gujarat model” is the topic at most informal election chats at chai shops and local nukkads. The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate is perhaps the most watched politician in the villages dotting the highway, not because he has a huge fan following in these parts but because, as one villager puts it, “you can’t escape him, he’s everywhere, on TV and local newspapers”. Perhaps why several of those who travel long distances to attend Modi’s rallies say they are there not to hear Modi but to catch a glimpse of him. At Gonda, deep in the hinterland, 80-year-old Ram Tirath tells us, “Dekhne aaye thhe. Jaun gaon mein Modi aaya, woh gaon pavitra hoi gawaa (I came to see him. Whichever village Modi has been to, has been purified).”
This is the kind of sentiment that’s helped the BJP propel itself from a so-not-in-the-reckoning-party in UP (just 10 LS seats out of 80 in ’09) to one that’s at least in the contest in every constituency in the state. Modi has successfully managed to do what his candidature from Varanasi was supposed to do for his party in Poorvanchal: make the BJP the reference point in the Hindi hinterland this election. At the several chai stops that Outlook makes through our 1,600-kilometre journey through eastern UP, villagers veer the conversation towards promises that Modi seems to be making from faraway national stages. The hunger for development is enormous and eastern UP too is now beginning to demand it. Modi is positioning himself as the man who can deliver on that promise of development. For a neglected electorate, it’s just what they want to hear.
This is a contest, some would say, between the BJP on one side and the other parties—SP, BSP and the Congress—on the other. In Poorvanchal, where basic amenities like drinking water and uninterrupted electricity are still a dream, Modi is the merchant selling a tailormade one for every individual fit. He caters to everybody. So to the youth gathered for his rally in Gonda, he promises jobs, for the over one lakh-strong crowd in Amethi, bussed in by the BJP official machinery from Pratapgarh, Lucknow, Rae Bareli and Kanpur, Modi offers “overnight development”. In between, he throws a good amount of rhetoric attacking both Sonia and Rahul with references of “maa-bete ki sarkar” and Mulayam and Akhilesh Yadav with references to the “baap-bete ki sarkar”. Modi talks doom and hope at the same time, illustrating the doom brought upon the electorate by the parties in power and the hope his party’s election to power promises.
Is it any wonder then that Modi’s rabble-rousing is keenly followed by villagers on TV, and that his adversaries have made him the central context of their speeches. In UP it’s not just the Gandhis throwing barbs at Modi but even BSP leader Mayawati and also chief minister Akhilesh Yadav. At Khalilabad, UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav calls Modi the “Model of Dividing India”. He promptly adds to rousing cheers that the SP has a large number of wrestlers to take on Modi’s “chhappan inch ki chhaati”.
It probably works as a clever one-liner, but there’s no denying that in Poorvanchal Modi’s ‘media presence’ has made it a tough contest for the BSP and the SP. While the beleaguered Congress finds little space in the race, Poorvanchal is debating why it should vote for either the SP or the BSP. Experts suggest the BSP is losing its hold on its flock with as much as 9 per cent of the SCs drifting to the BJP. A pollster said, “The better-placed Dalits want to move to the BJP because they see a better chance there. After the Muzaffarnagar riots, Mayawati couldn’t side with either the Muslims or the Jats because of political compulsions. The result is that the Muslims have deserted her.”
Akhilesh then adds to rousing cheers that the SP has enough wrestlers in the ranks to take on Modi’s ‘chhappan inch chhaati’.
Travelling through the eastern plains, it’s clear that Mayawati’s elephant doesn’t have its majestic imprint this time around. While the BSP is likely to do well in a few seats, the mood across Dalit villages is of a “shift in vote”. At Bhaadi Chiwda village in Jaunpur constituency, an area dominated by the Rajbhar community of Dalits, Santlal Rajbhar, 70, tells us “the village has decided to vote for the BJP this time because Modi must be given a chance to change our lives”, adding that “we will vote for the BSP in the next assembly elections but at the Centre it should be BJP this time”. Similar sentiment is heard in other villages where a large number of Dalits speak about their kin moving away from BSP to support the BJP. Ram Narayan Rajbhar, 45, says, “Most people know that the BJP will be the largest party, so they want to vote for them”. It seems the whiff of a party victory does count, particularly when a community feels they could reap dividends from playing a pivotal role in it.
Which is also for very different reasons why Lucknow-based political commentator Prof Sudhir Panwar believes the Muslims will stick with the SP this election. Panwar explains, “The people’s disillusionment with the governments of the day is leading to some kind of comfort in Modi which has parts of the Dalit community shifting to the BJP. However, the pro-Modi sentiment has also led to reverse religious polarisation in the state, which is why the Muslims will support Mulayam Singh.” He adds that “the Muslim support for Mulayam is a positive vote. It is an anti-BJP vote and a vote for the SP’s pro-Muslim policies. At any cost, the Muslims will want to maintain their position in the UP government and therefore will continue to support SP”.
While that may be good news for the SP, all’s not quiet on the eastern front for Mulayam and son. In village after village, the Yadavs complain about the “pro- Muslim policies” and the “overt Muslim appeasement”. Dharmendra Yadav, 35, tells Outlook at Shankarpur village, "The Yadavs stood by Netaji all these years. Yet he sees nothing beyond one community. Why should we vote for him now?” Panwar says that “a large chunk of the Yadavs are unhappy with the government’s attention to the Muslims. They will break away”. Mulayam’s loss then is the BJP’s gain. In the Machiavellian caste politics of Uttar Pradesh, western UP’s riots of September 2013 have had a resonance in the east as well. In Poorvanchal, despite its distance from the west, one gets a clear sense of religious polarisation. It’s a me-versus-you battle and with political parties stoking emotions, the divide seems deep and defined.
Not just that, trouble for Mulayam also stems from the farmer lobby. From Gonda to Jaunpur, farmers complain of not being paid for their produce by the Akhilesh government since January ’14. The few who were paid complain about the reduced prices the government offered, causing them huge losses. Clearly, for the farmers, a personal monetary loss is directly proportional to a political electoral deduction. For the SP, it should mean a loss of clout and more.
No wonder then that Modi’s campaign in UP gains strength from that formidable combination—dharma and development. As Modi spins development dreams for all in UP, the bonus for the parties comes from the post-riots polarisation. Somewhere in between, Poorvanchal furiously debates the status quo, demanding that partisan politics be replaced by performance. In eastern UP, the wait really is for the sun to rise at last.