The War Modi Cannot Afford to Lose

Modi1_0ON THE MORNING OF February 27th, the gruff police officer who stopped our SUV some 10 km from Mau where Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to address a huge rally, his 16th in the ongoing seven-phased elections to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly, told me curtly that there was a threat on the BJP heavyweight’s life and that I needed to open my handbag for it to be searched. He and about 10 others, some of them armed with machine guns and video cameras, had already ransacked the vehicle. I obliged, adding that we had been through a similar exercise some 20 minutes earlier. “We are doing our job, sir,” he muttered after he found I was carrying only a notebook and a few newspapers in my bag. The place I was heading to is a communal cauldron and a hotspot for gangster violence, besides being home to musclemen such as Mukhtar Ansari and his son Abbas, both candidates of the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a party that enjoys tremendous clout among Dalits and wants to pull in Muslim votes to reverse its electoral fortunes. The BSP, which drew a blank in the 2014 General Election and was ousted from power in the state’s 2012 Assembly polls, has competition, though, from the much-hyped alliance of Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (SP) and its new ally, the Congress party.

For their part, Modi and his team were anticipating a consolidation of most Hindu voters in their favour. Which is why, at rally after rally, he raked up what he alleged were the Muslim-appeasing policies of the SP and BSP, two parties that have between them ruled the country’s most populous state for over two decades.

As in 2014, when the BJP won a stunning 72 Lok Sabha seats of the total 80 from the state, Modi is the sole spearhead of his party, which hasn’t even fielded a chief ministerial candidate for the ongoing elections. “We are seeking votes in the name of Modi because he is primarily an MP from UP and we expect the people to elect in this state the same government that rules Delhi,” says BJP Union Minister Uma Bharti, who has campaigned extensively for the party. Some shoe-leather reporting in a handful of villages spread across various parts of the state that has a population the size of Brazil’s confirms Bharti’s assertion. Local candidates don’t matter much, and people who vow to vote for ‘change’ and the BJP have a common refrain: “It is not the BJP. We are voting for Modi,” says Shankar Prasad, a grocer near the famous Ramnagar fort in Varanasi. His friend Pramod Gupta, who voted for the BSP last time, says he will vote for the BJP this time in the Varanasi Cantt Assembly constituency. “We need more jobs and better education facilities. We have had the same people ruling us for long. We need some change,” he explains. Of course, there are the likes of Sunil Kumar Sahani too, who says he will break a habit and vote for the BSP’s Rizwan Ahmad in the seat, not BJP’s Saurabh Srivastava nor Congress’ Anil Srivastava. He had voted for BJP all these years, but argues that he detests the Hindu nationalist party for its lopsided implementation of demonetisation, a measure effected on the night of November 8th last year. This carpenter says the currency clampdown brought him immense misery. “Look at the others: SP does a lot of goondagardi and the Congress is absolutely corrupt,” he says.

If these are informed urban voters who are typically more vocal than those in the countryside, several others, from villages in the Zafrabad constituency of Jaunpur district to those in Badlapur, share similar concerns, and rather loudly at that. In eastern UP, which goes to the polls in the last lap of a long-drawn poll battle that is being seen as a big mid-term test of Modi’s popularity after his drastic step to invalidate existing Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, it is not easy to spot non-Yadav Hindu voters batting for the SP-Congress alliance. To woo these castes that together make up a third of the state’s electorate, the BJP has fielded 35 per cent of its candidates in the state from communities such as Koeris, Kurmis and Lodhs. They are upset that Yadavs walked away with all the glory to be had from the OBC upsurge in politics over the past two decades. Clearly, from upper-caste Thakurs to Rajputs to Seths and OBC Prajapatis to Kurmis and Kushwahas to Lodhs and others, Modi more or less remains the favourite in an election that has brought deep religious fissures to the fore. Notably, Dalits, including non-Jatav voters, and a large section of Muslims are mostly inclined to back the BSP in these areas. The trend could perhaps be similar in the impoverished Bundelkhand region on the UP side where the Centre’s ban on high-denomination notes has resulted in cash-strapped residents employed in cities and towns elsewhere returning in hordes under duress. Besides, the BJP’s pronouncements against slaughter houses have brought two prominent communities employed in such businesses—Dalits and Muslims—together in regions famous for their leather and tanning industries, such as Kanpur to name just one. A vast majority of those employed in such work fall in these two demographic groups. However, the SP-Congress combine also claims sway over these votes, and hopes to emerge as the single-largest political grouping in the state once the poll results are declared.

The BJP’s efforts to drive a wedge between communities for electoral gains have evoked sharp comments. While BJP leaders contend that it is an outcome of the pro-Muslim slants of the SP and BSP, noted academic Vasudha Dalmia, who has authored numerous books and papers on the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, is worried about what this tactic portends for the country. Says she: “I watch in horror as the BJP unfolds its unscrupulous strategies to win and/or stay in power in state elections and at the Centre. The long-term effects of what they are trying to do in UP can only be devastating, since they make all that lies latent float to the surface and muddy the environment.” Audrey Truschke, an expert on Medieval Indian History who has written extensively on how politicians use history for insidious purposes, concedes that the BJP has enough reason to stir up a communal frenzy. “Stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment is often an effective political tool in modern India. That’s why, to me, political readings of the past and nationalist histories are so dangerous. I think that one way to defuse the power of such tactics is to revisit why we care about history. It is an impoverished view to see all of Indian history as a lead-up to the modern Indian nation state. On the contrary, Indian history has many values, including providing insight into a world and religious identities that were ordered rather differently than our own.” She, however, doesn’t foresee communal hatred acquiring an outright dangerous dimension in India, thanks to the “vibrant history of inter-religious tolerance and cooperation that has far deeper roots than the comparatively new phenomenon of Hindu nationalism”. She notes, “I hope that something of this robust legacy continues to shape India in the 21st century.”

Then there are those who sense a knee-jerk reaction in BJP returning to its original strategy: communal polarisation. Sanjay Kumar, psephologist and director of the think-tank Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, is convinced that the BJP has opted for an aggressive religion-oriented campaign out of anxiety that there has been a consolidation of Muslim votes towards the SP-Congress coalition in the first few phases of polls. His logic is that the BJP, in desperation, is now looking for ‘slices’ of support from groups that are not its core constituencies to gain an edge by playing the Hindu communal card. Ahead of the election, a senior BJP leader confided in me that demonetisation was a ruse to overcome the limitations of communal polarisation, which it used zealously in the run-up to the 2014 General Election in UP to revitalise its cadres and win back its support base. For a party that grew as an electoral force to reckon with in the late 1980s and the 1990s on the back of the Ayodhya temple agitation movement and by capitalising on long-festering tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the country under the leadership of LK Advani, the BJP was of the opinion that in the 21st century it ought to also take advantage of class divisions between people to grow further. The message that the party tried to hardsell the aam aadmi after demonetisation was that the move was meant to flush out black money from the closets of the rich and help the poor. The haves- versus-have-nots pitch seems to have worked to the BJP’s advantage partially, but not in full measure. Once it was evident that polarisation along class lines alone would not click well with the public, the party went back to doing what it knew best: fanning communal sentiments.

THAT SULTRY MORNING in Mau, Modi stuck mostly to issues such as lack of development in UP and demonetisation, in a departure from his speeches at previous rallies held in Fatehpur, Gonda and so on, where he had accused the ruling party in the state of ignoring the interests of Hindus and being sloppy about fighting terrorism. In a speech that smacked of political expediency, Modi said in Fatehpur that uninterrupted power supply needs to be ensured both during the month of Ramadan as well as during the Diwali season. He also said that land needed to be allotted for Muslim burial grounds as well as for cremation purposes, thus suggesting that the state’s Akhilesh government has placed Hindu priorities lower than that of Muslims. The BJP justified these remarks saying that Modi was not just India’s Prime Minister, but also the campaigner-in-chief of a party that is fighting to win the most crucial of all state polls. In Gonda, Modi made charges that fly in the face of the Railway Police’s findings—that last year’s Kanpur train mishap that left more than 140 people dead was the outcome of a ‘cross-border’ conspiracy. Modi had said, “The Kanpur rail accident in which hundreds were killed was a conspiracy and conspirators carried it out sitting across the border… Gonda adjoins Nepal… if cross-border foes want to carry out their work, is it not necessary that more vigil is maintained in Gonda?” Amid questions of propriety of India’s topmost leader making irresponsible statements that could have foreign policy implications, the Prime Minister appeared unable to resist the favourite pastime of Hindu nationalists: measuring the patriotism of others. “Gonda needs to elect only those who are full of patriotism,” he added, “only then we can do anything good for Gonda.”

True, if the BJP wins UP after a bitterly-fought negative campaign, it will be able to manage enough numbers in the electoral college—comprising members of the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and state legislatures—that elects the President and Vice-President. Both posts will fall vacant over the next few months. So far, the BJP has gone for ‘compromise’ candidates who are acceptable to its allies as well as opponents. A win in the state elections here might make the election of a Hindu nationalist as the next Indian President a reality. The BJP is likely to name a Dalit as its presidential candidate with the intention of projecting itself as pro-Dalit, which could help it counter allegations that the party has been hostile to Dalit interests in various parts of the country.

Meanwhile, aiming at a triumph in UP, the BJP has been busy ‘overusing’ its trump card, Modi, in the current polls, as it did in the Bihar elections in which the BJP suffered a resounding setback. By the time the elections to the final phase get over on March 8th, Modi would have held more than 20 rallies—far more than the dozen odd he was earlier expected to address across the state. From western UP through the badlands of Bundelkhand to eastern UP, Modi has addressed huge public gatherings at Meerut, Agra, Ghaziabad, Bijnaur, Budaun, Lakhimpur Kheri, Kannauj, Hardoi, Barabanki, Fatehpur, Urai, Allahabad, Basti, Bahraich and Gonda, Mau, Deoria, Maharajganj, Varanasi and a few other places.

For a leader who had until then claimed that his party would win more than 300 seats in the 403-member Uttar Pradesh Assembly, Modi was relatively downcast in Mau, a dust-filled town where humidity saps your energy. The crowds that craned their necks to get a view of their favourite leader were upbeat, nonetheless. At the rally ground, where the security arrangement was too stringent for me get anywhere close to the podium, Modi indicated that the BSP and the SP-Congress alliance were working hand-in-glove to stop the BJP from forming a government on its own. “These parties are creating an environment where no party secures a majority,” he thundered as he hopped from one subject to another, the top favourite of his adoring fans being India’s surgical strikes on Pakistan. Like Modi, other BJP stalwarts, including party president Amit Shah, made speeches laced with communal overtones. At Chauri Chaura in Gorakhpur, known in history for an incident in February 1922 that forced Mahatma Gandhi to call off the Non- Cooperation Movement, BJP President Amit Shah used the expression, ‘KASAB’ to describe his rivals. “Ka for Congress, Sa for Samajwadi Party and Ba for Bahujan Samaj Party,” Shah elaborated, as the crowds cheered. The reference to the surname of Ajmal Kasab, the 26/11 terrorist who was hanged to death in 2012, was inescapable.

On the second floor of Gulab Bagh Colony in Varanasi’s Chetganj area, BJP volunteers are busy handling the key operations of the poll ‘war room’ that was until recently controlled mostly from Lucknow. Except Sanjay Rai, the infotech chief who continues to oversee social-media operations from the state capital, the rest of those who form the war room—including Sunil Bansal, the man who steers it—have shifted base here. Ashish Baghel, a burly young man who darts around throwing instructions, passes information to party units and volunteers about what workers at the grassroots level have to do in various localities to woo voters. “It has to be thorough,” he says, “We take feedback from the lower-level booths and committees and also give them directions on what to do.” Party workers sit around half-a-dozen tables, slotting what has to be done in various constituencies before they either make calls or dispatch people and money to various destinations. Mohitosh Narain is one of those who assists Baghel with the work. To take care of social media, there is an Economics student from Banaras Hindu University who doesn’t want to be named. “My duty is to disseminate as much information as possible to a select group of party workers and volunteers to stay ahead of the competition from rivals and to expose them,” he states, “I am also supposed to locally create slogans that are appealing to various regions. With the polls entering the final phase, it is a 24×7 game.” He reports to Sanjay Rai. To poke fun at the SP slogan of ‘Kaam Bolta Hai’ (work speaks for itself), they created ‘Kaarname Bolte Hain’ (antics speak). As the long-drawn elections drag their way to a close, the war room is focusing more on exposing the SP’s faults, including the creation of rhyming hashtags on potholes in roads and the rival party’s love for Muslims, says this BHU student. Various spoofs on the ‘donkey’ comment by Akhilesh barraging Modi have been a huge hit, he adds.

The question that pops up now is what if the BJP doesn’t win a majority to cruise to power in the state. “If there is an emphatic win, it will be a feather on the cap of Modiji’s series of wins in local elections in Odisha (where it is snapping at the heels of BJD strongman Naveen Patnaik) and in Maharashtra (where it has eclipsed the Shiv Sena and decimated the Congress),” says a BJP leader, emphasising, “Or else, the leadership style of the party chief will come under attack for overly micromanaging the affairs of all state units.” The alienation of various caste groups, including Jats in western UP who are upset with the BJP, will have to be scrutinised in detail, points out another leader. “Any loss will be embarrassing, since the SP-Congress coalition or the BSP cannot be compared with the formidable alliance that we had to fight in Bihar,” notes this leader. Already, the likes of Rajnath Singh and others have pointed out that not having even a single Muslim candidate was a bad proposition for a national party. “If the party wins with a decent margin along expected lines, then all murmurs of dissent that you see now from those who were left out in the poll fray and other disgruntled elements will disappear,” the second leader says. Both these leaders add that the party has done ‘excellent work’ for these polls.

As of now, strategists of the SP-Congress alliance are optimistic about their chances of victory. The BSP camp is also buoyant, given its hope that Muslims in large parts of UP will vote tactically for the party to ensure a BJP defeat. “We already have a close to 20 per cent vote base that is extremely loyal. Muslims know only too well that we are the ones to side with,” says a BSP leader based in Lucknow. Azamgarh-based former SIMI chief Hakeem Shahid Badr Falahi tells Open, “That is the perception that I also have after speaking to people across the state—Muslim votes will go to the BSP, the underdog.” SP strategists and BJP leaders laugh off any such phenomenon.

Hopes are high on all sides. For most of them though, despair is in order.

This article was first published in Open magazine

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