PUNDITS HAVE BEGUN in right earnest to hang a phrase on the BJP’s stunning victory in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, gains in Manipur, and sharp tactics to retain power in Goa: an ‘Indira Gandhi moment’. While the BJP may resent comparisons with the late Congress leader, an astute politician who campaigned tirelessly and held sway even over state-level elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has brought for his party the glory of what the Congress had in her prime: absolute power. In doing what he did, especially in UP, Modi has endeared himself to four categories of people: the aggrieved, the aspirational, the awed and the austere. The poll push, steered by the likes of party President Amit Shah, lieutenants Sunil Bansal, Bhupendra Yadav and others, focused on these four As to pull off an emphatic victory, obliterating existing caste affiliations and polarising the people of the state in a way rarely seen before.
Ramkumar, a grocer near Jaunpur’s city centre in eastern Uttar Pradesh, is in the first category. “The Samajwadi Party (SP) was meant to be a party for all Other Backward Classes (OBCs), but they have been of use only for the brethren of Mulayamji (referring to SP patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav), not for us. We have been short-changed. We are poor and we are getting political representation for the first time, thanks to Modiji,” says this 41-year- old, emphasising that the Prime Minister’s OBC credentials add to his appeal. Like Kushwahas, non-Yadav OBCs such as Kurmis, Mauryas, Sainis and a plethora of caste groups from the other backward classes feel left out as the privileged among them have made rapid strides following a surge in OBC politics thanks to the churn that followed the implementation of the Mandal Commission report in the late 1980s that offered OBCs a 27-per cent quota in government jobs and educational institutions. The BJP’s naming of Keshav Prasad Maurya last year as its state president was a major step to woo them, though efforts to pull in such resentful OBCs had begun ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha election. As Prime Minister Modi said in his victory speech in Delhi, the triumph was an outcome of hard work for a long time. Notes Walter Andersen, author and a keen watcher of nationalist trends in India: “The size of the Modi victory in UP was thanks to an astute recognition of caste appeals (regarding candidates) with a focus on non-Yadav OBCs (who constitute some 30 per cent of the total population).” Over the past few years, besides pitchforking Maurya to the party’s higher echelons of power, the BJP has been engaging leaders of various other communities, including non-Jatav Scheduled Castes such as Valmikis and Pasis. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), led by former UP Chief Minister Mayawati, typically secures the state’s Dalit votes, but the BJP has been trying to wean away a section of them who are upset about the Jatav dominance of this party. Mayawati herself belongs to a Jatav sub-caste. Seated in the study of his Lutyens Delhi bungalow in the city’s tony Pandara Park, BJP General Secretary and MP Bhupendra Yadav says that his party gave tickets to 38 castes in UP polls, offering maximum representation to people across class, gender, geographies and age groups. “It was a rich representation,” says this lawyer-politician who hastens to heap praise on the Modi-Shah duo.
Many months before the UP polls, writer Patrick French wrote a profile of Shah in which he said the BJP president draws inspiration from the likes of ancient Indian strategist Chanakya, author of the Arthashastra and adviser to the Mauryan Emperor Chandragupta, as well as VD Savarkar, political activist and originator of the term ‘Hindutva’. Following the UP triumph, Amit Shah is being referred to by his colleagues and even the media as the BJP’s Chanakya. An avid reader of the Arthashastra, Shah knows only too well the dictum, ‘There is no attraction equal to a gift.’ In the 2014 polls, he awarded a sizeable number of seats for the Lok Sabha to non-Yadav OBCs. This time around in UP, 35 per cent of his party’s candidates were from this aggrieved caste grouping, most of whom have won. Savarkar, a controversial scholar, had denounced Mahatma Gandhi for his allegedly soft stance on Muslims after India’s Partition and had even questioned his sanity. Though a proper reading of Savarkar’s works remains elusive, he commands the respect of his followers for his militant Hindu posturing. It is no wonder then that Shah, an admirer of the man, and his team fell back on anti-Muslim rhetoric during the campaign, accusing their rivals of pandering to the whims of Muslims in the state, who account for close to 20 per cent of the population. The proposition that under SP rule Muslims had preferential treatment seems to have clicked among Hindus, irrespective of any element of truth to it. Rajat Saini, a driver based in Sahranpur in western UP, was convinced that BJP leaders were telling the truth. “I think SP favours Muslims, not out of love for them, but because they are a vote bank. BSP gave 100 seats to Muslim candidates, why?” he asks, angrily, “What about Hindus?”
Modi’s Fatehpur speech was music to Saini’s ears. In his rally there, the Prime Minister suggested that the SP government gave higher priority to the interests of Muslims than that of Hindus and said that uninterrupted power supply must be ensured during the month of Ramadan as well as during Diwali season. He also said that land needed to be allotted for Muslim burial grounds as well as for cremation purposes. Like Modi, Shah also made explosive speeches. At Chauri Chaura in Gorakhpur, he used the expression, ‘KASAB’, to describe his rivals. “Ka for Congress, Sa for Samajwadi Party and Ba for Bahujan Samaj Party,” Shah roared before an adoring crowd. The reference to the surname of Ajmal Kasab, the 26/11 terrorist who was hanged to death in 2012, was inescapable. The BJP brought back the Ram Mandir issue, too, promising to build a temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya. Hardselling his ‘Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas’ slogan, Modi often said that what had happened in UP so far was “kuchh ka saath, kuchh ka vikaas”, a nuanced reference to a supposed pro-Muslim slant of the SP and BSP. The party also named a super-fast train from Ghazipur to Delhi after Maharaja Suheldev, an 11th century Pasi king, as part of its efforts to appropriate Dalit icons. All this prompted a Muslim lawmaker to say that Modi’s user-name is ‘development’ and password is ‘Hindutva’. Milan Vaishnav, senior fellow, South Asia Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has closely watched how the BJP smartly played the caste and religion cards. “The campaign had heavy undertones of both caste politics and majoritarianism, but, by and large, Modi managed to retain them as the subtext more often than the text. To some extent, Modi’s mission is aided by the fact that he comes from a backward caste and has been a pracharak in the RSS. Because his bona fides are known, he does not have to shout about them from the rooftops constantly,” states Vaishnav, author of When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics.
Kamlesh Maurya, who lives in the Babatpur area of Varanasi, earns barely Rs 6,000 a month doing odd jobs. He is not pleased that the SP government was doling out laptops while the education system was in the doldrums even at the primary level. Abhishek Mishra, a member of the outgoing Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav’s ministry, acknowledges that the SP government had not done enough in education. For Maurya, the biggest concern is his son’s education. The government gives clothes and meals at the primary schools it runs, but teachers hardly turn up—which is why he would like to land a “proper service job”, earn more, and send his son to a private school. “See, education is barely an issue of concern for the SP,” says this 35-year-old who falls in the aspiration class that hopes Modi’s BJP would be different. Says Vaishnav of the mindset of such people, “I think, to some extent, the voters of UP decided to give something new a chance. Since 2002, they have cycled between the SP and BSP, and yet UP remains a laggard state.”
Aspirational classes in India include not just the middle classes, but those who want to be middle class, comprising people who have just emerged above the poverty line. They want to move up the social ladder and mimic the lifestyles of the upwardly mobile. Below Poverty Line households that have now acquired bank accounts through a flagship scheme and begun to use LPG for cooking also want to climb up a few notches. Launched last May, the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, which offers gas connections to poor households, has met its first-year targets three months earlier than expected. The Centre has also achieved close to one- fourth of its target for the second-year ending March 2018. The scheme is being implemented with the money saved on LPG subsidies through the Centre’s ‘Give It Up’ campaign. The biggest beneficiaries of the programme are women, who have had the most connections awarded in Uttar Pradesh. Access to LPG cylinders for cooking not only means health benefits for women, but also protection from myriad risks—including sexual assault—that they would otherwise be exposed to whenever they venture out of home to collect firewood. Simply put, the aspirational class is expanding rapidly. According to Vaishnav, “It’s Modi’s ‘man of action’ reputation, his attack on corruption via demonetisation, and his credibility that sealed the deal: the BJP will be given a chance.” For his part, Andersen feels that Modi’s ‘doer’ image is very strong. “On the BJP side, the focus was on Modi and his ability to deliver jobs and higher growth rates—and the results clearly indicate that the people still have confidence he will do so.”
IN THE RUN-UP to the 2014 General Election, Modi had evoked great admiration from his party men as well as a large section of voters in what is often called the cow belt, comprising states such as Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. His candidacy from Varanasi was designed to create a wave of goodwill for his party that was desperate to return to power at the Centre after a 10-year gap. Modi was looked up to as the last messiah of hope for his then-bedraggled party, a populist nationalist with a ‘development’ agenda. The whole idea of pitching Modi from the temple-city of Varanasi was to garner more seats from across the state and even neighbouring Bihar. In the previous Lok Sabha election campaign led by LK Advani, the BJP had won only 10 seats in India’s most populous state (which accounts for 80 of the House’s 543 seats). In the 2012 UP polls, the BJP had won only 47 seats in the 403-member Assembly; BJP and RSS cadres had been fighting back wounded pride in a state where in 1998, it had won 58 of the 85 Lok Sabha seats it had then. It was then that Modi happened and what followed was a victory whirlwind: the BJP went on to win 72 of 80 seats in the 2014 General Election and 312 of the Assembly’s 403 seats in the 2017 state polls.
One of the many people in complete awe of Modi is Pramod Gupta from Ramnagar in Varanasi. He was once a BSP voter. “This time too we want Modi to win. Mind you, it is not BJP. It is Modi who alone can get us decent jobs.” He dismisses any talk of Akhilesh’s makeover as a young moderniser. “It is all drama. He has been in power and there has been constant scare of goondagardi in this state…. Now, Modiji will rule the state directly from Delhi to ensure the transition to a better law-and-order situation,” he says. Andersen offers the logic behind such blind faith in the man: “There was no comparable charismatic leader in the opposition.” Vaishnav sounds a caveat, though. “But there is no escaping the fact that Modi and the BJP will have to deliver, and not just in UP. Their mantra has been jobs, jobs, jobs. Right now, they are far from delivering on their promise to create mass employment. Schemes, slogans and initiatives might delay the moment of reckoning, but they can derail it.”
In private chats, BJP leaders agree that demonetisation, effected on the night of November 8th, invalidating high-denomination notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000, was not only to fight black money, but also to generate affinity among the poor towards the BJP. Ever since the super-expensive monogrammed suit he had worn in 2015 on his US tour triggered a controversy, Modi has been cautious not to look anti-poor and pro-corporate. The currency clampdown was a huge inconvenience to the poor, especially those employed in the informal sector. Dr Rajesh Raj SN, co-author of Out of the Shadows?: The Informal Sector in Post-Reform India, says that the note ban added to existing woes as demand declined on account of people postponing expenses. In UP, a brute majority of those employed in the worst-hit sub-segments, leather and tanning, are Dalits and Muslims. Yet people like Shyam in Azamgarh, a daily wager, vow to endure any kind of hardship for the sake of what’s seen as the ‘greater common good’. He says, “Modiji has done [demonetisation] because he doesn’t want those who have been hoarding black money to go scot free. The poor like me are ready to tighten our belts further. Yes, there was hardship, but we are ready to face it because there is going to be a gain eventually.” His conviction that Modi is waging a war for the have-nots against the haves (especially those who have ill-begotten wealth) is bolstered by what he perceives as his patriotic duty. He declares himself willing to go even more austere for as long as Modi wishes.
Alongside, cultural nationalism is certain to gain in momentum. Andersen has no doubt about that. “We are also likely to see a more assertive stance on foreign affairs. I think it is inevitable that cultural nationalism will gain and be more a part of the national narrative of what it is to be an Indian.” But he isn’t worried about India’s pluralism. “This very success in my view is likely to make the BJP—and the RSS—more inclusive, partly because of greater self-confidence and partly because of a broader view of what constitutes nationalism. To be more specific, Modi seems to include economic development as a key aspect of Hindutva—and we are likely to see more of that in the immediate future.”
Modi’s rise, after all, has been an act of faith.