Modi on the upswing?

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Sometimes statistics convey only half the story. One such number is the Lok Sabha seats the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won in 2009 in Uttar Pradesh: 10 of the state’s 80. Even the fact that this tally pushed the BJP behind three other parties didn’t quite capture the depth of its rout. So staggering was the party’s decimation that as many as 33 of the 71 candidates it fielded failed to win even a sixth of the votes cast. In fact, they had to forfeit their security deposits of Rs 25,000 each. Another 17 were placed fourth or fifth.

The BJP’s humiliation was shocking, especially as only a decade earlier, the party had lorded the politics of India’s most populous state of more than 200 million people. And it wasn’t a one-off. Three years later, in the March 2012 Assembly polls, the BJP had the sole comfort of being ahead of the Congress but still way behind the regional czars, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), despite putting its campaign in the hands of the once-firebrand Hindutva leader Uma Bharti.

It is in this backdrop — or minefield, if you will — that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who has been appointed the head of the BJP’s nationwide campaign for next year’s General Election, is expected to revive his lifeless party in India’s politically most significant state. If the BJP doesn’t make the cut in UP, it has little scope of making it at the Centre, which would in turn dash Modi’s chances of making it as India’s next prime minister. So the question is: can he help his party make the cut?

Elections are still eight months away, but travel through UP and a strange paradox reveals itself. The BJP is still a shadow force in the state, but its mascot, Modi, is on every lip.

“We must give him a chance,” says Santosh Pandey, 35, a cab driver in Varanasi city, 280 km from Lucknow. “Look at Modi’s achievement in Gujarat: good roads, 24-hour electricity, and improved law and order. If he becomes the prime minister, he will turn UP into Gujarat.” Also, Pandey points out, “Modi is not corrupt.” As for the allegations that Modi allowed BJP-linked sectarian Hindu mobs to massacre Muslims in Gujarat 11 years ago, Pandey says that although those killings were “unfortunate”, they occurred “a long time ago”. More communal violence, he says, has occurred in UP since Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav of the SP won power last year. “How long can you cling to the 2002 Gujarat violence?” he asks. In the elections of 2004 and 2009, Pandey voted Congress. Next year: he will vote for Modi.

Travel from Varanasi, 100 km north to Azamgarh district, then further east to the district of Deoria and its adjoining Buddhist city of Kushinagar, and Gonda district nearer Lucknow, among other places. Everywhere, the voter refrain is similar: it reverberates with a belief in Modi’s capacity to deliver on governance.

Jolting along pot-holed roads on a state-owned bus, Jai Prakash Yadav, 40, an MNC employee in Azamgarh, grimaces and says: “Every time I visit Mumbai and Ahmedabad, I realise how far behind UP is in infrastructure and governance. These roads won’t change for 50 years if we keep electing (BSP leader) Mayawati and (SP leader) Mulayam Singh Yadav.” Reluctantly he reveals he voted SP in the 2012 Assembly polls. Now, he says, “Modi should get a chance.”

“I am not saying that I will vote for Modi, but there is a lot of attraction in what he has done in Gujarat,” says villager Ram Dayal Verma in Barabanki district, 20 km east of Lucknow, which is currently represented by Union Steel Minister Beni Prasad Verma, a Congress leader. The villager says the youth watch TV news and discuss politics. “Most people here are followers of Beni babu but they invariably end up discussing Modi when they get together,” he says. “At times, they have even come to blows.”

The pervasive influence of television may be working in Modi’s favour. Says political analyst Upendra Kumar of Gorakhpur city: “TV has reached every house. People watch what is happening. Pakistanis repeatedly kill Indian soldiers, even behead them. Inflation is breaking our backs.” Kumar says that Modi’s speech at Hyderabad on 11 August or in Gujarat on 15 August got a lot of traction. “You may say that Modi was wrong in criticising the prime minister in his speech on Independence Day,” says Kumar. “But the questions Modi articulated is what the people want answered.”

On television news, it is Modi who seems to be driving the agenda. Modi’s statements are debated feverishly in news studios and become newspaper headlines the next morning. “The locals watch and analyse his speeches. Many appreciate his strong views,” says Kumar.

Elsewhere, in Hathras district, 330 km to the west of Lucknow, another villager appears to be wavering from his family’s traditional loyalty for Union Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh. “We have always voted for Chaudhary Ajit Singh, but this time we feel that Modi deserves a chance,” says 40-year-old farmer Ram Singh, whose two older brothers drive taxis in New Delhi. “Modi comes across as a solid neta who has risen from humble beginnings but has no stain of corruption on him. He is tough and decisive.”

“Yes, the 2002 riots happened and Muslims were killed, but now it’s an old story,” he says. “Do you think the SP or the Congress care about Muslims? They are merely exploiting them.”

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, even social media is becoming a driver in the state, especially among the educated youth. Subodh Verma, a BA second year student at Allahabad University, will vote for the first time in 2014. He is an active Facebook user and follows Modi on it. “This guy has vision,” Verma told TEHELKA. “He means what he says about the economy and good governance. He is ready to engage with the youth, unlike other politicians who have done nothing for the youth.” Does he consider Hindutva or Ayodhya’s disputed Ram temple election issues? “Not at all. I will go for development any day.” Many of his friends, too, follow Modi on Facebook.

Those who belong to Uttar Pradesh but live in Gujarat are turning out to be zealous ambassadors for Modi. “Every visit home in Gonda district is a cruel reminder of how bad things are in UP,” says Ram Asrey, who lives in Gujarat’s Surat district and with whom this correspondent shared a ride on a rickety state-owned bus from Varanasi to Gorakhpur. Thrice during the journey, he compared the roads of UP with those in Gujarat. When reminded of the 2002 anti-Muslim violence, he says: “Ab sau me sau to santusht nahi ho saktey aur phir mamla court mein chal hi raha hai (You cannot satisfy everybody. In any case, the courts are seized of the cases.)”

Shockingly, Modi’s charm has spread to Saifai in Etawah district, 240 km west of Lucknow, the native village of Mulayam Singh Yadav. “We will vote for SP but our heart and mind is with Modi,” is a refrain in Saifai. The village is part of the Jaswant Nagar Assembly constituency that Mulayam’s brother Shivpal Yadav represents. The SP holds Etawah’s Lok Sabha seat, too.

Says farmer-cum-contractor Dasrath Singh Yadav: “We cannot utter Modi’s name. But I believe he is a good person. If he becomes the prime minister, he will make a difference.” Yadav, however, is not excessively optimistic. “I feel that the political system is so complicated that it will be very difficult for Modi to deliver.” He is also unhappy that Modi and the BJP are making overtures towards the Muslims for votes. “I understand they need to win over all sections of society,” he says. “But they should not emulate the votebank politics of the Congress and others.” He says he watches Modi’s speeches on TV. “He talks of securing India’s borders, which other parties ignore.”

Chandra Shekhar Yadav, 35, law graduate, is a diehard supporter of the SP and adores Netaji, as Mulayam is known among followers. But he says he is worried by Modi’s growing influence in the urban areas of the Yadav-dominated regions of Etawah, Mainpuri, Etah, Kasganj, Kannauj and Farrukhabad. “The BJP is certainly gaining ground in my area by projecting Modi as prime minister.” He says he will meet Mulayam and urge him to counter Modi by redressing the people’s grievances.

Of course, the Muslims, who are nearly one of every five people in UP, are sharply polarised the opposite way. Their scepticism of Modi’s chances is most evident in the Muslim heartland of Aligarh city, 300 km west of Lucknow. “I think the people of India will not accept him as his image is not good,” says Shababuddin, head of the Urdu Department at the city’s 130-year-old Shibli National College. “Some may think Modi is a good leader. But he is not acceptable.” He believes that Modi will fail to be a game-changer in UP. “The BJP says that he has won the Gujarat Assembly elections thrice and done good work. But Gujarat is a small state while India has many different castes and religions. I don’t think Modi has the capacity to take everybody along.”

Abdul Lari of Quami Ekta Dal (QED), a fringe political party in the state founded three years ago, blames the news media for hyping Modi up. “Uska kad isliye bada hai kyonki woh laashon pe khada hai (He stands tall because he stands on dead bodies),” he says, referring to Modi’s alleged complicity in the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat. But, Lari says, if the BJP performs better than in 2009, it would not be because of Modi but due to inflation and worsening crime in the state under the Akhilesh Yadav government. Ironically, Modi’s arrival is expected to hurt the chances of the QED. “Those Muslims who might have voted for such small parties would instead go for tactical voting for a mainstream party’s candidate best placed to defeat the BJP,” says Muzammil, a villager from Saraimeer in Azamgarh.

Others who are also sceptical of Modi’s ability to swing the vote point to the failure of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi in reviving his party’s fortunes at last year’s Assembly election. The Congress stood a poor fourth with a mere 28 of the state’s 402 Assembly seats, despite months of vigorous groundwork by Rahul in UP. A BJP leader says Modi’s case is different from Rahul’s. “You cannot compare Modi with the Gandhi surname,” he told TEHELKA. “Rahul can afford to lose five elections and still be the king of the ring. Modi knows that this is a do-or-die election for him. If he loses, it will be extremely difficult for him to sustain his position.”

So the question bears repetition: Is there then a Modi wave in UP and will the BJP zoom to the top in the state in the next election? While it may be too early to answer the first, the answer to the second is clearly a no. Indeed, Modi is undoubtedly the most discussed political name across the state. But this cannot be confused for a voter consolidation in favour of the BJP. For that to happen, Modi will have to overcome the party’s many shortcomings. “The BJP is in a shambles in UP,” a BJP leader told TEHELKA, asking not to be quoted. “It has more leaders than workers.”

As chief minister in 2002, the current BJP president, Rajnath Singh, had dubiously led the party to a resounding defeat from which it hasn’t recovered. Another former chief minister, Kalyan Singh, who once had the frenzied backing of the hardcore Hindu right-wing, has been in and out of the party so often that he has become inconsequential to the state’s politics. And the current Varanasi mp, Murli Manohar Joshi, counted among the top three leaders of the party two decades ago, is unsure of retaining his seat in 2014. “Modi’s biggest challenge will be in naming candidates for the state’s Lok Sabha seats,” says the BJP leader. “These leaders would fight hard to corner a bulk of the tickets.”

That Modi has a reputation of neither forgiving nor forgetting easily will work in his favour, as the satraps would think twice before crossing his path. Modi might himself employ the classic divide-and-rule strategy: he is said to be considering nominating BJP president Singh’s son, Pankaj, for the Lok Sabha seat from Chandauli near Varanasi in return for Singh’s unflinching support in marginalising the other self-styled stalwarts.

BJP insiders in Lucknow say Modi is only too aware of the uphill task he faces in rejuvenating the party in the next 40-odd weeks. In fact, it is precisely because of the faction-ridden state of the BJP in UP that Modi’s aide Amit Shah has chosen two out-of-state lieutenants as his key operators, both BJP legislators from adjoining Bihar: Rameshwar Chaurasia, who was made a national secretary in a reshuffle three months ago, and Ashwani Chaubey, who has long been aggressively pro-Modi and who bulldozed reluctant party comrades in Bihar two months ago to go with Modi even though it led Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar — who rejects Modi due to his anti-Muslim image — to end the 17-year alliance of his Janata Dal (United) with the BJP.

Shah has divided UP into six zones: Braj, Bareilly and Pashchim in the western part of the state; Awadh in the central; Varanasi and Gorakhpur in the eastern; and Bundelkhand in the southwest. The zonal leaderships have been directed to chalk out region-specific strategies. Though the BJP has fought shy of naming Modi as its nominee for the prime minister’s job, there is immense pressure from ground up to do so forthwith. Everyone without exception in the party believes its only chance lies in Modi’s candidature as PM.

A key factor will be Modi’s ability to finely calibrate the BJP’s hardcore Hindutva so that the communal cauldron simmers but does not spill over. The SP’s overtures to the Muslims, as evidenced in the state government’s refusal this week to allow the BJP-affiliated Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) to take out a rally in Ayodhya, may have worked to Modi’s advantage in polarising the Hindu votes. But even Modi knows that caste has time and again proved to be a stronger pull than being a Hindu. That is why Modi is being repeatedly portrayed, especially in eastern UP, as a leader of the backward castes, who are traditionally the bulwark of the SP. In the western part of the state, where the backward castes are not as dominant, the BJP is pumping up Modi’s claim of good governance in Gujarat.

The clincher, however, would be the candidates. Take Varanasi, for example, where the BJP has won in five of the past six Lok Sabha elections since 1991. It lost the seat in 2004 when the voters booted out the BJP-led Central government. Five years later, MM Joshi barely scraped through, winning by only 17,000 votes against a mafia don, Mukhtar Ansari. On voting day, only a late surge of the city’s Hindus, who worried that a Muslim don might win the seat, helped Joshi avoid defeat. But Joshi was lucky. He could have done worse in his traditional constituency of Allahabad, where he had lost twice in a row before fleeing to Varanasi.

“People are fed up with the Central leadership imposing candidates from the top,” says Varanasi-based journalist Amitabh Bhattacharya, a veteran reporter of parliamentary and state elections in the region for 35 years. “This is a safe seat for the BJP, but if Joshi is given the ticket again, the party’s biggest shock in 2014 would come from here.” Deepak Malviya of Kashi Vidvat Parishad, a body of experts on religious scripture widely respected among Hindus, recalls that Joshi refused to meet with a community of some 20,000 Gujarati settlers in Varanasi while campaigning in 2004. “He said he didn’t have time,” says Malviya. Such an attitude, he says, won’t work this time.

So what numbers is the party looking at? “With Modi as the party’s face, we hope to win around 25 seats,” says a BJP leader declining to be named. If, however, nepotism infests the choices, the party could repeat only 10 seats, “Modi or no Modi”. Apart from BJP president Singh and Joshi, Modi will also need to deal with two veterans, Kalraj Mishra, who is an influential Brahmin leader, and Lalji Tandon, who won the Lucknow Lok Sabha seat in 2009 after former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had won it five times on the trot until 2004, opted out.

According to a top BJP insider, Team Modi initially thought a strong Modi-Hindutva wave would break caste barriers and win the party 50-60 seats. But lately Shah was heard accepting the role of caste into consideration. Over a decade, the traditional backers of the BJP have deserted it. They are the urban middle class; the upper-caste Brahmins; the backward castes such as the Kurmi and the Lodhs; and traders. Both the SP and the BSP capitalised on this flight by absorbing a large number of upper-caste politicians. But now, if ground reports are to be believed, the upper castes, who are around 24 percent of all voters, are disillusioned with the two regional parties and may be willing to give the BJP a second-chance. Among the backwards, the BJP hopes to attract the Lodhs, who are around 2 percent, with their leader Kalyan Singh returning to the BJP fold.

Of course, Modi’s strong point — an image of good governance — will also be enhanced by Akhilesh Yadav’s poor administration. That the SP has distributed goodies only to the Yadavs has angered the rest of the Other Backward Castes (OBCs). Says AK Verma, a political scientist in Lucknow: “The extremely and most backward castes had supported the SP in 2012. Now they will go to the BJP.”

The SP was also caught in a cleft stick by a decision of the state’s Public Service Commission to reserve seats for the OBCs during preliminary exams for the state civil services. This policy angered the upper castes, threatening to rip apart the SP’s rainbow coalition of the OBC and the upper castes. Upper caste hopefuls dubbed the commission (Lok Seva Ayog) as “Yadav Seva Ayog” and went on the rampage, damaging public property and attacking the police.

When the Allahabad High Court stayed the reservation, a stung CM gave marching orders to the secretary of the commission, Anil Kumar Yadav, and ordered the policy rolled back. This, in turn, triggered violent response by OBC students, who alarmingly include the Yadavs. Munshi Lal Gautam, a former MLA from Bulandsahar and president of the BJP’s state OBC cell, has already drawn up plans to mobilise OBCs. OBC leaders such as Kalyan Singh, Om Prakash Singh and Vinay Katiyar will lead social justice rallies. “We need to work harder in 14 districts of eastern UP,” he says.

But focussing on the backward castes does not mean that the BJP and Modi will let go of their strong point: sectarian polarisation. The VHP’s rally, ostensibly to drum up support for building a Ram temple in Ayodhya, was to start on 25 August and run until 13 September, starting at the temple town and passing through Faizabad, Barabanki, Gonda, Ambedkar Nagar, Basti and Bahraich before returning to Ayodhya. On 17 August, eight days before the launch, VHP leaders in a surprise move met SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and Akhilesh for over two hours to seek government help.

The meeting happened so suddenly that the Muslim mascot of SP, Azam Khan, was deeply rattled. It is not known what transpired at the meeting but within 24 hours the government banned the rally. The VHP blamed Khan for it and has threatened to go ahead with the rally. Analysts say that despite the posturing of the VHP and the SP, both sides wouldn’t mind upping the communal ante as both the BJP and the SP would benefit from a Hindu-Muslim conflict.

BJP insiders say that the RSS, the party’s ideological parent, has realised that Modi is its best hope for winning New Delhi. On 19 August, police in Kanpur city detained Yogi Adityanath, the MP from Gorakhpur who is viscerally anti-Muslim, as he was on his way to Mahakaleshwar Temple in Jhansi district that he wants to cleanse by “shuddhikaran”. The VHP and other RSS affiliates have been running mass contact programmes. Two “Ganga yatras” have already been held. All such activities, of course, are a fig leaf for stoking Hindu communal passion.

On 20 August, a day after it banned the VHP rally, the UP government announced it would earmark 20 percent of the budget of 85 development schemes for the welfare of Muslims. Akhilesh said his party’s election manifesto last year had promised the step. This, too, has come in handy for the BJP. “This shows the perverted mind of the chief minister and his party,” BJP state president LK Bajpai told TEHELKA.

The BJP also happily lapped the controversial suspension last month of an IAS officer, Durga Shakti Nagpal, who had demolished a wall of a mosque illegally built in a village in Gautam Buddh Nagar district on the state’s border with New Delhi. Its cadres have been in the forefront of the campaign to portray Nagpal as an upright officer being penalised because the SP needs the votes of the Muslims.

The final question, of course, is whether Modi will contest the Lok Sabha election from Uttar Pradesh. Two lines of thought are being actively explored. One is that Modi should contest either from Lucknow or Varanasi, as both are safe seats of the BJP, and a win with a huge margin would strengthen his mandate. But winning in Lucknow would hardly create a wave in the eastern part of the state. Hence the second line, which says Modi should contest from Gonda or Kaisarganj in eastern UP where the BJP needs to make inroads among the backward castes. The BJP reckons that Modi’s name on the ballot in either of these seats would rub off on the party’s candidates in the nearby constituencies of Bahraich, Balrampur, Basti and Sant Kabir Nagar, bringing it 8-10 seats in this region alone. An additional factor is the aura of Adityanath, who is often at loggerheads with the BJP leadership but is on excellent terms with Modi.

Of course, these are still early days given that the elections are nine months away and, as former British prime minister Harold Wilson famously said, a week is a long time in politics. Even Modi’s diehard supporters say that one false step and Modi could move away from his goal of crystallising his outreach and reducing the infighting within the party. What is clear though is that if the “Modi factor” doesn’t work, the BJP may even be reduced to a single digit. So much for statistics.

With inputs from Virendra Nath Bhatt

brijesh@tehelka.com

 

1 COMMENT

  1. A very balanced analysis of the political scenario. It is true that Modi’s development record has captured the imagination of the educated youth and the middle class. Whether this could be converted into an electroral advantage by the BJP and secure enough seats in the forthcoming parliamentary and state elections has to be seen, inasmuch as some of the top leaders of BJP seem to be not too comfortable with Modi’s steady ascendence.

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