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Ground Report: In UP, Narendra Modi's Name No Longer Ignites the Enthusiasm it Once Did

The inauguration of the half-built Ram Temple in Ayodhya this January by Modi may not bring the electoral rewards the prime minister is expecting.
Sonia Gandhi with Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi in Rae Bareli. Photo: X/@INCIndia

Varanasi/Rae Bareli/Amethi: Varanasi, Rae Baraeli and Amethi in Uttar Pradesh are among the country’s more iconic electoral constituencies for reasons of history and politics. When politics carries forebodings of a possible descent into full-blown one-man rule if the government were to return with full force, these become the most watched seats in the parliament election under way.

If you are in a big city, avidly read the papers and closely follow television news, the election campaign playing out in the countryside in Uttar Pradesh can be the bigger surprise. Varanasi in this state of large size and considerable diversity illustrates this perfectly.

Hinduism’s holiest city by the Ganga – the holiest river for Hindus which cascades down from the dreadlocks of the master of the universe, Lord Shiva himself – was especially chosen by Narendra Modi to be his launchpad for a career in parliament in preference to his native Gujarat. Nothing else might better underline his cause and ambition of being the undisputed numero uno of politicised Hinduism, although that’s a little bit of a dodgy proposition considering Hinduism’s amorphous nature as a creed without a book of rules.

And it’s from here that the prime minister seeks to renew his mandate to lead the country for a straight third term to equal the win record of the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, for whom Modi shows a pathological distaste while nursing the ambition, it is said, to be seen to be as overwhelmingly popular as the “gentle colossus” he dislikes.

If Varanasi weren’t the prime minister’s constituency in the Modi era, in which no tactics to win can be deemed underhand, an observer may well be led to think that there is a fight on. This owes to the sharply dropping graph of the leader of government in New Delhi, not particularly to any stalwart nature of the challenge he faces from the Congress party’s Ajay Rai, although the Congress is in a firm alliance with UP’s influential Samajwadi Party which is holding up very well – a sharp contrast from the time of the UP state poll of 2017.

Ram Temple not an election issue

Driving around some 1,000 km in UP just before the fifth phase of the seven-phase election was drawing up, two stunning features of this election came into view: One, the inauguration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya this January by Modi, preening before a goodly crowd of India’s wealthiest drawn from the world of business, cinema and sports, was not an election issue at all.

This meant that the prime minister had wasted his time rushing the inauguration of a half-built temple (which religious precepts forbid) with a view to consolidating Hindu votes in his party’s favour just two months before the election process was formally inaugurated.

And the upshot of this goes to the heart of the Modi catechism: The communal divide trick to polarise votes on the lines of religion has been of little avail in this election, although the harbouring of communal sentiments amongst many persists as a part of the baggage of the past which remains quiescent for the most part but acts up in sections of society when the tendency is inflamed by political monsters.

The failure of the temple issue to ignite the dynamite of communalism, or to raise the pitch of the “consciousness of the nation” where the word Hindu is left unstated, just the bait that Modi threw to his audience of the mega-rich while inaugurating the temple in Ayodhya on January 22, is a setback of ironic proportions.

The poor man was desperately banking on it since he can easily be said to hold a remarkable record of indifferent performance on most counts that matter to ordinary Indians, although his real ‘home’ constituency of the super rich and the complacent upper classes are thrilled by every move he makes.

Narendra Modi with BJP and NDA leaders in Varanasi on Tuesday. Photo: X/@narendramodi

A noteworthy corollary of the failure of the communal trick is that the political effort of the Muslim community in UP pitched alongside those of large sections of other communities registers as a perfectly normal event – something which ought to be the norm but alas is not, thanks to the communal virus and the massive moves made to politically “isolate” and socially ostracise Muslims by coordinated scheming minds.

In this special sense, Lok Sabha election 2024 is a throwback to a long-forgotten past. For this reason, mercifully, the mercenary Muslim communal outfits too have found themselves on the sidelines, quite simply unable to intervene in any noticeable manner.

A failing cult of personality

The second important aspect of this election, as perceived from UP, is that the prime minister’s name brings up indifference or even annoyance, no matter where one travels in the state. Right up until now, Modi’s campaign pitch was to urge voters to cast their ballots in his name. The candidate didn’t matter. This was an essential part of the panoply of the building of the cult of personality. Not any more. The trick has collapsed completely.

The round-the-clock propaganda build-up of Modi by the so-called national television stations, and the efforts of their counterparts in print pursuing a spot of dishonourable journalism, seem to have been of little avail. The small folk in distant parts of India’s largest state are not impressed. The silly ‘tube’ and the dubious elements of the press – which happen to be the majority of their tribe – have just made a fast buck, and the dupe is the all-knowing one who resides in splendour in Delhi.

Now, in absentia, Modi is being grilled for his failed policies leading to the most dismal employment data in 45 years and the widespread collapse of the small businesses since demonetisation from which most are yet to fully recover – and with that has gone gainful employment of every conceivable variety in rural and semi-urban India. Losses in agriculture, UP’s unprecedented cattle menace for farmers which leads to stray cattle entering fields to, are points of hot discussion. The regularly rising prices offer no respite.

These are the very issues that Modi ducks and resorts instead to low grade communal propaganda, gimmicky slogans and sings paeans of praise to himself, while launching into diatribes against Rahul Gandhi all the time. The prime minister is being widely seen as not being able to defend his policies and blaming everyone else for the failures of his government. Gandhi, on the other hand, hammers home just the points that the great leader shirks. A well-known RSS figure in Varanasi says that the only leader in the country raising the right questions is Rahul Gandhi.

Also read: A Dull Election in Rae Bareli and an Intense Fight in Amethi

Does he propagate this? The affable young proprietor of provincial upper crust background is happy to declare that he would be voting NOTA (no, he can’t bring himself to vote Congress or Samajawadi!), and so would many others, he adds. Many among the savarna (the Hindu upper castes) too would press the NOTA button, he insists, although the bulk of the savarna vote would go to “Modi ji”.

So, the savarna vote is not Modi’s near monopoly now? No, it isn’t, but “some of us still thank him for raising the temple”, he says wistfully, “But then, what? How do people live?” Here is the cracking of a fundamental conundrum that has teased observers since the rise of Modi in 2014: is there a point where bread and butter once again matters, overtaking contrived religious commotion.

‘How do people live?’

In fact, from what one hears, the questions being raised in the RSS circles are not imaginary – and they are the same questions that the others are asking, including the subaltern sections. “How do people live?” is a nasty question indeed.

This is thought to be the reason for a widely noted phenomenon in UP – exertions of the RSS camp on behalf of BJP candidates are more ritualistic, less energetic this time, quite unlike the past. The bustling “pracharak” or RSS propagator-volunteer, buzzing from door to door like a bee, seems to have gone missing. He hasn’t lost his faith in “Modi ji”, one hears, but he no longer knows how to answer the stinging questions that come his way.

The SC or Dalits have lately been a key element of Modi’s political empire. In 2019, Modi pocketed nearly half the votes of this constituency. In Lok Sabha 2024, this seems an unlikely ask. The message propagated by the Congress and the INDIA alliance, that a third term for Modi “with 400 seats” (quoting back to Modi his own vainglorious boast) will be their ruin, seems to have truly hit home.

The fear is widespread that a rebounding Modi will scrap the Constitution, drafted by their truest icon Dr B.R. Ambedkar, which gave them rights, dignity and reservation. In truth, the fire was lit when half a dozen BJP MPs and other leaders urged voters to give them the strength in parliament so that they may change the Constitution.

It is evident on the campaign trail that no other point being made by the opposition camp has been delivered so deep. This can be seen across the state among the poorest people – not just the Dalit communities but also OBCs of every stripe.

The distrust

In Varanasi, a semi-literate Dalit young man, Ramkumar (name altered to protect identity), who does a lowly job but is clearly emerging as an organic intellectual of his class and community in the Gramscian sense, delivers to some of us a fluent lecture on political economy and the state of social realities under Modi, but also declares as a true conscientious objector that he shall not be voting.

“Why?” I ask in amazement. His answer flattens me: “EVM hai to Modi hai!”

This indeed is the nub of what one hears everywhere one goes – the fear that the whole electoral system is easy to manipulate, that it can be manipulated, and that the Election Commission is a frightened little department of the government in reality and will do Modi’s bidding. A leader of boatmen of the Ganga says similar things sitting in his home. He also underlines the “atank (terror)” factor. He finds his name missing from the voters’ list, although it was there in the 2022 assembly election. Many other names have also gone missing. Open regime criticism can invite a knock on the door, he says.

My attempt to assure Ramkumar that the Supreme Court is seized of the EVM matter is met with a sneer. It may have sounded too much like upper caste borsch. The UP dalit is wide awake – without question.

Ramkumar is candid. In the cluster of the 500-odd poor homes where he lives, amidst mostly Dalit communities but also some OBCs like the Patels (Kurmis), he says some Dalits “will probably sell themselves for murgha and sharab (chicken and booze), some could be swayed by the free five kg ration (under the government’s scheme to keep the poor dependent and without employment), but the bulk of them will vote the way they want and they will vote for the opposition this time”.

Also read: Rattled by SP’s OBC Outreach, BJP Tries to Pit Yadavs Against Yadavs

Although he shan’t be voting himself, he says he and his friends, although they aren’t with any party, have set up a small office to support Modi’s opponents. More, they will try to get the recipients of free foodgrains to change their mind by impressing on them the need to have a job and stand on their feet. But he doubts he shall be able to convince most of the Patels to change their vote to the opposition.

We are introduced to a BJP municipal councilor in Varanasi. He is very courteous, complacent and self-assured. “This is the PM’s constituency. It’s only a question of whether we can win with the same margin as in 2019 (Modi was ahead of his nearest rival by more than 4.75 lakh votes.).” This does indeed seem to echo a commonly heard sentiment in the city.

But we still ask the councillor why in Modi’s mammoth recent roadshow in Varanasi, prominent BJP and RSS workers, as we heard, weren’t able to recognise most participants. It appears that the glam brigade – the dancers and clappers – weren’t the only ones to be called from Gujarat, but vast contingents of ordinary cheering contingents as well.

The councilor now wore a hang-dog look. He meekly said, “For some reason the scene this time seems different from 2019, I can’t say why. I don’t know.” But the gentle BJP mid-level worker remained steadfast to his cause and maintained, “We’ll win here you will see. It’s only a question of margin!”

Changing moods

Rae Baraeli, where Rahul Gandhi is the candidate, and Amethi right next door, where he had been defeated by Union minister Smriti Irani in 2019, are a whole world apart from Varanasi. This is especially true of Rae Baraeli. Here again the most widespread talk is about the margin with which Gandhi will sweep the polls. It’s pro-Congress talk here, no matter where you turn. The star campaigner is Priyanka Gandhi, for Rae Baraeli and Amethi – and there aren’t many like her in any party. In elegant Hindi she brings on candour, wit, polish and gashing thrusts in all her public meetings, thrilling listeners and smoothly looking past even seasoned television journalists who ask the same boring questions, without regard for context.

A select contingent of about 250 Congress workers has been brought to Rae Baraeli and Amethi from across UP as well as other states not to organise meetings and rallies but to knock on people’s doors across the two constituencies. They go like clockwork. After the polling here on May 20, these special forces were likely to be moved to Varanasi, where voting is due on June 1, to boost the Congress campaign there. Under Priyanka’s leadership, the contest for Rae Baraeli and Amethi appear to be directed as a single unified effort.

In Lucknow, before we set out for the twin constituencies, RSS-BJP circles tell us that the result in Rae Baraeli was pre-ordained, and that there was no stopping Gandhi, but there was a fight on in Amethi. The Congress was in the fight, they acknowledged. This turned out only half true.

Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Mallikarjun Kharge in Amethi. Photo: X/@kharge

While Rae Baraeli had a brisk and busy but very assured air about which way things might be going, Amethi seemed a cauldron deriving from public anger against the incumbent MP. The BJP office looked sleepy but for the presence of a bunch of young volunteers from the BJP’s notorious IT cell whose reputation for poison darts, fake news, and disinformation has been widely noted.

The most senior party official available, a gentleman of RSS background, enthusiastically covered the ground of BJP’s “achievements” which the prime minister routinely seeks to highlight, but there didn’t appear much in these to highlight the local MP’s activities. Indeed, Irani’s belligerence in parliament, in TV studios and in her public interventions is spoken of widely. Amethi too appears to have made a particular note of this aspect of her personality.

In the wider constituency can be heard even the language of revolt. Strong language against the government, forceful criticisms of their MP as well as the most senior members of the ruling party, are common besides the usual talk of rampaging unemployment, unbearable prices, and (especially in Muslim segments like Jais) of names being struck of the voters’ list in very large numbers.

Earlier reports of the campaign in UP in prominent Delhi newspapers under the by-lines of prominent analysts had noted the “voters’ silence”, duly discussing the likely meaning of this. The present writer, visiting the crucial state at a slightly later stage, found the opposite to be true. Everybody was by now talking. It appears the earlier reluctance owed to fear of official reprisal. This has wholly dissipated. This could be worthy of analysis.

Spending a day in Allahabad on our way back to Delhi, we just missed being at the venue of the joint Phulpur rally of Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav  Some parts of this charming city fall under the Phulpur constituency and we saw the event live in parts on people’s cell phones. It was hard not to be overawed.

But seeing the video in its entirety afterward brought home the meaning of energy when people go into action. The whole clip could have been a part of the Rising of 1857 – the quibbles about its meaning centring on the failure of crowd control arrangements seem mundane and academic. This was evident from the mood in the city that day. In the end, the Rising was quelled by the rulers. What happens to the volatile mood on view everywhere in UP can take us to the edge of our seats.

Anand K. Sahay is a journalist and political commentator based in New Delhi. 

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