For the best experience, open
on your mobile browser or Download our App.

If Sangam Pilgrims Are Bellwether, They Indicate Clear Majority for Modi

Modi’s toxic accusations are the key part of his deliberate, carefully crafted plan to make millions of majority voters feel intensely insecure. In this climate created by him, he has made sure that he has emerged as the only saviour who can provide a deep sense of security to fearful millions.
Representative image of a boat at the Sangam. Photo: juggadery, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Prayagraj (Uttar Pradesh): Every day throughout the year, thousands of yatris (pilgrims) of every caste and class from all corners of the country converge for a holy dip at the sacred Sangam, the exact site where the waters of the Ganga and Yamuna mingle near the city of Prayagraj (known earlier as Allahabad). They are rowed to the Sangam by the traditional boatmen known as mallahs. 

I (Jawid) have been visiting the Sangam as a political pilgrim since 1977, when after much coaxing, the boatmen had told me that Indira Gandhi would lose the election and the Janata Party would come to power. I am now covering an election from the Sangam for the ninth time through conversations with the pilgrims and boatmen. This time, Bharati, a fellow journalist, is covering the current election along with me.

Astonishingly, the election forecasts made by the pilgrims and boatmen over the decades have proved to be relatively more accurate than the election predictions of the professional pollsters and political pundits. For instance in the 2004 election, when everyone was predicting a victory for the “India Shining” BJP, the boatmen had suggested the Congress could form the government. In 2014, the pilgrims and boatmen had predicted a victory for the BJP and in 2019, they had announced an enhanced victory for Modi. (These forecasts were reported by me in The Hindustan TImes of May 1, 2004 and May 5, 2014 and in The Wire of May 12, 2019.)

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

This time, the first pilgrims Bharati and I meet on the fiercely hot sloping sand bank above the flowing waters are a young family who have arrived here after a long 48-hour train journey from Agartala, the capital city of the far eastern state Tripura. Jitan Das, 35, who runs a small business, is accompanied by his wife and little daughter. He and his wife have voted for “Modiji”.

We next meet Parikshit, 42, from Bhuj, in the far western district of Kachchh in Gujarat. He is an industrialist who has voted for Modi whom he regards as “a son of the soil”. We then approach Mirabai Khandarkar, 65, a gentle housewife, from Bhadravati, Chandrapur zilla, Maharashtra. She has voted for Modi. (Most respondents inform us about the “zilla” they are from. It is the term commonly used to mean district.)

We come across Gopal Vishnoi, 50, from Bikaner, Rajasthan. He is in the tourism business. He has voted for the Congress and vehemently tells us that he has never voted for the BJP. He explains, “Paksh-vipaksh hona chahiyai (A balance between ruling and opposition groups is necessary).” Vishnoi proves to be the only one among our respondents who is a Congress supporter.

To escape from the scorching sand, we hire a boat to row us to the Sangam, the exact area where the waters of the Ganga and Yamuna meet and crowds of pilgrims take a dip. The boat is rowed by Kailash Nishad, 48. All the boatmen belong to the Nishad sub-caste, mostly in Uttar Pradesh. He says that Modi has benefited the Nishads by “finishing off the land mafia” and by providing free rations to the poor. He is convinced that all the Nishads will vote for Modi.

As we reach the jumble of bobbing boats and bathers at the Sangam, we are attracted to a large group of tribal people wearing their distinctive multi-coloured attire. They are from Jhadol in the Udaipur district of Rajasthan. Their mustachioed spokesman, Kalu Ram, 60, is in “kheti (agriculture)”. He claims that his entire boatload have voted for “Kamal ka phool (the BJP’s lotus symbol)”. In a neighbouring boat, Rajesh, 28, a young driver from Churu town in Rajasthan, interjects that he has also voted for the BJP.

Two women individually visiting the Sangam tell us separately that they have voted for Modi. Preeti Prajapathi, 34, is from Bharuch town in Gujarat. She says that prices keep rising but don’t matter as Modi has provided various facilities to the people. Vandana Muktekar, 52, a schoolteacher from Bhilai city in Chattisgarh, provides no reason for being a Modi supporter.

As we hop on to several boats moored near our boat, we ask many others who they have voted for. All of them openly declare that they have voted for Modi. They are from a variety of places: Kamlapati Agnihotri, 57, railway goods supervisor from Lalitpur city in the Bundelkhand region of UP. Uttam Sinha, 35, railway employee from Dumka town, Jharkhand. Munna Ram, 45, driver from Manaklao village in Jodhpur district, Rajasthan. Hukumchand Sharma, 56, travel agent from Dausa district, Rajasthan. Hira Ramnath, 63, small farmer from the coastal district of Raigad in Maharashtra.

We then chat with with Ankita Tiwari, 36, who owns a medical shop in Ratlam town in Madhya Pradesh and Manju Singh, 50, who runs an online business in Kota city, Rajasthan. Both say they have voted for Modi. Manju volunteers a very significant reason for Modi’s success. She says that Modi gives the people a sense of security which makes them totally ignore problems of unemployment, inflation, etc.

We complain to Kailash, our boatman, that we have not met any yatris from South India. He tells us to come early in the morning to ‘catch’ pilgrims from the southern states. As directed, we turn up early the next morning and are amazed to see many large shining coaches parked on a flat sand plain, a short walk from the rivers. Most of these buses, each with about 50 pilgrims, have travelled long distances on religious tours covering a host of holy sites such as Puri and Varanasi before arriving at the Sangam. Some of them will then proceed to Ayodhya.

At the doorstep of one of the coaches, we accost Ranga Rao, 43, a businessman from West Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh. He has voted for Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) that is in alliance with the BJP. Rao is convinced that the currently incumbent YSR Congress Party will get only about 20% of the vote while the TDP-BJP alliance will win around 80% in the concurrent Andhra Pradesh elections for both the Lok Sabha and the state’s legislative assembly.

We proceed to a bus from Karnataka and talk to Kalpana, 45, housewife from Haveri district. She says that her bus is carrying about 50 pilgrims from that state’s Hubli, Dharwad and Haveri districts. She has the impression that most of them, like herself, have voted for the BJP.

We next enter a bus from Telangana to be greeted by its vociferous driver, Niranjan, 40, from Hyderabad. He is a firm supporter of the BJP. Seated in the bus are Vinatha, 51, private schoolteacher from Nalgonda district and Vasantha, 60, from Nizamabad district. Both have voted for the BJP.

All the pilgrims in the comfortable buses from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Telangana are apparently from urban lower middle class backgrounds and do not represent the large rural working class populations/voters of these three states.

In the evening, we drive to Jawid’s long-standing friends in the two villages of Barwah and Bhagwatpur, near Bamrauli airport on the outskirts of Prayagraj. This is the sixth election during which he is visiting them. This is Bharati’s first visit to the two villages.

At Barwah, we are greeted very warmly by Prem Narayan Tiwari, 81, the jolly retired food inspector. He chides Jawid for coming after five years. He recounts that Barwah is an unusual village in that 100% of its population is Brahmin. He explains that Barwah has historically always voted for the BJP right from the days of the Jan Sangh and will continue to do so, even though the BJP government has done nothing for the village during the last five years, except building a water tank.

Two kilometres from Barwah is Bhagwatpur, a village where 70% of the population is Dalit. Jawid has been visiting Phoolmati, 65, a dhoban (washerwoman), in her dingy mud hut since the 2004 election. We are unable to meet her this time as she is on a visit to a neighbouring village. We meet her feisty daughter-in-law, Manju Devi, 30. She is indignant that political party activists only come to visit her to seek her vote as she is on the voters’ list. When she goes to them to seek their assistance for various official benefits, they turn her away, falsely claiming that she is not on the voters’ list. She is disgusted with all of them and will probably not vote this time. If pushed, she may vote for the hathi (elephant) symbol of Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

On our way back to Prayagraj, Raju, 40, our taxi driver, succinctly and subtly voices the prime reason for Modi’s popularity. He is the only strong leader who can provide a sense of security to the populace. This reason is also given openly above by Manju Singh, the online businesswoman from Kota. We have often heard this explanation during the past few days. It is very rarely mentioned directly but is indirectly hinted at.


Now after all the above reportage, may I (Jawid) offer my short commentary on Modi’s apparent popularity.

Too many of Modi’s opponents have convinced themselves that Modi has suffered several self-goals by his repeated incendiary attacks during his election campaign. He is thought to have gone wildly berserk, especially during his accusations against the infiltrating, fast-breeding, mangalsutra-snatching Muslim community and its Congress co-conspirators. This is wishful thinking among those who think that Modi is a loser.

In fact, Modi’s toxic accusations are the key part of his deliberate, carefully crafted plan to make millions of majority voters feel intensely insecure. In this climate created by him, he has made sure that he has emerged as the only saviour who can provide a deep sense of security to fearful millions.

If Modi’s plan proves successful and he wins a clear majority, his and the BJP’s triumphalism will have no bounds.

Jawid Laiq and Bharati Bhargava were on the reporting staff of the Indian Express, Delhi, in the 1970s, including the Emergency years. Both are former assistant editors of the Economic and Political Weekly, EPW.

Make a contribution to Independent Journalism
facebook twitter