Does India’s Hindu Heartland Still Love Modi?
A deeply divided country is about to stage the world's biggest local elections.
VARANASI, India — Saroj Dubey sits by her makeshift stall on the steps leading down to the Ganges, hawking her flower, fruit, and sugar balls to pilgrims coming to the holy city of Varanasi. The stairs to the river, or ghats, are important ritual objects. But she has a different ceremonial spot in mind. “This is where Modi spoke in 2014,” Dubey said, pointing to a marble platform a few yards from her stall, marking the speech made by India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi the day the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the general election by a historic margin.
Indian law lets candidates contest two constituencies as long as they end up representing only one. Modi ran for office in his home state of Gujarat in western India, where he served as chief minister, as well as Varanasi in the far larger northern province of Uttar Pradesh. He won both but chose to retain the latter. Even with his home ties to Gujarat, it was an easy choice. Not only is Uttar Pradesh India’s largest state, eight out of India’s 13 previous prime ministers ran for office from the state and six were born there.
If Uttar Pradesh were a country, it would be the fifth largest in the world in terms of population. With an estimated 220 million people, it is by far the biggest factor in India’s upcoming state elections. Five states are up for grabs, but nearly two-thirds of the contested seats are in Uttar Pradesh.
The state is one of the heartlands of Hinduism, but its electorate is deeply fractured along the lines of caste, class, and religion. Varanasi, about 170 miles south of the state’s capital Lucknow, is steeped in faith and tradition. Philosophers, poets, and performers both Hindu and Muslim have thrived here. For centuries, Hindus have dipped in the holy Ganges to purge their sins. The dead are brought, too, on the promise that their souls will be saved from the constant cycle of rebirth if they are cremated on the river’s bank.
For Modi’s BJP, the election is a critical point. Control of Indian states also determines control of Parliament’s upper house, the Rajya Sabha. If the BJP can take Uttar Pradesh, it would get the upper hand in the Rajya Sabha, where its 54 seats put it behind the rival Congress party’s 59. Uttar Pradesh alone seats 31 of the upper house’s 250 members of Parliament. The state elections factor into the July elections for India’s presidency, a separate position from the prime minister but powerful in its own way.
The elections are widely seen as a referendum on the BJP’s economic policies, including the chaotic but popular demonetarization of the past few months in which 500 and 1,000 rupee bills were abruptly removed from circulation. Almost 86 percent of the Indian currency was taken out of circulation, a move that led to an acute cash crunch across India. “The BJP’s performance in this election will set the tone for the next general election,” said Sanjay Kumar, a political analyst at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, a research group based in Delhi.
That means a referendum on Modi himself. Unlike other political parties that have endorsed their chief ministerial candidates, the BJP has chosen the prime minister as the face of its election campaign in Uttar Pradesh, dwarfing the importance of its local candidates. On the hustings, Modi has been using his charisma and powerful oratory to highlight the BJP’s achievements since he took office.
But the Hindu nationalist party may face a tough road.
“I don’t think Modi is delivering ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas,’” Dubey said of Modi’s election slogan – “Collective Efforts, Inclusive Growth,” one that rings particularly strongly because it comes from a leader who had risen from very humble beginnings
“He may have subsidized cooking gas cylinders for people in villages, but we didn’t receive any benefits here,” she said. Running a household of three children and an aging mother on a monthly income of 5,000 rupees ($75) is a struggle for the 33-year-old widow. The sixth-grade dropout fights hard to make sure that her children attend school.
“I feel we don’t matter. I will not vote for anyone,” she said.
The BJP beat the odds in the national parliamentary elections in Uttar Pradesh. Of the 80 lawmakers the state elected to the 545-member lower house of Parliament, 71 were from the BJP, a rare feat in an era when strong regional parties are playing a crucial role in Indian politics.
The right-wing party is trying hard to repeat its success in the multiphased state election, especially after failing to capture the important assembly votes in Delhi and the eastern Indian state of Bihar in 2015.
The BJP is fighting off three main political rivals — the Samajwadi Party, which runs the state government; the Indian National Congress, the leading national opposition party that has formed a pre-poll alliance with the Samajwadi Party, dividing seats among themselves and not running candidates against one another; and the Bahujan Samaj Party, which largely represents India’s lowest castes.
The importance of Uttar Pradesh in the rise of the BJP cannot be understated. It was here in 1992 that Hindu mobs led by the BJP and its affiliates tore down the 16th-century Babri Masjid, the “mosque of Babur,” in the temple town of Ayodhya, unleashing deadly sectarian clashes between Hindus and Muslims. The movement to build a temple to the Hindu god Ram helped the BJP thrive on the back of a wave of Hindu nationalism.
Badri Das, 60, has been a sadhu, an itinerant ascetic holy man, in Varanasi for decades. But during these hard times, he makes ends meet as a rickshaw puller. He belongs to the Yadav community, a backward caste in the pecking order created by the Hindu caste system, which has traditionally supported the Samajwadi Party.
“Akhilesh has given sops to people. I didn’t receive any, but I will still vote for him,” Das said of the Samajwadi’s Akhilesh Yadav, 43, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
It is common practice to woo voters in India with freebies before an election. Smartphones, laptops, spice grinders, and loan waivers have been on the list in recent times.
“People in my village say the wind is blowing in Akhilesh’s direction,” said the saffron-clad Das.
There is a popular misperception among people in Varanasi that the prime minister inks every local policy measure in his home constituency.
“Modi has done some good things, some bad,” Das said. He criticized a ban on the Hindu practice of idol immersion in the Ganges, saying that Modi should not tamper with tradition. He was unaware that a court had ordered the ban to check pollution in the sacred river.
The local economy of this pilgrim town is driven by how well Hindu religion and culture can be packaged and sold to the faithful or the curious Westerner. From roadside vendors selling religious souvenirs; astrologers drawing birth charts; god men with dreadlocks and beads around their necks, often posing for cameras; priests performing prayers for some rite of passage; or boatmen offering rides along the ghats, there is always someone trying to share a piece of Varanasi’s heritage.
But even as buffaloes and dogs lurk on the ghats, and humans bathe, defecate, wash clothes, and cremate the dead there, locals say the riverfront is being maintained better since Varanasi voted for Modi.
Trash cans, toilets, changing rooms, and drinking water faucets have been installed at some of the 80-plus ghats, which are visited by a steady stream of Indian and international tourists. Men and women in fluorescent green vests can be seen sweeping, removing plastics, garlands, and other pollutants floating along the river.
Vinod Bharti and his wife earn 12,000 rupees ($180) a month as sweepers, thanks to the cleanliness drive launched in Varanasi by the prime minister, who wants to develop it into a “smart city” along the lines of the ancient Japanese capital and popular pilgrimage site Kyoto.
“Earlier we supported Mayawati. Now I will vote for Modi,” said Bharti of the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh who heads the Bahujan Samaj Party. Mayawati is hailed as a champion of the dalits (once known in the West as the “untouchables”), the lowest rung in Hindu caste hierarchy and often the subject of fierce discrimination.
For the state’s besieged Muslim minority, however, Modi’s promises mean little. Haji Zameer, 46, a small-business owner in Varanasi, is one of India’s more than 172 million Muslims. He votes for the Congress party in the general elections and the Samajwadi Party in the state elections because he thinks leaders from these parties listen to Muslims like himself.
“BJP leaders know Muslims won’t vote for them, so they just pay lip service,” Zameer said. “Muslims and the BJP have never liked each other. Not a single one of BJP’s 403 candidates is Muslim.”
“Modi lacks the class that other national leaders have had. He was a tea seller, and his outlook reflects that mentality,” he added.
The BJP won the popular mandate of the Hindu middle class by offering an alternative to the dynastic rule of the Congress party, which it claimed was corrupt and elitist. But as it conjured up enough Hindu votes to triumph, it left Muslims and other minorities even more fearful of a newly empowered populism. If it can ride the same formula to success in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere, it may deepen already-bitter communal divides.
Photo Credit: RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Image