If hyperactivity is sometimes a sign of both a desperation to win and a fear of defeat, then Narendra Modi’s frenetic saturation of Varanasi with three days of political rallies and speeches earlier this week reflects the prime minister’s worry that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidates in the constituency face the risk of losing in Uttar Pradesh’s assembly election.
Modi was elected to parliament from the holy Ganges city in 2014, so defeat of the BJP’s five candidates in his constituency would be a bitter blow for a politician who thrives on mass adulation but who has not yet achieved enough during three years as prime minister to be sure that he still has sufficient pulling power with the electorate.
There have of course been plenty of signs of frenzied adulation by crowds of thousands in and around the city of Varanasi during the three days, as I saw on March 7 at Ramnagar (below) on the banks of the Ganges. Modi visited this small village alongside a famous old Mughal fort to make politically charged homage to the memory of Lal Bahadur Shastri, who lived there as a child.
Shastri was briefly a Congress prime minister in the mid-1960s in a rare break from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s domination of the party’s leadership.
Modi’s visit was a neat political swipe against the dynasty but, more importantly, it was also aimed at appealing to upper caste voters – Shastri belonged to the literate and influential Kyastha caste – in a state where such distinctions play a significant role in elections.
For a prime minister to spend three days focused on one city and its surrounding area is rare enough, but Modi also brought in a large number of government ministers (some reports say 25) from Delhi to impress the electorate. Such tactics could easily backfire with voters who have been feeling largely ignored by Modi and his colleagues and could resent such blatantly self-serving attention at election time.
There is widespread disappointment and even anger that Modi has not done more for Varanasi since he became its MP, and that he has not delivered on specific promises. High-profile claims that he would have the Ganges cleaned have failed to produce results, and he has done little to improve the city, which is a center for Hindu pilgrims and tourists from within India and abroad. There has been some improvement in cleanliness on the ghats (steps) along the river bank, and a rather bleak promenade and terrace has been constructed alongside Assi Ghat at the southern end of the city.
A partnership between Varanasi and Kyoto, which was arranged when Modi visited Japan in 2014, has yielded little in the areas of co-operation that were envisaged such as waste and transport management, developing Buddhist tourism, and co-operation between universities.
More was also expected from Modi on initiatives in education and development of Varanasi’s historical spiritual base. Two local social scientists told me that Modi and Shah were more interested in the politics of Hindu nationalism than in promoting Hindu learning, and this is resented locally.
Voting takes place in Varanasi and other nearby areas today (March 8) in the seventh and last stage of the UP Assembly election. Along with four other states, the votes will be counted on March 11, though a prior indication of the possible result will come from exit polls that will be published tomorrow evening or on Thursday.
Big crowds at rallies do not necessarily turn into votes, and they are even more irrelevant as an indicator of the electorate’s intentions if the crowds have been paid and bought in from outside the constituency, as the BJP has been doing in large numbers to build up a picture of support for Modi.
Crowds at a large Modi rally a day earlier were nevertheless said to be smaller than those at a rival event staged by Akhilesh Yadav, the state’s chief minister and leader of the Samajwadi Party, with Rahul Gandhi, heir apparent to the Congress Party’s leadership. The two parties are working together as the main opposition to the BJP.
Victory is important for Modi because it will underline his role and that of Amit Shah, his chief henchman and the BJP’s hardline president, and propel their authority on to the next general election in 2019.
Victory for the Samajwadi and Congress parties would project Yadav as a prominent north India political leader and would also begin to boost Gandhi’s flagging reputation. The two men (above), both in their mid 40s, seem to have worked well as a team during the campaign, building a mutual understanding that could be politically important in the future if both survive. Having Akhilesh as a partner for Gandhi had “revived the whole energy of Congress,” a party official told me.
UP provides a test of whether voters, especially the poor, are still prepared to support Modi, saying that “at least he is trying, which others have not done before”.
That is a refrain heard constantly, especially over Modi’s demonetization project which instantly removed 86 percent of bank notes from circulation on Nov. 8 last year. This hit all strata of society, but the poor do not seem to be complaining because they perceive, wrongly, that the rich and corrupt were hit hard – wrongly because most illicit hoards of bank notes were successfully banked through various fraudulent transactions.
Experts have found it difficult to predict the results in most of the states polled in recent weeks. My best guess for UP is that the BJP will win the most votes overall, though it might not have enough to form a government on its own, in which case the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), headed by Kumari Mayawati, could join it in a coalition. Mayawati has been chief minister of UP four times, the last period being 2007-12.
An experienced Congress politician on my flight back to Delhi said the UP prospects looked evenly balanced, which I took to mean that Congress (with the Samajwadi Party) was not expecting to win. Similarly, a young Congress worker in Varanasi told me he was “hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.”
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. He blogs at www.ridingtheelephant.com.