By Sanjeev Kumar & Raushan Kumar Sharma
Election Rallies by Political heavyweights have become a popular medium to showcase the strength of one’s support base. The people who join those events come with several ideas and different perspectives about democracy and electoral preferences. To find out the sense of electoral democracy of the people attending such rallies, we decided to start with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally (Vijay Sankhnad Rally) at Shatabdi ground, Meerut, on 4th February, 2017. Although the rally was scheduled at 11:30 AM, it got started around 2:00 PM.
After reaching Meerut bypass, we were rather clueless about the exact location of the Shatabdi Maidan (ground). However, after wandering for few minutes, fortunately, we saw buses partially loaded (mostly half-filled) with people wearing saffron Caps imprinted with the Lotus symbol of the BJP, few people sitting inside the buses were waving party flags through the windows and the buses had official flags flying independently at their top.
We felt relaxed and started following the buses. After reaching the venue we parked our vehicle outside the ground (10 minutes walking distance) and walked with the crowd which were brought by the local leaders from different constituencies such as Hastinapur, Mawana, Ganganagar, Ghaziabad, Hapur, Kathor Baghpat and Modinagar, etc. The crowd approaching the ground was a collective of small groups from different villages. People were strolling steadily and chanting the slogan ‘Modi jindabad’ and ‘Modi-Modi’. Interestingly, seldom many groups shouted slogans for local leaders, especially, the constituency representatives.
Randomly, we started talking to a 60-year-old man from Bhisari village, South Meerut constituency. He belonged to the OBC category and was politically active in his village and had contested the Panchayat level election way back in 1984. He claimed that he was a Congress supporter for long but later so as to save Hinduism, he voted for Modi in 2014. The major reason behind his change of party line was the Hindu-Muslim conflict in the region. For him, democracy was nothing but the safety of Hindus and he believed that Modi could ensure that. On being inquired about how he reached the venue, he said that he had come with the local BJP leaders who had arranged a bus service for the people participating in the rally.
Crowd at the Rally: Claim-Reality Mismatch
We expected that there would be a heavy gathering and finding a place for ourselves in the rally would be a problem as that was our usual experience while covering rallies of tall leaders, but we failed to notice the large crowd. What was also interesting was the missing enthusiasm among the crowd gathered to see Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Interestingly, the neutral observers within the crowd were unimpressed with the numbers; however, the BJP supporters were claiming it to be the biggest crowd of this phase in Meerut.
As the P.M. was yet to arrive, the local leaders from the respective constituencies and villages were scrambling to win the attention of the superior leaders by highlighting their crowd contribution. In the meanwhile, a party worker explained that about 19 candidates of the region had been assigned to bring as many people as possible. Another interesting thing that caught our attention was the organizers ‘continuous persuasion of the crowd by invoking Hindu identity besides the law and order issues.
Amusingly, looking from the last row, the Rally reflected a filled crowd, but on entering inside the fences, we found that people were standing at the bamboo railings and chairs which had actually covered the vacant spaces giving the otherwise impression. Furthermore, another shocking observation was the presence of only a handful of women despite Modi’s popularity among the half population; thanks to several of his pro-women schemes like Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY), Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Scheme, etc. Also, despite trying hard, we couldn’t find a single Muslim so as to get the minority perspective. This clearly shows that BJP and Modi don’t exist into the Minority’s scheme of things.
Interaction with People
Our interaction with the people provided interesting insights not only about their preferences but also their idea on democracy, at large. Based on our limited interactions, we figured out four varieties of people. First, the hardcore BJP and Modi supporters from Jat and upper caste categories; second, local Dalit leaders as BJP supporter; third, Dalit people’s momentary support to BJP, however, their reluctance to express actual intention; and fourth, Dalits who came with local Dalit leaders to see Modi but were determined to vote for Mayawati. A brief description of our interactions with the abovementioned categories is as under.
Jat and Upper Caste: Modi for the Protection of Hindus
Jats, Kayashta, Tyagi and others gathered at the rally were very much vocal about their support to Modi and had hatred against Muslims. On Dalits’ preference to BJP, they gave general statements that dalits are clearly with Modi though some may go with Mayawati. But upper castes will certainly vote for Modi, there is no doubt about it. Sumit Tomar and Omprakash, Jats from Budhana constituency each having 50 acres of land, were involved in Sugarcane farming. They were clear that just 2 months before election Akhilesh released money to the farmers who cultivated sugarcane. They believed that there was a probability that Akhilesh under Modi’s pressure had done so. They opined that Modi has been the most important leader who could save Hindus and bring development. For them, in entire western UP, security of Hindus was the only issue of election.
Accusing the Akhilesh government for inciting communal riot and helping Muslims only, Sumit said, “Akhilesh ne to 2-2 lakh musalmano ko bante hain aur hinduo ki to iski sarkar me koi puchh hi nahi hai” (Akhilesh has distributed 2-2 lakhs to the Muslims and no one is caring about Hindus.) He further explained that “Bhai, tu muslim ilake me chala ja waha hinduo ki halat dekh le, dange ke samay hinduo ko kaise kata gaya tha, aaj bhi hamari ladkiya Muslim ilake me jane se surakshit nahi hai....” (Brother, you go to the Muslim dominated areas, and see the conditions of Hindus there, at the time of communal riot Hindus were butchered, even these days Hindu girls are not safe in Muslim dominated areas.) In short, they reflected that just because of Modi, there were no more communal riots in the region and Muslims were silent. If Akhilesh’s government came, which was impossible, then again Hindu’s lives would be in danger. Demonetisation had not affected their farming, they were happy with it because people with kala dhan (Black Money) were suffering. Largely, for these Young farmers, democracy meant only Modi’s government and a government which could save Hindus. Democracy for them was bringing a good government which meant Modi’s government.
Jayveer Singh, another Jat from Hastinapur, who was a BJP sympathiser, said that we have land, bijli (electricity) and what not; we only need leaders to come to people and meet them. Although he was a BJP supporter, he said that he would go with the local constituency leader. In other words, he could not vote for anyone from BJP despite being a supporter of Modi. Coincidentally, the BJP candidate was of his preference, therefore, he would vote for BJP this time. Had this candidate been denied ticket, he could have decided to vote for other leaders. Interestingly, earlier he was the supporter of Lok Dal and Choudhary Charan Singh, but he would not support his son Ajit singh. Elaborating on this, he said, “Ajit singh bina pendi ka lota hai, usko kaun vote dega. Charan singh hote to sabhi kisan unke sath jata.” (Ajit Singh has no credibility, who will vote for him. Had Charan Singh been alive, all farmers across the community would have gone with him).
Another strong support for Modi came from a very vocal Jansevak, Rakesh Aggarwal (who also called himself Mangal Pandey). He said, “Hindu ko anek bahgo me baant diya hai aur Muslim ek hain, isi karan Hindu ko sangathit hokar Modiji ko jitana hai...Modi ji jab se aaye hain Hindu ko security mila hai...Kashmir me bhi Jawan kasht kaatate hain note bandi se kuch din logo ko agar dikkat ho gai to kaun si badi baat ho gai...Modi ji ko chunana deshhit me hai... aur pura UP Modi ji ke sath hai” (Hindu has been divided into several factions, but Muslims are united...because of this Hindu has to unite and ensure Modiji’s win...The moment Modiji has come to power Hindu has got security...In Kashmir also, our soldiers are facing difficulties, what if common man suffered a bit..It is in the national interest to let Modiji win...and entire UP is with Modiji). Interestingly, when we asked that who has divided Hindus, then he said political leaders. We asked political leaders from which party then he said all. Then we asked what about BJP then he smiled and said, “Aap khud samajh Jao.” (You’re smart enough to understand the obvious.). For him also, democracy was synonymous to Modi.
Jatav at Rally: For Mayawati or Modi?
Prime Minister was yet to arrive, the people wearing saffron caps were roaming here and there. We randomly talked to two persons of Jatav caste from Ganganagar; one SP, (name changed) and another JP (name changed). JP, aged 30 years, worked as a carpenter and was a BJP member for four years. He said, he chose BJP to save Hindus. Though he did not find any Hindu-Muslim polarisation, but BJP stands for Hindu. He said that this party was good because the party has arranged 8-9 buses for each block in Meerut for taking people to the ground and there was no issue of food and safety. Interestingly, his close companion from his own caste and village, SP initially said that he also supported BJP. But within 5 minutes he backtracked and said that he had just come to see Prime Minister Modi. He was watching the P.M. for the first time, so it was less a matter of enthusiasm than a sheer curiosity.
In his interview, SP clearly said that being a Jatav he was a follower of Babasaheb Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram’s ideology and certainly vote for Behanji (Mayawati). He had come there just to see Modi on his friend JP’s persuasion. SP also indicated that at the time of polling he would try to convince JP to vote for Behanji and JP would surely get convinced. SP also said that other Jatavs who had come to the rally because of the local leaders were mainly interested in seeing Modi and all shall vote for Behanji because they connect to Behanji’s party.
In another interesting instance, a Jatav group that came from Hapur was reluctant to speak about their voting preferences. They were with their village Pradhan who was from the same Jatav community. In our informal talk, they said that they won’t divulge about their voting preference and would prefer to maintain the secrecy in this regard. In contrast to the fixed voter of BJP from the upper caste background who were clear about their choice of BJP, the Jatav from Hapur were reluctant.
However, when we asked who is better in leadership and who will become the Chief Minister, then they said that Behanji is the leader of Dalit community and there is a chance of her becoming the Chief Minister. But when asked, if Behanji is going to become the Chief Minister, then why have you come here and for what purpose? In response, they said that they had come to see Modi and since they had worn saffron caps they would vote for Modi (however, the responses were not steadfast and reluctance on the part of the respondents was quite visible).
We certainly observed that people gathered at the rally had mostly come from the adjacent constituencies, with very few local voters. Broadly, the crowd consisted of two kinds of people – one consisted of the staunch BJP supporters coming from the upper caste background and the other of Dalits who made it clear that their arrival at the rally should not be construed as their natural liking and eventual voting for the BJP.
Jatav local Leader as BJP Supporter
In connection to the above scenario, the Dalit Pradhan of Jatav caste from Hapur reflected on his party line definition of democracy. He was very critical of Mayawati because she had given tickets to Muslim and in his opinion, only BJP could save the Hindu people in the area. Further, he lamented that Akhilesh led Samajwadi Party for its notorious record regarding law and order, corruption and casteism. Modi, for Pradhan, had done a lot for the nation besides giving security to the Hindus. For him, demonetisation had really helped the poor and the businessmen. Moreover, he was of the view that Modi could bring a real change and development in Uttar Pradesh. In a nutshell, for him, Democracy is identical to Modi.
Communication with him revealed that the local Dalit leader who happened to be an official member of BJP certainly spoke the language of the party. For the Pradhan, Modi and democracy might be the same, but for the people accompanying him democracy meant much more than rhetoric and personality cult. Our interactions with different sections of people revealed that Modi’s charisma of 2014 was mostly missing. Also, he had to toil hard to connect to the masses, which was otherwise considered a USP of Modi.
Several reasoning could be cited in this regard. Firstly, unlike the 2014 general elections, Modi was now being judged by his three years’ works and not the promises. Secondly, the polarisation of the kind of 2014 was also not there. Moreover, absence of a credible UP face was another problem that had the potential to hurt the BJP’s interests. Collectively, these very factors posed an incredible challenge to the political acumen of Modi. Therefore, it seemed very difficult for BJP to repeat the stellar performance of the scale of the last general elections in this first phase of UP Assembly election where BJP is understood to be a strong player.
To conclude, it could be said that barring the upper caste voters, the Dalits with whom we interacted were more interested in seeing Modi than putting their weight behind him. Some Dalits explicitly talked about their voting preferences (their support for Mayawati), however, majority of them kept it to themselves. Therefore, it becomes crystal clear that these voters have developed their own understanding of democracy. What is noteworthy in this context is that these folks are wise enough to understand the importance of the secrecy of ballots. Their uncompromising stance vis-a-vis this cherished electoral practice and the increasing awareness augurs well for the Indian democracy.