Facing a Sullen Electorate, Modi's BJP Splashes Money and Muscle, in Purvanchal

Written by Teesta Setalvad | Published on: March 3, 2017
Varanasi, Kashi, spiritual fountainhead as also a hub of business and trade will vote on March 8. Jittery with a sullen electorate Modi has despatched 75 percent of the Government of India's cabinet ministers to somehow snatch victory from the jaws of possible defeat. There are eight assembly seats with Modi's Parliamentary constituency, three urban and five rural.

Narendra Modi
Image: India Today

In 2014, this city that also symbolises India's unique synthesis of different faiths had gifted Modi a historic win with a landslide margin. Today with eight assembly seats within the vast parliamentary segment, Modi's party the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) faces the possibility of a rout. At best, due to the division in the 'secular' vote, the BJP may sneak in winning two of the eight seats. But in no part of this city that is the hub of trade, commerce and business apart from being a spiritual centre to millions, do voters have any good things to say for Modi or the BJP.

There is more than a niggling feeling of betrayal as the city, whose MP is the Prime Minister of 2017 India, grapples with potholed roads, chaotic traffic, collapsing sewerage and mountains of garbage. Given to irrational hyperbole, Modi had sworn to transform Varanasi into Japan’s ancient city of Kyoto. Today high pollution and dust and a crippled informal cash economy thanks to the disastrous move towards demonetisation, threaten to seriously dent Modi's electoral appeal, come counting day.
It is among the BJP's own supporters, the trading and business classes that there is a seething undercurrent of restlessness and anger.  One way or another, this segment will make it's displeasure felt. Traders feel doubly cheated after 30,000odd traders received income-tax notices regarding their bank deposits since November 8. A leading trader who has never hitherto strayed away from the saffron fold maintains that rage has grown and firmed into a consensus that the BJP must be punished for turning on its core constituency in such a savage manner.

A close look at the three urban dominated seats within Varanasi is telling. All three have a significant and pre-ponderance of Muslim Votes. In 2012, the prestigious city's Cantonent seat saw a tussle between two heavyweights from the powerful Kayastha caste, Jyotsana Srivastava (BJP) who polled 57,918 votes and Anil Srivastava (INC) who polled 45066 votes with the former winning with a 12,852 vote margin. SP's Ashfaq Ahmad (alias Dablu) was the spoiler leeching away 37,922 votes and Chandra Kumar Mishra (alias Guddu Maharaj) of the BSP also getting 22162 votes. Clearly it was only the 'secular spoilers' that ensured a BJP win here.

In 2017, again Anil Srivastava fights to wrench victory. BJP has chosen to give the ticket to Jyotsana Sivastava's son, even as in nearby Dakshini (Varanasi south) many times elected Shyam Dada Choudhary was not only humiliated by the Modi-Shah combine but his son was not accomodated either. Anil Srivastava of the Congress faces yet again a 'secular spolier' in the face of Rizwan Ahmad of the BSP, otherwise a newcomer. It is only if Muslims drift towards him that Srivastava's win could prove tricky.

Coming to Varanasi south, a grand, Bihar like alliance that contained division of Muslim votes would have surely meant a BJP defeat. Here too Modi-Shah's preferred  candidate, a Brahmin, Neelkanth Tiwari is weak with dubious links. The SP-Congress alliance has fielded a former MP, Rajesh Mishra who is facing a stiff challenge from a robust newcomer from the BSP, Rakesh Tripathi. Tripathi brings a solid Dalit-Dhobhi-Malha vote base to the table and working as he has been for the past six months has also been able to garner much of the anger against the BJP. (In 2012, BJP's veteran Shyamdev Roy Chaudhari (Dada) had polled 57,868 votes while Dayashankar (Dayalu) Mishra had won 44046 when he contested the seat for the INC. Two Muslim candidates, Athar Jamal Lari for the QED (Quami Ekta Dal) and Mohammad Istaqbal for the SP had won 20,454 and 14642 votes respectively.

That leaves, Uttari, ie the Varanasi North seat. Here is 2012 Ravindra Jaiswal had beaten BSP's Sujit Kumar Maurya by a narrow margin of 2336 votes. Then too, two Muslim candidates, Abdul Samad (SP) had drawn 37,434 votes whle another Rabia Kalam from the INC had polled 31,029 votes. Today, Maurya is in the reckoning again, likely to win if he can attract even a miniscule percentage of the Muslim vote. The other contender is Samad Ansari, who threatens again to split the vote.

As far as the five rural seats within Varanasi are concerned, Ajgara,Shivpur, Rohaniya, Sevapuri and Pindra, there are fairly high chances that none of these five will go to the BJP. In three at least, Ajgara and Shivpur the BSP candidate is strong while in Pindra Ajay Rai of the Congress is on a winning wicket.

A total of 14.05 crores of voters will have cast their vote and this crucial election will determine or assess how much the popularity of Narendra Modi, India's prime minister still holds. An autocratic and shrill campaigner, Modi is used to his larger than life image being sustained by frenzied crowds. These have been missing during the UP election campaign that began in the western end of the state and moved to the east where the last two phases are now due.

Six months after Modi swept to power in Delhi in May 2014, he and his party faced the first humiliating defeat during the state assembly elections to the state capital, New Delhi in February 2015. Of the 70 seats to the assembly, the BJP won only three, with the new and radical Aam Aadmi Party sweeping to power humiliating the older Indian political party, the Indian National Congress. Then again  in November 2015, Bihar, another politically crucial state defeated Modi's designs of complete and autocratic control of both houses of the Indian Parliament by unequivocally voting for a Grand Alliance against the BJP.

As the penultimate rounds of the state's elections draw near, money and muscle power are being used by the BJP to turn the tide in his favour. Local newspapers have sarcastically commented on the fact that 75 per cent of the Government of India's cabinet is presently camping in the holy city of Varanasi to somehow ensure that Modi is not humiliated in his own backyard.

Poor performance and pathetic levels of accountability have marked Modi's band of parliamentarians voted to power in 2014.  Despite winning the UP 2014 elections on the 'development plank', BJP's members of parliament failed to spend the mandatory government funds --a whopping Rs 333.6 crores earmarked to better facilities, education, health etc in their own constituencies. Modi's party had won 73 o the 80 seats to the Lower House of the Indian Parliament, the Lok Sabha. Within this overall failure to deliver, the party and it's representatives were especially tardy in those 33 Lok Sabha seats that have both Dalits and Muslims in sizeable number. (While Rs 71 crore remained unspent in 17 Dalit-dominated constituencies, over Rs 64 crore could not be spent in 16 other constituencies where Muslims account for more than 20 percent of the population).

Brazen about this non-performance, the BJP is still ahead, beating all political parties in splashing ads on TV, radio and print; spends over Rs 150 cr in Goa, Punjab, and UP. Quoting data from AdEx India, a division of TAM Media Research, The Economic Times reports that the BJP’s share in the overall ad insertions across the three mediums was as high as 59% in the three states between November last year till February 4, 2017.  The saffron party has reportedly spent more than Rs 150 crore on advertising during state elections. Interestingly, the next three parties — Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Congress — put together did not spend half of BJP’s advertising share. SP’s share was at 13%, BSP’s at 12%, and Congress’ entire political campaign saw ad insertions of close to 4%.A total of 27,133 ads were aired on TV channels, while 11,722 ad spots were played on radio and 2,797 ads inserted in the print media in the month of January this year.

Before that, November saw some action with 5,754 ads insertion across TV channels, 3,212 across radio and 1,092 across print. In December, political advertising also dipped after demonetisation.

When it comes to individual states, BJP’s advertising share in Uttar Pradesh was at 69%, followed by SP’s 17%, BSP’s 12% while Lokdal and Congress at 1% each.

Will money and muscle penetrate through the fog of despair and disappointment that dominates the voter's mood in Varanasi? A week from today we will have the answers.