At ground zero in India’s election heartland


The best barometer for public opinion in any new city is the local taxi-driver. Opinionated, blunt and matter-of-fact, they have the ears on the ground more than most high-profile political analysts.

On the long trip from the airport to the Delhi suburb of Noida this week, the taxi driver was determined to make Narendra Modi win (“Hum to Modijiko hi jitayenge) in India’s general elections to be held in seven phases from 11-19 April.

Under Modi, the streets were cleaner, the roads better, he said, adding that he had 24-hour water supply and the quality of government schools had improved.

But didn’t Modi’s demonetising of high denomination notes create a crisis? Yes, but the hardships were justifiable because it was designed to flush out black money, he said. Even so, the driver felt Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Adami Party (AAP) would retain its rule in the Delhi region.

The summer heat is building up in India’s capital, and adding to it is the election fever. India still struggles with poverty, joblessness, farmer suicides, and intolerance, and Modi’s strategy appears to be to make Indians forget about these problems and reap patriotic mileage from the recent confrontation with Pakistan, and the test of an anti-satellite missile.    

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“People who tried to raise issues related to the discrimination of Dalits, the plight of farmers and women have been silenced,” says Delhi-based academic Jhanvi Andharia. The independent National Autonomous Women’s Movement of India has called for a Women’s March on 4 April to ‘Vote for a Change’ against caste and gender-based discrimination as well as hate speech.

Voices of dissent have been systematically silenced. Journalist Gauri Lankesh was killed last year, raising concern about the safety of whistle-blowers. Activists like Sudha Bhardwaj, Shoma Sen and many others have been imprisoned because they raised the issue of corruption. However, most liberal analysts themselves predicted that Narendra Modi was headed for a second term as prime minister.

A woman at a photo framing business in Noida is disillusioned with the opposition Congress Party for letting corruption thrive, and lacking strong leadership. Modi’s strategy of identifying himself with the common Indian seems to be working.

As in the previous campaign four years ago, he has kept reminding voters about his tea seller (chai wala) origins, and this time has described himself a ‘chowkidar’ (gatekeeper) of India. However much the Congress has tried to use alleged kickbacks in a deal to buy French fighter jets, the public perception of Modi is of a clean, nationalist leader.

A post graduate student in development studies who wanted to be identified only by his first name, Himanshu, predicted that Modi’s BJP would win, but with a slimmer margin. He said that the rural poor supported the BJP due to national schemes like the ujwala yojana.  

Another student, Shreya, described Modi as “a man of discipline”, adding that it did not matter to her that he is implicated in riots in Gujarat in 2002 in which more than a thousand people, mostly Muslims, were killed.   

Narendra Modi's BJP has been using social media very actively during the election campaign.

Vijaya, another student from Hyderabad, said that she was not interested in politics but liked Modi as the prime minister because of his presence on social media and his monthly radio program.

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Abhishek, 28, has a masters in education who had to become a Uber driver just to support his family.  He is so disillusioned with political leaders of all parties, that he is not going to bother to vote. He rues the fact that Indian voters seem to be swayed by populist nationalism.

Interviews with a cross section of grassroots and academic, rural and urban Indians this week indicate that Modi’s BJP is headed to a second term, but mainly because there is a lack of alternative leadership in the opposition. Ironically, radical Hindu-right supporters are angry that Modi has not fulfilled his promise to build a temple at Ayodhya to replace a mosque demolished by Hindu protesters in 1992.

Modi himself appears to have got a lot of mileage from the Kumbh Mela, from appearing to stand up to Pakistan, and from his investment in infrastructure. In fact, it is difficult not to move around northern India these days without the bearded visage of Narendra Modi staring down from billboards along highways and at railway stations and airports.

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