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Narendra Modi's star rising in eastern Uttar Pradesh, but is that enough to win state?

Tuesday, 11 March 2014 - 7:15am IST | Place: New Delhi | Agency: dna

The winds are blowing in a different direction in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

A resurrection of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to be in the offing. Down to 10 seats in the last Lok Sabha elections, the BJP is claiming and reclaiming ground; holding on to traditional loyalist supporters and making new converts. Its rising fortunes though are attributed not to its organisation but its sole mascot — three-time Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.

Yet, UP's intricate arithmetic, routed through castes/sub-castes and religious communities remain complicated enough to warrant caution — at least in making sweeping seat predictions about this politically crucial state. At least two communities — UP's 21% Dalit and 15% Muslim population — continue to resist the Modi spell. Despite their reservations, Dalits, by and large, swear by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), while Muslims in every constituency are swotting over strategies to spoil Modi's onward march in their state.

On the ground BJP workers are upbeat and its party offices hum with activity. Bypassing Modi in conversations, be it at roadside tea stalls or on the premises of research institutions, is indeed difficult. Yet several riders come with the new Modi phenomenon. An all-powerful Modi, subsuming his own party, may not be in the best interests of the BJP. The Gujarat chief minister's ruthless elimination of party rivals like Keshubhai Patel and Shanker Singh Vaghela are part of Modi lore. But neither the BJP nor the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are losing sleep over such inimical tendencies. At least not for now.

That Modi has surpassed his party in popularity ratings is not in contention any longer. "Its Modi who matters, not the BJP," says taxi driver Bijendra Tewari in Allahabad. Ironically, it's precisely Modi's larger-than-party image that rankled the RSS in the past. But now, the Sangh is busy mobilising support for their prime ministerial candidate. After waiting it out in the cold for a decade, they now want their own government at the Centre.

RSS member Prof GC Tripathi, who teaches economics at Allahabad University, sounds a note of caution. "It's not as simple as the BJP visualises it to be. The fabric of caste in Uttar Pradesh is still strong with Samajwadi Party politics in dominance," says Prof Tripathi. At the same time, there's no denying that the Modi impact routed through the Gujarat development model and Hindu consciousness is working on the ground. "Hindutva does have its effect on the people here. Modi represents Hindu consciousness. But finally a combination of several factors will decide the fate of each political party in the reckoning."

Interestingly, the RSS doesn't regard Modi either as a great visionary or an economic expert. "His charm lies in providing good governance," says Prof Tripathi. What he means by "good governance" though is not innovative policy-making. At variance with RSS credo, Modi, has implemented the principles of the existing global economic order, Prof Tripathi claims. While the RSS is against replicating the US-dictated development model, Modi has endorsed that very same model in his state. Rewind to the tenure of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government when the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an RSS outfit, often took to the streets to protest liberalisation policies of their own government.

According to Prof Tripathi, where the BJP's prime ministerial hopeful scores above most other regional counterparts is in putting in place governance systems — moving files, providing an efficient administration. Not a tall order, but as one travels across eastern UP, the sheer absence of even basic systems stare you in the face.

"We find the Gujarat government to be good. Lots of migrant workers from UP are earning a living in Gujarat. Things are good there — work gets done," says Omkar, a Dalit in Kaushambi, 50 km from Allahabad. But despite the praises, when push comes to shove, Omkar will vote Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Such complicated trajectories tend to make UP's electoral calculations go awry. Modi, no doubt, has made an impression on the poorest of the poor. But how or whether that effect will translate into the anticipated number of electoral seats is still debatable.

Well-known Modi critic, Prof Badri Narayan at Allahabad's GB Pant Social Science Institute says, "Neither the Congress nor the media is able to counter the Modi phenomenon. Where Manmohan Singh doesn't speak and Sonia Gandhi doesn't communicate in Hindi, Modi — the skilled orator that he is in Hindi — successfully uses local myths and idioms to spread his word."

But its not merely language skills that are propelling Modi to centrestage. Sustained advocacy of Gujarat's governance model is drawing people to him. Little does it matter that those singing praises of this Gujarat model are blissfully ignorant about the model itself.

"Modi has been successful in selling Gujarat as an aspirational model," says Prof Narayan. In the course of his research among the migrant populations in eastern UP, the academic noted how migrants returning to UP from Gujarat, were shifting their loyalty to Modi. Sociologically, upwardly mobile communities have been known to leverage different channels to gain social respectability. "In this process, caste has proven to be a more powerful conduit than religion," says Prof Narayan. Will Modi manage to breach UP's electoral caste paradigm this time?

The last word is yet to be pronounced. According to Tripathi, the BJP needs to adopt a calibrated strategy to cash in on Modi's rising popularity. The winning formula is based on three elements: 50% on choice of candidates, 30% on Modi factor and 20% on booth management. Not an easy formula to implement.

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