India goes to the polls in April to elect a new Prime Minister. The BJP candidate, and frontrunner, is seen by supporters as a dynamic man of the people. Opponents say he is little more than a rabid nationalist. What would his victory mean?…
Strategists working for Modi and the BJP know that Uttar Pradesh, the northern State with a population of nearly 200 million that sends 80 representatives to the 545-seat lower house, is critical to the party’s declared aim of securing a majority. This is why Modi went to Meerut, a typical Uttar Pradesh city with typical Uttar Pradesh problems. Though only 50 miles from Delhi, Meerut is a zone of transition. Those who live there are caught between the country and the city, old poverty and new wealth, traditional values and “modernity”, old communities and individual pleasures, fear and hope, scarcity and aspiration. Drive through Meerut and it is clear that much has changed in recent years but little has been completed, other than perhaps a bypass, a mall and a new four-star hotel.
There has been progress in Meerut of course. People are, on the whole, less poor than they were. The local literacy rate has now risen to around 75 per cent, though progress has slowed in the last decade. Due to a preference for sons followed by widespread discrimination in youth and adult life, there were 886 women to every 1,000 men in 2011 – a slight improvement on 2001 when the previous census had been done. There are more power, sewage and water connections and water than a decade ago, though still nowhere near enough. The rate of population growth has slowed, though less than in wealthier and better educated parts of the country. In India, two thirds of the population is under 35.
The coming election will see 150 million first-time voters. In Meerut, the median age is even lower than the national average. There are nowhere near enough jobs. The result in Meerut is very large numbers of young men, on the streets, in the bus station, around the university, outside the Hair Fixing Centre and the IDEA High Speed Internet Store, outside the shabby cinema where posters advertising the latest Bollywood blockbusters peel from mouldering walls. In the mall, open only three months, business is slow. Michael Jackson’s Thriller blasts through the echoing halls. Few locals have 2,000 Rupees (£20) for a pair of jeans on sale in Numero Uno clothes shop. The manager, 25-year-old Mukesh Verma, says he will vote for Modi who, he thinks, “will do something for the new generation” and “make India a strong country again”.
Down in the centre of Meerut, there is much talk of “opportunity”, of “removing corruption”, of “Government jobs”, of national pride. Some travel four hours on overloaded busses every day to Delhi and back to study or work. Others, including graduates, eke a living from intermittent labouring jobs or teach in the unregistered, sub-standard “colleges” that have proliferated on the outskirts of the city. Many simply spend their days “doing timepass”, a word that Oxford University geography Professor Craig Jeffrey, who has done research in Meerut, uses to sum up both the numbing tedium of their lives and their sense of being economically detached and politically disengaged. “This place is stagnant, left behind,” says Archana Sharma, a political science professor at Meerut’s main university. “The poor people now feel it is a question of their own survival. The business community, the middle section of society, are all very worried about security. They want someone who will bring fair, firm administration.”
But there is another dynamic also at work, specific to the town. Talk to people in Meerut about Modi and a divide becomes very obvious, very quickly. In the shopping mall, Javed and Furqan, both 19, say they will vote for Rahul Gandhi. Both are Muslim. “There is tension in the mind about the future otherwise,” Furqan says quietly. In a park, Mohammed and Azaruddin, teenagers working in a local sports goods factory, but spending a Saturday afternoon “doing timepass”, look worried when Modi is mentioned and walk quickly away. In a shabby mosque, Mobeen Ahmed, an Islamic studies teacher, first claims that “communal relations are good and harmonious” in Meerut, then says he has “no idea” what sparked the sectarian violence which killed 64 people a month or so previously just 40 miles to the north. Finally he says that “if Modi could deal out injustice in Gujarat, he could to it as Prime Minister too”.
Even his detractors admit that Modi is a formidable public speaker. In smaller meetings, he varies his tone from the confidential to the triumphant depending on the audience. When he speaks to the crowd in Meerut, his tone is simply angry. “Even now, more than 150 years after the rebellion of 1857, we have to fight for roti [bread] in the houses of the poor. The date of this rebellion is important yet this Government did not see that importance. Congress has forgotten the number of young people who gave their lives for the 1857 rebellion. But we must remember them.” In three sentences Modi has touched on national pride, the anti-colonial struggle, continuing poverty, youth, sacrifice and disappointment. He talks about a key 19th-century reformist Hindu scholar and activist, Dayananda Saraswati, whose message, he says, is relevant today and then turns to Meerut. The town, Modi says, has been left behind.
“Do you get power 24 hours a day? If your mother is unwell can you switch on a fan? If your son has exams can you turn on the light so he can study? When the British were here they saw the people of Meerut as enemies … but your own Government? Why does Meerut not get roads, railways, an airport? What hasMeerut done? What is Meerut’s crime?” Modi thunders. There is a growl of assent from the crowd. “Do you believe your sisters and mothers are safe?” Modi asks. “When your daughter goes out, do you think she will come back and say: ‘Daddy, nobody troubled me’? Terrorists and criminals are rewarded in this State these days. In Meerut, there is a riot all the time. Ten years ago, in Gujarat, there used to be many riots. But now the people of Gujarat know they have to live in peace, to live free from the politics of polarisation. They know they have to take the path of development. And all is calm.”
Another growl, applause, and scattered cheers. And so it continues, for 49 of the scheduled 50 minutes. There are further references to violent crime, to youth unemployment, to the bribes that have to be paid to secure jobs, and then a sudden, ferocious attack on the Congress party. First Modi quotes Rahul Gandhi, who told a recent rally of how his mother, party President, chair of the ruling coalition and widow of an assassinated Prime Minister, had cried as she told him that “power was poison”. “Who has been in power most of these last 60 years?” he asks, building in volume. “If power is poison, who has taken most? Who has a stomach full of poison? Who is vomiting it out now? It is Congress, the party which divides and rules, which pits one religion against another, States against States, which is breaking the country.” “Brothers, sisters,” Modi cries. “Enough poison, enough of the politics of poison. We need the politics of development, so the poor need welfare, the young get jobs, mothers and sisters get respect.” He pauses, then calls out: “Time is running out. Promise me you will change this nation. Clench your fists. Say it with all your might: ‘Vote for India.'” The vast crowd on the outskirts of the troubled city in one of the most troubled parts of the nation do what Modi tells them. They raise their arms, clench their fists in the air and, again and again, come the ragged shouts of “Vote for India”.
One evening, a few days later, Modi makes an appearance at a society wedding reception at a five-star hotel in Delhi’s diplomatic quarter. It is a gathering ofDelhi’s power elite. Cabinet ministers, Chief Ministers, the senior ranks of the BJP, millionaire businessmen, famous academics and newspaper editors have gathered to gossip, eat and drink. Smaller, stouter than he looks on a stage, Modi, avuncular if slightly preoccupied, greets the bride and groom and then makes a slow progress through the guests. He is preceded by a small swarm of backpedalling supplicants. An ambassador introduces himself and his bejewelled wife, insisting that he is “so pleased to meet” him and that his country is “such a dear friend of India”. Modi nods graciously and moves on. There is a brief exchange with a media mogul, and with me. The Meerut rally was a success, he indicates, making an odd gesture, part invocation, part assertion, with a hand pointing heavenwards. He stands with a clutch of middle-aged ladies as pictures are taken, poses for a selfie with a teenager and pats children, slightly uneasily, on the head. Then he excuses himself, turns and strides purposefully through the hotel lobby, trailed by his Gujarati security detail, and disappears into the chill northern Indian night. (Concluded)
– The Guardian