17/03/2017 8:11 PM IST | Updated 18/03/2017 1:39 PM IST

In UP, Many Voters Resolutely Defied Labels And The Rules Of Identity Politics

A Muslim police constable in Lucknow said only Modi could lead the country.

Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters

In the days following the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) stunning victory in Uttar Pradesh, journalists who covered the Assembly polls were asked how they had failed to detect the "Modi wave". Through the course of the long and gruelling months of campaigning, reporters appeared to be under either real or imagined pressure to make predictions about the outcome, largely based on caste and communal arithmetic.

But if there's a lesson to be learnt from the Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, it is this: do not, for a moment, underestimate the Indian electorate's capacity to turn every prediction on its head. If it was difficult to predict a "wave," it was because the electorate was indeed hard to read.

When the results came out and it was clear that Narendra Modi had carried the election, many were quick to conclude that people had once again voted along caste and communal lines. To say that is selling short the UP voter. While it is true political parties campaigned for the 2017 polls along caste and religious lines, there were voters on the ground who refused to play by the rules of identity politics.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Consider the following examples.

A Muslim woman from Bareilly, who is a survivor of triple talaq, expressed her support for the BJP. A BJP loyalist conveyed his dissatisfaction with the development work done by the local BJP candidate.

A student in Bundelkhand questioned why Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav had not done more to improve the quality of education in his village. A father in Ayodhya held that sidelining Mulayam Singh Yadav was a huge mistake, even as his son voiced his faith in Akhilesh as a youth icon.

A Muslim police constable in Lucknow said only Modi could lead the country.

During the course of the mammoth polls, I met people who had voted differently from their families and communities. There were many who were not forthcoming about how they would eventually vote. But the sense of a deeper churning was palpable from talking to people who were expected to opt for the conventional choices but had started weighing their options. And in those moments of introspection, caste and community loyalties turned out to be not their sole considerations.

But the sense of a deeper churning was palpable from talking to people who were expected to opt for the conventional choices but had started weighing their options.

There were many who saw through the BJP's attempts at polarisation. They shrugged at some of the offensive utterances by BJP firebrands, such as Sangeet Som and Yogi Adityanath, dismissing their rhetoric as "drama" and reducing the two leaders to caricatures of themselves rather than hailing them as saviours of Hindutva.

For example, the BJP's highlighting the issue of the triple talaq, the tradition of unilateral oral divorce available to Muslim men, was more important to 23-year-old Nida Khan than any anti-Muslim rant like "love jihad" or "ghar wapsi".

The post-graduate student reasoned that Som and Yogi Adityanath said whatever they did because they were playing to a small group of people "who still believed in such things" and that it was "mostly for show."

"If there is Yogi Adityanath on the Hindu side who divides people, do we not have people like [Asaduddin] Owaisi on the Muslim side?" she said. "Has he not spoken against the Hindus? I think it is all said and done just to get votes."

If there is Yogi Adityanath on the Hindu side who divides people, do we not have people like [Asaduddin] Owaisi on the Muslim side.

In backing the BJP, Khan had broken her family convention of supporting the Samajwadi Party. It did not bother her that the BJP did not field a single Muslim candidate from UP or that there could be a hidden agenda in the background.

"They know Muslims won't vote for them, so why should they put up such candidates?" she said pragmatically. "I'm supporting them because of [their opposition to ] triple talaq."

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A Scene From A Village

It was 9 February, the final day of campaigning for candidates who were contesting in the first phase of elections. Even though he was racing from one village to the next, BJP's firebrand Sangeet Som took out 20-25 minutes for an interview with HuffPost India. In a packed room at Nangal Rathi village in Sardhana district, Som spoke about "love jihad", which, he believed, was "organised crime" involving Muslim men who pretend to be Hindus in order to marry Hindu women.

Within minutes of him leaving with his entourage, the conversation turned to other matters.

SP supporters gathered to express their dissatisfaction with Som's development work over the last few years. That was hardly surprising. But then, they were joined by Tilak Ram Upadhyay, a BJP loyalist, who agreed with them. He praised the work done by SP's local candidate Atul Pradhan. While he had always voted for the BJP, Upadhyay was undecided this time around.

At this point, 50-year-old Rama Bai joined in. She asked why was I not speaking with the women in the village. The BJP loyalist asserted Som had done good work in the village. "Look, toilets are being built here," she pointed out.

Addressing Upadhyay, Rama Bai added that the only reason Pradhan was getting money for development work is because he is close to Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav — a fact that cannot be denied. But Upadhyay retorted, "How does that matter? Who is the sitting MLA here? Who can have more money and power than [Som] to improve things?"

READ: How This Champion Of Hindutva From Gorakhpur Is Calling Out Modi's 'Double Standards' On Secularism

When I tried to steer the conversation back to "love jihad", the villagers said whatever they had heard on the subject was hearsay, and that it was not a problem with them. As I left, Upadhyay and Rama Bai were still arguing over whether Som deserved another chance.

Som eventually won. Not only did he beat Pradhan by 21,625 votes, he also raked in 35,000 more votes than he did in the 2012 Assembly polls.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

A Discerning Voter

There are two factors that have contributed to this shift in ways of thinking.

The first is improved circumstances for some that allows them to think beyond the exigency of their next meal and makes them less prone to sell their vote for food and alcohol. The second is access to multiple sources of information, especially on the Internet, which have made the voter more aware and discerning.

In the three years since Modi made "development" the buzzword of electoral politics, politicians, including himself, cannot get away with vague references to it any longer. Voters now want to know the specifics. They measure up boasts and claims against what they see, hear and are able to verify. They know their candidates better than the latter often imagine.

The leaders that loomed large over this election were Akhilesh Yadav and Modi, who committed themselves to the narrative of clean politics and development. If there was a "Modi wave," it was not born out hero worship or based solely on caste and communal arithmetic. People wanted a good reason to pledge their loyalty and it was Modi who provided it.

Three years after assuming power, the dominant narrative around Modi remains that he is working 24x7 to improve their lives and take the country forward. He is a man of action. In that narrative, which made people feel that someone was out to protect their interests, they were willing to overlook failures, false promises and even set aside the myriad problems they faced due to demonetisation.

Three years after assuming power, the dominant narrative around Modi remains that he is working 24x7 to improve their lives and take the country forward. He is a man of action.

That is what 15-year-old Karn Singh from Chitrakoot had heard from his elder brother about Modi: the prime minister was always working for the country. Modi, he said, was the reason why he had become interested in politics.

The Class X student hails from the same village as Dadua, Bundelkhand's deadliest dacoit. It was interesting to speak with him because he was among the few in the village who was critical of Dadua, a Robin Hood figure, still revered in these marginalised parts of UP.

READ: In This Samajwadi Party Stronghold, Bundelkhand's Deadliest Dacoit Still Rules Hearts And Minds

For Karn, education was the most important issue.The teenager said the then chief minister was talking about development, but he had not yet seen any significant improvement in education. It was only recently, when he travelled to Kota, Rajasthan, that he heard about math and science Olympiads being conducted at international levels.

"There are big science Olympiads but people here don't know about them. Five or six children from our country go for it, we don't get gold, only a few participants win anything. The participants from China and America lead the tally. But even students from our country can win," said Karn.

"When people in the villages get to know of such competitions, they are motivated to try win. But we don't have the information. Teachers don't tell us. If the government informs us about these contests, even we can get many golds," he said.

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The Sunni Guard Of A Shia Cleric

Sharif Ahmed, a police constable like Upadhyay from Nangla Rathi village, sounded undecided.

Ahmed is a Sunni Muslim currently deployed as a guard of Maulana Syed Kalbe Jawad Naqvi, a prominent Shia cleric in the country. He was present in the room with me when the Shia cleric spelt out why he preferred the BJP over the SP-Congress alliance, even though he would ultimately advise his community to vote for Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party. While it is not uncommon to hear Shia Muslims speak in favour of the BJP, such sentiments are rarely echoed by the Sunnis.

READ: The Leader Of The Shia Muslims Praises BJP, Protests The 'Secular Alliance' And Prefers BSP

As we walked down Victoria Street in old Lucknow, the constable volunteered that he was impressed by the Modi government's surgical strikes across the Line of Control last year. When I pointed out that there are BJP leaders who polarise people along religious lines to get votes, he shrugged and asked, "Well, who doesn't do that?"

But it was Modi, not the BJP, that Ahmed liked. "This country needs a strong man at the top if it has to move ahead. It is good to know that someone is thinking about the country all the time," he said.

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