UDUPI, Karnataka — Roopashree Shivananda Nairy, a 34-year-old shopkeeper, would have given her right arm to attend Narendra Modi's election rally in Udupi on Tuesday, but her husband, a policeman, expressly forbade her to battle the crowds with their eight-year-old son.
An hour before Modi descended on the coastal city in Karnataka, Nairy sat in her shop and declared, "Modi is the perfect man."
Grinning broadly, Nairy, a college graduate, ticked off the four things that she admired most about the prime minister: his demonetisation drive, his "style" when representing the country in foreign countries, his speeches, and his work ethic.
"You know Siddaramaiah ate fish and chicken before going to the Shiva temple," Nairy said, referring to the Karnataka chief minister's visit to the Sri Kshetra Dharmasthala Manjunatheshwara temple in Dharmasthala town, last year. "But when Modi went, I heard that he did not even consume water."
After attending to a customer, Nairy continued, "You know when Rahul Gandhi tries to speak in Kannada, he does not care to pronounce the words properly," she said, pausing to imitate the Congress party president and then laughing. "But when Modi speaks in Kannada, he makes sure that the words coming out of his mouth are correct. That shows he cares enough to get it right."
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Nairy said that Modi was the reason that she would vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the high stakes Karnataka state election on May 12.
Modi at the rally
On Tuesday, Modi kicked off the last leg of the BJP's campaign from the coastal belt of Karnataka, a deeply polarised stronghold of the Sangh Parivar. Here, in a landscape dotted with prominent temples, mosques and churches, the battle lines are drawn along religious lines.
The temple town is of special significance to the BJP because its earlier avatar, the Bhartiya Jan Sangh, won the Udupi City Municipal Council election way back in 1968, and they controlled the municipality for over 40 years.
For the thousands gathered at the rally ground of MGM College, the Prime Minister's aura remains undimmed despite four years of policy-missteps, lacklustre governance and unemployment. Much like in Gujarat earlier this year, his personal popularity is the only thing keeping the BJP in this race, and much like in Gujarat, he just might drag them over the line. Modi is set to address a dozen rallies in the four-remaining days of his campaign blitz in the final stretch of BJP's campaign for Karnataka.
Three major pre-poll surveys out so far predict a hung state Assembly with neither party getting the 113 seats needed to form a majority, and the Janata Dal (Secular), an influential regional party led by former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, playing kingmaker in the end.
In March, Gandhi had referred to the JD(S) as the "B-team" of the BJP. On Monday, Gowda threatened to disown his son HD Kumaraswamy if he allied with the BJP.
On Tuesday, as he accused Gandhi of insulting Gowda, Modi appeared to be reaching out to the former prime minister in his speech on Tuesday. Referring to the veteran leader as a "son of the soil," he said, "We have differences of opinion but one should remain civil in public life."
In his speech Modi claimed that over two dozen BJP workers have been killed in Karnataka under the Congress government because of their ideology.
The prime minister repeated the phrase "ease of doing murder," which he had first used in Bangalore, earlier this year. "We want to promote the ease of doing business, but they have encouraged the ease of doing murder," he said.
We want to promote the ease of doing business, but they have encouraged the ease of doing murder.
The past four years has seen a vicious cycle of bloodshed along the coast, with Hindu and Islamic fundamentalist targeting each other in revenge attacks. These murders have fueled polarization along religious lines in the run up to the polls.
While BJP released a list of 23 political murders and accused the Congress of minority appeasement, the state government claimed that only nine had anything to do with religion. The other deaths were caused by personal enmity, accident or suicide. In fact, it turned out that one man on the list, Ashok Poojary, was actually alive.
HuffPost India met a cross-section of people from diehard fans like Nairy to more critical residents of Udupi.
A 65-year-old man working in a printing shop said that he was still waiting for money to reach his Jan Dhan account.
A 45-year-old vegetable seller said, "Politicians come and go but life for the common man remains the same."
A 63-year-old businessman, who was furious about the fallout of demonetization and the Goods and Services Tax on his operations, said, "Tomorrow, if we go to the toilet, we may have to pay GST."
For Shubha Anchan, however, Modi hasn't put one foot wrong since coming to office in 2014. The 42-year-old government employee, said,
"He should definitely get another five years in office."
Walk To A Rally
Anchan, who had decided to brave the heat and the crowd just to see Modi, smiled at a group of children who were chanting, "Modi, Modi."
While making her way to attend her first political rally, Anchan refuted talk of a rise in atrocities against religious minorities since the BJP came to power in 2014.
"No, not at all. Things have been peaceful. There is a sense of safety and security. Has there been a single terrorist attack in the past four years?" she asked.
Anchan, who is from Udupi and works in Mumbai, described how things at her workplace had changed. "Things used to be completely lax when the Congress was in power. People would take long breaks and not bother about work," she said. "Now, people don't even have a minute to stand and waste."
Things have been peaceful. There is a sense of safety and security.
When she finally reached the rally ground, Anchan stood still and exclaimed at the bottleneck at the entrance. "Oh my god," she said.
While Anchan paused for a few minutes, two other women, dressed in saris and donning jewelry, took a deep breath and dove into the crowd.
With Modi's voice already booming in the background, the two housewives, Kalpana Bhaskar, 47, and Saraswati Putra, 42, who had come from out of town just to see Modi, didn't have much time to talk.
Before they disappeared into the sea of humanity, Bhaskar said, "What I like is that he is decisive. Even those who are against his demonetization and GST will soon realize that it is good for the country."
"I think he loves the country, 100 percent," said Putra.
End of a rally
For 18-year-old Bhavna Keremata, the rally ended on a high after she managed to grab a cardboard cutout of Modi, and convinced her friends and family to pose for photographs.
Keremata, a journalism student, who will vote for the first time in the state polls, said that she is voting BJP because of Modi.
"I think he is one of the greatest orators," she said, during the photo session. Her aunt, Pratibha Acharya, 54, chimed in, "It isn't just that he speaks well but also that he connects with the common man."
I think he is one of the greatest orators.
A diehard fan like Nairy, Keremata said that she was most impressed by Modi's announcement that all inhabited villages in India have now been electrified and his government's decision to introduce the death penalty for rapists of girls below the age of 12.
"As a young woman, this is very important to me," she said.
On whether she would change her mind about voting for the BJP if Modi was not involved, Nairy said, "Well, then I would see individual candidates on their merits, but if it was Rahul Gandhi, I would vote for the BJP."
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