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8 May 2014, Gateway House

The battle for Benaras & Bihar

Be it Benaras which is gearing up for the most crucial battle between BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and the Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal, or Bihar and U.P. where people are yearning for the ‘Gujarat model’, this election is focusing on some of the substantive issues that impact India

Executive Director, Gateway House

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“From Harishchandra ghat to Dashashwamedh ghat, Bharat ka lahu behta hai,” says a young man as he walks through the gullies above the Benaras ghats.  “We will make Modi win by 7 lakh votes.”

That confident statement – that the blood of India runs through Benares – is certainly true of this Lok Sabha election, where the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and the Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal are facing each other in a hot contest for the holy city’s seat.

Benarasis have never been quite so engaged in an election before – or seen so many non-pilgrims in their midst. Thousands of AAP volunteers and workers of the BJP, Samajwadi Party and Congress party are trawling the streets and talking to housewives, shopkeepers, temple workers and weavers to persuade them about a political belief or philosophy that will make their lives better.

Each party has done its homework, and are learning from each other. For instance, the BJP has drawn up a list of the 20,000 Bengali Benarasis, and nurtured them. Thousands of Gujaratis have come here by train to explain the Gujarat development model in person, and to woo fellow Gujaratis who live in the city.

The lists are endless – and rivals like AAP and Congress have their targets as well. Bengalis, Gujaratis, Dalits, OBCs, Brahmins, traders, scholars, artists, doctors…all of India’s diversity and professionals are fair game. AAP has distributed caps and given a jhadoo (broom) to children to lead gully rallies; the BJP has been quick to follow, distributing saffron caps and Modi masks to children who skip ahead of the karyakartas.

All of this has created the air of a carnival, rather than a Big Bad Election Fight. But of course this isn’t the case. Benares is where the major battle of this election will be fought – between Narendra Modi the established star, and Arvind Kejriwal the upstart.

Who will win in this pilgrim city is not so clear.

But in the rest of India’s two most populist states, the ‘Modi wave’ is unambiguous. His terminology and agenda have set the schema and tone for the election debate which means that instead of fluffy promises and discussions about caste, freebies and family, this election is focusing on some of the substantive issues that impact India.

For example:

* Gujarat’s development model: every candidate decries it but all either use it as a point of comparison or promise to better it. “We will make U.P. better than Gujarat,” promises a feeble Mulayam Singh Yadav from his dais at a rally in Gyanpur in U.P, adding. “And we will use twice as much electricity as Gujarat.” He doesn’t say how. (The youth present are unmoved. They say they will vote for Modi.)

* Youth (18-28 years):  who in Modi’s words at a stopover at Hajipur, Bihar are in the “golden period of life to study, work, marry, earn and dream”. To them, he promises jobs. Bihar’s Laloo Prasad Yadav, who is seeing some resurgence due to the anti-incumbency mood against ruling rival Nitish Kumar, and the fear that Modi invokes in the Muslims, sticks to his old formula for this cohort: caste-based patronage.

The direct impact of Modi on the youth is reflected in reworked political equations. Ram Vilas Paswan, who has a large Muslim support base and ambitions to be the chief minister of Bihar, subsumed his own desire because he was persuaded by son Chirag to join hands with Modi – and be part of the proposed transformation of young India.

* Manners matter: Modi is punctual almost to the second, and is sure to thank people for meeting him under a scorching sun. Rahul Gandhi, Mulayam Singh, Laloo Prasad Yadav – all acknowledge and thank the crowd for enduring the heat to meet their leaders – in sharp contrast to the past when people were bussed in hours before the assigned time and made to stand around for hours until the candidate showed up, without an apology.

Sushil Modi, who was the efficient deputy chief minister under Nitish Kumar before the BJP-JDU ‘divorce’ last year (and who will be the BJP candidate for chief minister when Bihar state elections roll up), says there is a generational change in Modi’s favour.

First, about 25% of Bihar migrates for work; those youth send home stories and experiences of other Indian states which have developed, and yearn for the same. The same holds for the youth of U.P, and for Muslim youth migrating to the Gulf.

Second, the Nitish Kumar-Sushil Modi combine’s decade-long work in Bihar has given people health, roads and an education – visible in the lustrous hair and clear skin of schoolgirls who are eating nutritious mid-day meals and cycling in robust health to school. They now have the luxury to contemplate beyond – to the future.

Consequently, the caste factor is less of a pull. And Modi is a direct beneficiary.  “In Bihar, there has been a crossing of the rubicon,” says Shaibal Gupta of the Asian Development Institute in Patna. “Youth from 18-28 are focused on a job, not on caste. For the first time, caste is not winning.”

Gupta explains the impact two other shifts. A woman’s constituency has emerged in Bihar because of the Nitish Kumar government’s ‘positive discrimination’ towards women, especially in the panchayats. For the first time, the mukhiya as an office-bearer can sign a cheque for local projects. This has been hugely empowering and a factor that could work in Nitish’s favour.

There has also been a strengthening of the state in Bihar – a vote in favour of the ‘Bihar model’ of development, which has been competing with the ‘Gujarat model.’ Gujarat, says Gupta, has the ‘turnover’ model with equal inputs from the state, business and civil society towards development. Bihar is the ‘input model’ where business and civil society are weak, but the state’s engagement is robust and positive – a far cry from the Bihar under Laloo and many other Indian states where the state is non-functional. If Bihar gets the special status it seeks, it will bring in private business, adding another pillar of strength to the model.

Observing elections in Bihar and U.P. shows clearly how India has changed – mostly through increased federalisation and a generational shift towards a more national identity and the desire for a productive future.

Still, many of the problems in these two states are the same as those of their urban counterparts. Like Mumbai, Benares has crumbling infrastructure, with graceful heritage structures propped up precariously by bamboo poles. Problems with water, electricity, bad roads, jobs and corruption are ubiquitous – and people are sick of it.

Rakesh Kumar Verma of Pali, U.P., holds two masters’ degrees – in economics and philosophy- but is forced to run a marginal local jewellery business instead of pursuing a job of his calling. The mills have shut down, and corruption is the norm. He rattles off a rate card of bribes for services.

-To get a loan of Rs. 1 lakh, citizens have to pay the bank loan officer 15%-20% of it as a bribe.

-To get a ‘4th class’ job – like a peon or sweeper – which pays Rs. 10,000 a month, the rate in U.P. is Rs. 5 lakh. And even then it is not guaranteed.

For him, Modi holds out hope for a job. Else, he says, “Hum keedon ki zindagi jee rahen hai. Dabangon ka raj hai yahan. At 42, my life is over.” He likes AAP, but the local candidate was disqualified for filling his form incorrectly, even though he had 37,000 supporters.

Verma sums up the three main political players thus:

Congress/Rahul: 90% of the party is finished, if the rest holds any relevance it is “only because it has been around for 60 years.”

BJP/Modi: For a safe and secure India with a place in the world and jobs at home.

AAP/Kejriwal: To save India from corruption and promote development. “He should sit in the opposition”, says Verma.

People’s needs in life are very simple, says a Benares paanwalla: roads, water, lights – and we’ll do the rest.

It’s the spirited Indian to the fore this election, for sure.

Manjeet Kripalani is the Co-founder and Executive Director of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

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