The following statistical nuggets should help to capture the superhuman size of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s victory in Uttar Pradesh.
In the 1984 Lok Sabha election, the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress won 83 of 85 seats from U.P. for a phenomenal vote share of 51%. However, in the subsequent Assembly election to U.P., the Congress’s share of seats and votes dropped to 269 of 425 and 39.25%, respectively.
In the 1991 Lok Sabha election, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), then riding the Ram temple wave, won 51 seats from U.P., polling 32.82%. The party continued its winning streak in the Lok Sabha, getting 52 seats for 33.44% in 1996 and 57 seats for 36.49% in 1998. The BJP’s victory run ended eight years later in 1999 when its share of seats and votes dropped to 29 and 27.64%, respectively.
Yet it was a different picture in the Assembly elections. In the 1991 Assembly election, the BJP won 221 seats for a vote share of 31.45%. But this was a one-off performance. The BJP lost all five Assembly elections held between 1993 and 2012. Importantly, it lost the elections of 1993 and 1996 at a time when it held a majority of seats from the State in the Lok Sabha. The 1993 loss was particularly noteworthy because that election was held in the backdrop of the December 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid, which was thought to have placed the Hindutva-inspired BJP in an unassailable position. Logic dictated that the BJP should have benefited from the post-Babri Masjid Hindu consolidation. However, the party was stopped in its tracks in the Assembly by the emergence of the identity-based Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP) as powerful regional players.
What these figures establish is that in U.P, as perhaps elsewhere, there is often a mismatch between the Lok Sabha and Assembly election performances of parties primarily because the Assembly field gets queered — both by factors locally unique and relevant and by the stronger presence of regional actors.
Rajiv Gandhi who was unstoppable in 1984 was forced to confront the Lok Dal, which had its own sphere of influence, in the 1985 Assembly election. The Lok Dal picked up 84 seats then. In fact, most psephologists treat a gap of five percentage points between the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections as a given for any party on the presumption of a preponderance of local factors in the latter.
The Modi imprint
This long-held trend stands smashed with Mr. Modi’s staggering haul of 312 seats for a vote share of 39.7% in the 2017 Assembly election. How did this happen? The SP and the BSP, whose turn it was to stand up and fight, collapsed in the face of the Modi machine. A host of imponderables, among them local preferences, absence of a Chief Ministerial face, rebel contestants, not to mention the 100-odd dalbadlus (party hoppers) fielded by the BJP overlooking the claims of alienated veterans, all vaporised under the force and energy that Mr. Modi brought into the campaign. There was Mr. Modi and nothing beyond Mr. Modi. The Prime Minister made every calculation, every estimate, the wildest predictions irrelevant in a story where he played all the parts. On the campaign, the Congress vice-president, Rahul Gandhi, would joke that Mr. Modi was all about himself: in the film he produced he was hero, director, writer, photographer all rolled into one. Ironically, this came true but with a twist. The film Mr. Modi produced was so completely about himself that his own party became an extra in it while all Mr. Gandhi could manage was a place in the audience.
A day after a verdict that is in itself a testament to Mr. Modi’s phenomenal popularity, any recollection of the popular mood might appear redundant. But the recapitulation is necessary if only to underscore the extraordinary nature of the Prime Minister’s relationship with U.P. voters. On a tour of the State, I met with people whose faith in Mr. Modi was so absolute that they parroted his every line with conviction, refusing to even consider the possibility that there might be exaggerations in his claims — whether made in the course of his ‘Mann ki Baat’ radio broadcasts, during speeches delivered abroad and in India, or more recently while on the stump, almost all of it beamed live and therefore made that much more impactful. Mr. Modi’s address to the nation on demonetisation, watched and heard by millions of people, turned out to be history-altering. Mr. Modi’s casting of notebandi as a class war resonated so strongly with the poor that they became his captive vote bank overriding caste lines.
Voices on the ground
At a grocery shop in Garhi Kanoura in Lucknow, owner Shashi Gupta lavished praise upon Mr. Modi, calling him ‘ nek ’ (good), ‘ saaf dil ’ (clean of heart) and ‘ garibon ka masiha ’ (messiah of the poor). Notebandi expectedly topped her list of achievements by Mr. Modi, but a surprise inclusion was the 104 satellites sent up by ISRO. I tried to argue that the achievement was the cumulative result of years of hard work and research. But she was adamant. Mr. Modi had said he had done it, so he had done it. Even if it was a lie or an exaggeration, it didn’t matter.
The Prime Minister might have become the butt of social media jokes for his frequent overseas visits. But for the faithful, the travels had raised the profile of the country and brought it ‘ samman’ (honour) — again a repeat of Mr. Modi’s own words without engagement with what these trips might have actually achieved. The country’s prestige figured frequently in conversations, and in some places, people simply said they liked everything about Mr. Modi. What was everything? “Everything.”
The voices on the ground were too loud to miss. But who could have known that a Prime Minister would use the Lok Sabha format to steamroll all local variations and conflicts and wrest the biggest mandate since the Janata Party wave of 1977? That this happened breaking past trends is a warning sign for more than one reason. The faith Mr. Modi’s voters have placed in him would frighten anyone not as supremely self-confident as he is. Surrender on this scale can be both empowering and disempowering. It can nudge Mr. Modi, via the Chief Minister he appoints, towards speedy delivery of promises. But equally, any failure can breach the trust to devastating effect.
A more worrying aspect, brushed over in the exclamations caused by the size of the verdict, is the communal grooming of the polity. Travelling in west U.P., I found perfectly sane discussions turn into hate talk and Muslim-bashing. At mid-point, Mr. Modi brought in references to kabristan and shamshan and his party chief, Amit Shah, denounced his opponents as “Kasab”, all of which became licence to shame communities, and in language unprintably coarse in some places. The Akhilesh Yadav government’s perceived partisanship towards Muslims and Yadavs was already an issue with voters who seized on the words of encouragement from Mr. Modi to openly air their prejudices.
A group of schoolboys on the road from Allahabad to Varanasi said temples in their villages had been razed to build grand new mosques. A quick check revealed this to be a dangerous exaggeration. At a wayside teashop in Sursanda village in Barabanki district, Rajesh Yadav said he had voted the SP but mentioned Ram mandir as a top priority. “We are Hindustan, not Kabristan or Pakistan.”
At the Allahabad High Court where I met 30-odd lawyers, there was near consensus on voting Mr. Modi. But almost immediately, the conversation degenerated into xenophobic excoriation of Muslims. A woman lawyer associated with the SP said that while she did not care for Mr. Modi, she liked him for not having fielded any Muslim on the 403 Assembly seats.
When the winning party consciously excludes Muslims from its calculations, what message does that send? When voters approvingly quote that decision as the reason for Mr. Modi’s impending victory, what does it portend for India’s future? As Mr. Modi celebrates his victory, he should also reflect on the true essence of the BJP’s election slogan, sabka saath sabka vikas .