Modi's First Big Pitch on Notebandi in the UP Polls

Campaigning in eastern UP, Modi has tried every trick in the book – polarisation on communal lines, fiscal giveaways and pitting the poor against the rich.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election campaign rally in Maharajganj district on Wednesday. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election campaign rally in Maharajganj district on Wednesday. Credit: PTI

Deoria, Uttar Pradesh: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has suddenly changed tack in the crucial last two phases of elections in eastern Uttar Pradesh, which increasingly look like the slog overs of a cricket match. In his well-attended public meeting at Deoria on Wednesday, the prime minister chose to use the latest official GDP growth data of 7% for October-December 2016 to launch a scathing attack on the opposition as well as the critics of demonetisation, who insisted the economy had been hit badly. Modi said the hard work of the farmers had lifted the economy and indeed proved reputed Harvard economists (hinting at Amartya Sen) wrong. “Hard work has won over Harvard,” he told a somewhat perplexed crowd of over 50,000 people. The prime minister showed renewed confidence, thanks to the Central Statistics Office data, that notebandi was a big success. He promised the people that the money which had come into the banks will not go back so easily.

People attending Modi's rally in Deoria. Credit: Titash Sen

People attending Modi’s rally in Deoria. Credit: Titash Sen

However, some daily-wage workers in the crowd told this writer they did not agree with the prime minister that everything was hunky dory after notebandi, though they would wait to see whether Modi would tax the rich to compensate the poor.

Official data apart, the prime minister may still have to contend with the assessment of the BJP’s trade union affiliate Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), which publicly claimed 2.5 lakh small units had shut down in the past few months.

Politically, it is indeed a big change of tactic in the last two phases of electioneering as Modi had refrained from talking about notebandi and black money in the initial few phases. But in his Deoria public meeting, with candidates from seven assembly constituencies present on the stage with Modi, the prime minister returned to the theme of demonetisation and black money in a big way. Modi played the rich versus poor divide and said, “a lot of money had found its way into the bank but may not find the way out”.

In what seemed like a direct vote-seeking ploy, the prime minister told the crowd he would waive small farm loans in the very first state cabinet meeting if elected to power. “I will personally monitor this from Delhi,” he added.

One also detected a sense of anxiety in the way the prime minister made the promise of the farm loan waiver in the very first meeting. Later, when I asked a farmer, Rameshwar Sharma, what he thought of the prime minister’s promise, he said, “He has been prime minister for nearly three years now. He could have done it anytime. Why wait so long.” Sharma also added, “It is not good for the prime minister’s stature to seek votes at such a small level.”

The meeting in Deoria also indicated that the BJP was trying very hard to emerge as a single largest party. In another public meeting just 48 hours before, the prime minister had warned that “the other parties were working towards having a hung assembly”. The subtext was that the UP voters must give a very decisive verdict. This clearly betrayed a certain anxiety about a hung house. However, in Deoria, the prime minister changed his line and insisted,”This election is already a one-sided affair. What remains to be seen us whether BJP wins a two-thirds or three-fourths majority”. One could detect a desperation to generate big momentum in favour of the BJP in eastern UP. Indeed, Modi may have even succeeded in creating the atmospherics that the BJP is on the upswing.

However, there are a large number of silent voters who don’t reveal their mind till the last minute. MP and BJP strongman in Gorakhpur, Yogi Adityanath, told a group of journalists, “There are committed voters on both sides. But our attempt is to influence the floating voters at the last minute. They make a difference.”

Like Modi, Adityanath is not willing to suggest this is a one-sided election and says the undecided vote will be crucial. One got the sense that in spite of Modi’s bravado, this is a fight to the finish.

BJP leaders here say the prime minister will stay in Varanasi for the remaining period of electioneering as he would want to ensure a comprehensive victory in his adopted constituency. The entire election machinery of the BJP has shifted there now. Keen political watchers of eastern UP say the BJP is faced with tough opposition from both the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance and the Bahujan Samaj Party in this region. It will not be a cakewalk, despite the tall, last-minute promises being made by the prime minister. Modi may try to whip up momentum with his “rich versus poor” talk, but the people of eastern UP are known to be very discerning, like their Bihari brethren across the border. In Deoria, the prime minister launched a veritable diatribe against “capitalists” and promised that under his regime the cane farmers will decide the fate of sugar mill owners, not the other way round. In the last ten days, the prime minister has tried every trick in the book – polarisation on communal lines, fiscal giveaways, pitting the poor against the rich. The reality is that eastern UP voters largely remain fragmented on the lines of caste and community. There is no overarching theme yet emerging which can be seen to sweep the elections one way or another.

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