Only 40 km separated the venues of Narendra Modi and Tejashwi Yadav’s election meetings in Bihar’s East Champaran on May 21. But moving between them felt like some kind of time travel.

For the Modi meeting, the Bharatiya Janata Party had erected three giant prefabricated structures with internal walkways and neatly partitioned sections, each fitted with large LCD screens and sound systems. In contrast, all that Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal could afford was a cloth tent pitched on bamboo poles, with old-style loudspeakers hung on them.

Tens of thousands had gathered for Modi’s meeting, bussed in by the BJP. The 500-odd people who came to listen to Yadav had largely walked or cycled to the maidan.

The tent was packed – as Yadav launched into a speech berating Modi, an empty chair was hard to find. And so, when a middle-aged man seated close to me said something about not leaving the kursi, I thought he meant his chair. Nathuni Das clarified that he was talking about the prime minister’s chair. “Narendra Modi will win a third term, no matter what critics say,” he said.

Das was a BJP supporter who had come to check out the rival camp. He heaped praise on the prime minister, provoking an outburst from a young man standing close by.

“Chai ke naam pe pehla chunav jeeta, surgical strike ke naam pe dusra,” 26-year-old Om Prakash Maurya said, angrily. The prime minister won the 2014 election in the name of tea – an allusion to the story Modi told about selling tea for a living as a child. He won the 2019 election in the name of surgical strike – a reference to Modi’s boast about sending fighter planes into Pakistani territory to avenge a militant attack in Kashmir.

“Now he is trying to win the third election in the name of Ram mandir,” Maurya continued. “But a man who does politics in the name of dharma [religion] is the biggest adharmi [traitor to the faith].”

Maurya said he had been too young to vote in the 2014 election. But he remembered it vividly. “Modi said he was from a poor family and would work for poor people. He made a fool of us, clearly.”

At the RJD rally in Madhuban, East Champaran. Photo: Supriya Sharma

Narendra Modi’s 2014 election victory is often remembered for his promise of prosperity, or achche din. But it wasn’t just what he promised – he, himself, was the promise. The campaign projected him as a self-made man born into a humble family from a backward caste, who had risen through the ranks to become one of India’s ablest chief ministers, and had finally appeared on the national stage to save the country from an entitled, corrupt elite.

It was a powerful story, and it blazed through the Hindi heartland, striking a chord with backward caste voters like those from Maurya’s community, enabling the BJP to garner votes well beyond its traditional upper-caste support base. The party won 71 of 80 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh. With its allies, it won 31 of 40 seats in Bihar.

In the years that followed, the BJP consolidated its gains through deft politics. In Uttar Pradesh, it built a formidable social coalition by giving more representation to leaders from non-Yadav backward caste communities and non-Jatav Dalits, effectively taking on the Yadav-centric Samajwadi Party and the Jatav-dominated Bahujan Samaj Party. In Bihar, it faced more resistance and had to fall back on alliances with Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and other smaller parties to expand its appeal among backward castes and Dalits.

The caste engineering was combined with an expanded buffet of cash transfer schemes for rural families – to build homes and toilets, to buy cooking gas, recurring payments to farmers. They were all named as pradhan mantri yojana or the prime minister’s schemes. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the government doubled the monthly food rations. Even this was named as the prime minister’s scheme for the welfare of the poor.

In reality, welfare spending under the Modi government has remained “low and stagnating”, analysis by economists Reetika Khera and MD Asjad shows. But a personality cult enabled by the capture of India’s mainstream media meant the rural poor began to feel personally grateful to Modi for the little they received from the government.

In the 2024 election, however, cracks are showing in the edifice. In states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, among the poorest in the country, it is no longer uncommon to hear criticism of Modi, even in fleeting encounters. More significantly, the lower you go down the social and economic ladder, the sharper the criticism.

At a construction site in Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh, young workers offered mixed opinions about the Modi government. As Surendra Yadav noted that under the BJP, “Musalman daba hai”, Muslims have been put in their place, Arvind Verma, from the Kurmi OBC community, stepped in, with a note of irritation: “Modi ji kaun badiya kaam kar diye hain, sirf Hindu upar rajneeti kare hai bas.” What great work has Modi done other than politics in the name of Hindus.

In the same district, a daily wage worker, from the Dalit Pasi community, was more emphatic: “Modi ji talks rubbish. He says if Congress wins, it will take your buffalo away. Congress was in power for 60 years. Whose buffalo did it take?”

It is hard to miss the disenchantment of the newly enchanted – that is, the Dalit and backward caste voters who had shifted allegiance to the BJP in the last decade and are now rethinking their choices. But it is harder still to gauge its extent.

Is the disenchantment widespread enough to damage the BJP’s prospects in this election? Possibly not. But it signals a challenge to the party’s ideological project that an election victory alone cannot fix.

Young supporters of the Vikasheel Insaan Party, an ally of Tejaswi Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal, gather in Madhuban to hear their leaders. Photo: Supriya Sharma

Most accounts of voter disquiet in the Hindi heartland focus on complaints of inflation and joblessness. These are indeed the first concerns that voters articulate. But they perhaps mask deeper anxieties.

Mohan lives in Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh, and Sanjay Kumar in Patna, Bihar, 900 km apart. Both men drive a taxi for a living. Both voted for the BJP in 2014 – for similar reasons. Mohan, who goes by a single name, said it was the promise of achche din, or better days. Sanjay said: “They fed us khayaali pulao” – sweet dreams.

By 2019, Mohan had grown somewhat disillusioned with the BJP but he stuck with the party because “the Congress had ruled for 60 years, they too must get another chance”. For Sanjay, the 2019 election was all about nationalism.

But this time both said they were done with the BJP. “Local businesses are not doing well,” Mohan said. “No one is spending. Har aadmi haath kheech raha hain. There are no jobs for our children.” Sanjay threw in some dark humour: “When Article 370 was removed, I thought I’ll also buy some land in Kashmir. But at the end of the month, I have no savings left.”

Sanjay continued: “There are only two kinds of people in the country. Those who are rich and are getting richer. Those who are poor and are becoming poorer.” Then, correcting himself, he introduced a third category: “Aur OBC jo beech waale hain, wo Jai Sri Ram, Jai Sri Ram kar rahe hain…” And those in the middle, who belong to the Other Backward Classes, are busy chanting Jai Shri Ram, Jai Shri Ram.

Sanjay belongs to the OBC community of Nishads, traditionally riverine people engaged in plying boats and fishing. Hindutva organisations have cultivated support among them by foregrounding the Ramayana story of Nishad Raj helping Ram and Sita cross the river while in exile.

Mohan is from the Dalit Jatav community to which the Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati belongs. He described how increasing religiosity within his community helped shift the needle of voting to the BJP. “You start going to a temple. You meet new people, you begin to feel connected to them,” he said. “One day, someone greets you by saying Jai Sri Ram. You feel good. You too respond by saying Jai Sri Ram. Ussi mein kaam ban gaya Modi ji ka.” That is enough to cement your voting inclination towards Modi.

Getting people like Mohan and Sanjay to think of themselves as Hindus first not only helps the BJP achieve political power, it also furthers the ideological project of its parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an organisation whose founding fathers were Brahmins who espoused Hindu supremacy along with a conservative caste order.

The consecration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya by Modi earlier this year showed the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had come closer than ever to achieving the vision of a Hindu-first nation. But the high-glitz spectacle seems to have glossed over social faultlines.

“Who benefits from Ram Mandir? Only Brahmins and beggars. Not us,” Sanjay said. In Faizabad, living in the shadow of the newly-inaugurated temple, a young Dalit Kori woman made a similar argument, except that she identified the beneficiaries of the temple as Brahmins and Banias – the local shopkeepers whose business was flourishing because of the influx of pilgrims.

Once known as a Brahmin-Bania party, the BJP found a backward caste totem in Modi, whose ascendance to power turbocharged the spread of Hindutva. But now, the totem seems to be losing power. Conversations that start on inflation and joblessness often end on caste inequality.

“Only four castes are flourishing in the country: Rajput, Bhumihar, Bania and Pandit,” Sanjay said. “Of 100 people in my caste, perhaps one or two have risen to a top position. The rest are at the same level, either driving cars, or pushing handcarts, or catching and selling fish.”

He contrasted this with a Brahmin family: “In the house of a Pandit ji, the grandfather held a job, the father held a job, the son holds a job, the grandson holds a job, the nephew holds a job.” By job, he meant formal, salaried, secure employment.

It is this sentiment that the INDIA alliance is attempting to tap by foregrounding the need for a caste census and an expansion of affirmative action. The Opposition campaign received an unexpected boost after videos began to circulate showing BJP leaders asking voters to elect the party with an overwhelming majority so that the Constitution could be changed. This provoked fear among Dalit voters in particular, who saw this as an attack on reservations in government jobs and educational institutions.

Modi’s response to the fear was to create a counter-fear. In rally after rally, he has claimed that if the Congress comes to power, it would take reservations away from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and give it to Muslims. At his rally in East Champaran, he added a new twist to the argument: to transfer reservations to Muslims, he said, “the Congress will change the Constitution”.

Quite apart from the fact that few voters, even among the BJP’s upper-caste support base, are taking the prime minister’s claims seriously, what is notable is the fact that the leader who set the narrative in the last two elections is now on the defensive.

One of the three prefabricated structures erected for the Modi rally in East Champaran. Photo: Supriya Sharma

As Modi spoke in the East Champaran rally, Kalawati Devi yawned. All around her, in the section farthest away from the dais, women stood on chairs to catch a glimpse of the prime minister. Before Modi’s arrival, images from the stage were being streamed on LCD screens. But once Modi landed, inexplicably, the screens went blank, forcing people at the back to stand on chairs to get a glimpse of him.

Kalawati Devi, however, stayed put. So did the other women from Piprakothi village. Why had they come to the rally, I asked. To meet other people, Kalawati Devi said, nonchalantly.

What does she think of the prime minister? What has his government delivered in 10 years, I asked. “Kucchho nahi,” she said. Nothing. “They have installed electricity boxes but they don't work unless you pay money and recharge them like a mobile,” she said, a likely reference to the village electrification scheme which is based on user charges.

Manju Devi, seated next to her, added: “Modi ji is providing facilities but they are not working.”

What about other schemes like free foodgrains? “We only get four kilos, not five,” Kalawati Devi said. “Are five kilos enough? Look at the prices of dal and vegetables.”

Kalawati Devi was a reluctant listener at Modi's rally. Photo: Supriya Sharma

Manju Devi had another concern: “Neeche jaat ka chokra man nahi paat naukri chakri.” The children of the lower castes are not getting jobs. “Can’t Modi ji open a factory in Bihar so our young children don’t have to leave the state for work?” she asked.

Further conversation revealed the women were Paswans, a Dalit community connected to an ally of the BJP, the Chirag Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party. Community networks, perhaps, explained why the women had come to attend the meeting, despite their evident lukewarm feelings towards Modi. The same networks play an important role in shaping voting choices, and the BJP stands to gain from its alliances with a slew of smaller parties representing Dalit and backward caste communities in both Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Additionally, the BJP claims women are voting for it as beneficiaries of welfare schemes rather than on the basis of social identity. The example of the Paswan women aside, this might not be entirely untrue. In a village in Barabanki, I met a Muslim woman, Saira Bano, who said she was voting for the BJP because she had received a grant to build a house.

But the politics of welfare has its limits.

After the Modi rally ended, a group of women sat outside the venue, waiting for vehicles to appear to take them back to their village. Rani Devi, from the Kahar OBC community, said she had come to the rally because “Modi ji se pyaar hai” – we love Modi ji. “He has built toilets in every home. He sends Rs 2,000 to us every chhath” – a reference to the PM-Kisan scheme that gives farming families annual cash support of Rs 6,000 in three instalments. These are often timed to festivals, making women deeply appreciative of them.

Rani’s exuberance was cut short by a woman seated next to her, Dharamsheela Devi, also a farmer, from the Koeri OBC community. “We are not getting the money,” she interrupted. “Aayi to sab ka aayi, nahi to kekro ka nahi aayi.” Either everyone should get it, or no one should.

In a village in Muzaffarpur district, where litchi and mango orchards were fragrant with ripening fruit, a group of women sat on their haunches, keeping an eye on their grazing goats. When asked who they were voting for, a woman from the Sahu OBC community, who did not want to reveal her name, said: “Khilaa raha hai Modi, to Modi ko na diyayega to kissko diyayega.” Modi is feeding us, who else will we vote for. A second woman concurred: “Modi ji theek hai.” Modi is fine. At this, a third woman in the group interjected: “No, he is not. He is feeding us from one side, and taking away our money from the other side” – a reference to inflation.

Rani Devi (right) and Dharamsheela Devi, seated next to her. Photo: Supriya Sharma

If there is one constituency where Modi continues to enjoy high levels of support, it is the upper castes.

After the Modi rally ended, Vinod Jaiswal sat in his shop in Motihari town, watching the village folk who had gathered for the meeting fill into buses and leave. His friend, also from an upper caste community, joined in a discussion on the way the election was poised in the East Champaran seat.

Both men claimed the BJP was comfortably placed to win the seat despite anti-incumbency brewing against the party’s candidate, Radha Mohan Singh, a Rajput politician who had been representing the seat since 2009. They said the Opposition had done clever politics by fielding a Kushwaha OBC candidate against him. “They are trying to make it a forward versus backward election,” the friend said. In Bihar, upper castes are also known as forward castes. But the “Modi factor” would prevail, the friend argued, fetching the BJP votes from even backward-caste voters.

He chuckled: “Aankh ka chashma laga hai, dekhta hai Modi, soochta hai pichde varg ka pradhan mantri hai.” They look at Modi and think the prime minister is from a backward caste.

Many have pointed out that under Modi, BJP governments, both at the Centre and in the states, have had a disproportionately high number of upper castes. In this election, nearly half the candidates fielded by the party in Uttar Pradesh belong to the upper castes.

The Modi era has not dented the dominance of this minuscule section of the Indian population, likely explaining why it remains the most dependable vote bank of the BJP – in fact, no other party can claim to have as dependable a vote bank.

But upper caste votes are not enough to win the elections. No surprise, then, that Modi has expended much time and energy on the campaign trail scotching talk of a possible end to reservations if the BJP comes to power.

Jaiswal, however, claimed the Opposition pitch was not working. “Earlier, backward meant truly backward,” he said. “But now they [backward caste people] are educated, they send their kids to convent schools. They know they are being taken for a ride. After all, there are no government jobs left. Of what use are reservations?”

It is precisely because secure employment is shrinking that competition over jobs is intensifying, with more and more groups clamouring for reservations. In fact, even though the upper castes are overrepresented within government employment, the Modi government reserved 10% of jobs for the “economically weaker sections” among them.

In Faizabad, I met a government school teacher, an upper-caste man who did not want to be identified, who said he was voting for the BJP. When I asked him about the perception that the party was on unsteady ground in the constituency because of a loss of support from Dalit voters, he was mildly annoyed. “They are less educated,” he said. “That’s why they are harping on non-issues like prices going up.” Referring to the upper castes, he added, “Jinke liye rashtra sarvopari hai wo yeh sab nahi sochte.” For whom the nation comes first, this does not matter.

Asked about the performance of the Modi government, he said he would give it “eight marks out of ten”. Why two marks short, I asked. “Because not enough government vacancies opened up. The boys are upset about the lack of jobs.”

And yet, Modi was the best bet as prime minister, he argued. “Andhon mein kana raja.” In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.