With no tourist in sight to brave a boat ride under the scorching sun, banter was keeping the boatmen of Jaisamand lake busy on the morning of April 24.
“Inta shaikh Modi,” said a scrawny young man, imitating an Arabic accent. “This means: ‘Is Modi your king?”
Prakash Tirgar, 22, worked in Kuwait as a marble artisan and was home for a vacation. He was regaling his friends, all of whom worked in the local boat cooperative at Jaisamand, 60 km from Udaipur in southern Rajasthan, with stories of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fame.
“Some people even say your king Modi is a good man,” he continued. “We feel proud that in a foreign land someone recognises that we are Hindi [Indians]… This did not happen before.”
For his audience, mostly young men in their mid-twenties, this was further evidence that they had made the right choice in 2014 – a choice they were planning to repeat on April 29 when the Udaipur Lok Sabha constituency goes to vote.
On the other side of the lake, however, a young man of roughly the same age had reached the opposite conclusion about Modi.
“We thought he was a new leader, he would work,” said Rahul Meena, 25, a resident of Gamarhi village, while taking a break from breaking stones at a worksite opened under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which mandates that the government provide 100 days of work annually to every household that asks for it. “But for five years, even NREGA work was not available.”
Meena had voted for the BJP in 2014, but now regretted it.
“We have heard he [Modi] has raised the esteem of the country but our village has not benefitted,” he continued, adding as an afterthought that he wasn’t even sure whether the country’s esteem had indeed been raised.
Five years after its giant-sized victory, will the Bharatiya Janata Party win the election, despite falling rural wages and incomes and rising unemployment? What is drawing voters to the party – the record of the Narendra Modi government, the party’s majoritarian politics, or the personal appeal of the prime minister? This is the third part of the Modi Voter series which travels to states where the BJP did well in 2014 to look for answers.
The BJP won all 25 seats in Rajasthan in 2014. What made the sweep even more impressive were the astonishing victory margins: over 20% in 13 seats, more than double the number of seats with such margins in 2009.
Falling short by a sliver was the Udaipur Lok Sabha constituency, where BJP’s Arjun Lal Meena defeated his cousin Raghbir Meena of the Congress by more than 2.3 lakh votes, a victory margin of 19.84%.
“You see, Gujarat is close by,” said Ashok Puri, a 24-year-old boatman, trying to explain why the BJP did so well in Rajasthan. “Everyone has been there and seen the development.” He himself had once worked in a Subway restaurant in Ahmedabad. “Everybody wanted Modi to win, so our lives could change for the better,” he said.
Did his life change for the better?
Without skipping a beat, he said: “The whole country has changed, how does one life matter?”
In the last five years, he finished a postgraduate degree, failed to secure a white-collar job, but felt no rancour. For young men like him, if 2014 was about hope, 2019 is about pride. Seemingly a positive emotion, but one that held darker shades.
The glow over Modi government’s so-called surgical strike against Pakistan, for instance, segued into a hazy conception of historical wrongs finally being set right.
“Modi is putting the Mughals in their place,” said Tirgar, the marble artisan, with conviction. But the Mughals were dead, I said.
Ignoring the comment, he continued: “He is showing we are Hindus after all.”
The religious nationalism came with the belief that Modi was rightfully ending caste-based reservations in education and jobs – an idea that the boatmen approved of even though they belonged to the Dashnam Goswami community which had recently been included among the Other Backward Classes.
“There should only be reservations for the economically weak,” Puri said, emphatically.
Underlying their ideological beliefs, however, were family histories of voting for the BJP. This made them traditional voters the party could count on.
The voters that the BJP is less confident of are those who do not have such family histories, who newly embraced the party in 2014, swept in by the euphoria over Modi – voters like Rahul Meena.
In 2014, he had broken rank with his village, which traditionally votes for the Congress. As Dai Bai, an old woman at the NREGA worksite, said, “The sarpanch says vote for the hand, we vote for the hand.”
This time, disappointed with Modi, Meena had decided it was best to close rank, to fall in line. Besides, NREGA work had finally become available after the Congress had come to power in the state, he reasoned.
Meena and Dai Bai were Bhil Adivasis. In fact, the village was almost entirely Bhil, a community which constitutes as much as 60% of the electorate in the Udaipur Lok Sabha constituency, according to Pramod Samar, the BJP leader in-charge of the constituency.
He described Bhil villages as “Congress ka garh” – the fortress of the Congress – but quickly added that the BJP and its affiliates, in particular the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad, had worked hard and built a base in some villages.
“The key is winning the support of the ward sarpanch, one level below the village sarpanch. He controls 100 plus votes,” Samar said, listing areas where the BJP had built such grassroots support, starting with the Kotra block where the first centre of the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad was established decades ago.
Evidence that the strategy has worked, he pointed out, were the results of the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The BJP’s voteshare of 55.34% suggested it had managed to attract a sizeable section of Bhil Adivasis.
The 2018 Assembly elections reaffirmed this, he claimed. While the BJP lost the elections to the Congress, it won seven of the eight Assembly segments of Udaipur Lok Sabha constituency – its best performance anywhere in the state. Six of those seven winning constituencies have a heavy concentration of Bhil voters and are reserved for the Scheduled Tribes.
On the ground, however, things are more complex.
For one, many Bhil voters are decidedly less enthusiastic about the BJP’s muscular nationalism than upper caste communities like Rajputs, Brahmins and Patidars.
Their concerns are different, not just in economic terms, but also at the level of social identity.
In Kherad panchayat, a group of 10 Bhil men, all of whom had graduate degrees but worked as manual labour, were training as hand pump mechanics in the hope of improving their prospects. Barring one young man who said he loved Modi, but offered no reason other than the abstract idea that “he has done good work”, most others were of the view that the BJP had harmed their interests.
“Modi is trying to change the Constitution,” said Kanhaiya Lal Buj, 27, who had voted for the BJP in 2014 but now regretted his choice. “He is trying to end reservations.”
Bheru Lal Meena added: “He tried to end the law for SCs and STs, he tried to evict 13 lakh families…” These were references to Supreme Court judgements – one ordering the dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and the other calling for the eviction of families whose claims under the Forest Rights Act had been rejected.
Both the judgements were stayed after the Modi government intervened, but not before fanning the impression that it was tampering with the legal safeguards available to Adivasis.
None of these concerns featured in the short speech delivered by the Congress candidate Raghuvir Meena at a meeting in Kanpur village. A political veteran who won six elections before losing both the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and the 2018 Assembly polls to the BJP, he began by reminding people that he is a member of the Congress party’s highest decision-making body, the Congress Working Committee. “It has big leaders like Chidambaram on it,” he boasted.
Even his supporters seemed to think the strongest reason to vote for him was that “Ashok Gehlot ji inko bahut maante hai” – Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot holds him in high regard. In contrast, they claimed the BJP candidate, sitting MP Arjun Lal Meena, was a “bechara”, or poor thing, who had no access to the top leaders of his party.
If old style patronage politics was one pivot of the Congress campaign, the other was social welfare. In his speech, Raghuvir Meena spoke about the party’s promise of giving Rs 72,000 as annual income support to the poorest families in India, and increasing the NREGA workdays to 150 days.
Left to the Congress, the electoral contest in southern Rajasthan would have been dull and devoid of big ideas.
But a new political organisation has shaken up the status quo here, infusing fresh dynamism and energy.
Called the Bharatiya Tribal Party, it took shape in neighbouring Gujarat in 2017 under the leadership of a former Janata Dal (United) legislator Chotubhai Vasava. In the 2018 Rajasthan Assembly polls, the party fielded 14 candidates, two of whom emerged as surprise winners. Their constituencies, Sagwara and Chorasi, are part of the Banswara-Dungarpur Lok Sabha constituency, south of Udaipur.
Within the Udaipur Lok Sabha constituency itself, candidates of the Bharatiya Tribal Party finished second in the Aspur Assembly seat and third in Kherwada.
In a short time, the party has shown an appetite for an ideological battle with the BJP that most of the Indian political Opposition lacks.
The Bhil men training as hand pump mechanics, for instance, only knew about Modi government’s failures because they had attended the “Chintan Shivirs” or seminars organised by the Bharatiya Tribal Party. In the seminars, they said, they learnt about their rights under the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, which envisaged greater autonomy for tribal communities.
Dismissive of this large-scale political churn, Raghuvir Meena of the Congress scoffed: “Even illiterate people have now begun to say Fifth Schedule, Fifth Schedule, without knowing what it is.”
Privately, though, Congress leaders are worried about losing ground to the youthful leadership of the Bharatiya Tribal Party.
Umesh Damor, the Bharatiya Tribal Party’s candidate in Aspur, who won 31.8% of the votes and finished second to the BJP, was just 25 years and two months old when he fought the election. “Possibly the youngest candidate in Rajasthan’s history,” he said, with a smile.
From a family of village sarpanches – his grandfather had served as one after retiring from his government job as a peon – Damor took an interest in politics from an early age.
In 2016, while studying at the Bhogilal Pandya Rajkiya Mahavidyala in Dungarpur, the largest college in the region, he decided to stand for elections as the college president. When the Congress party’s National Students Union of India denied him a ticket, he and other friends floated a new organisation, the Bhil Pradesh Vidyarthi Morcha – “with just 21 days to go for the election,” he said, laughing. Damor won.
Since then, the Morcha has swept the college elections every single year.
The Morcha’s immediate politics revolves around getting reservations for Adivasi students in proportion to their population in Dungarpur (70.8%) as opposed to the current reservations benchmarked to the tribal population in the state (12.5%), said Dilip Kalasuya, its current president.
But it has a larger aim, embodied in its name: Bhil Pradesh, or a state for the Bhil people, encompassing areas of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, where the community lives in large numbers.
Since territory is hard to reclaim, it is focusing first on reclaiming identity – starting with surnames. Under the influence of the dominant Meena community of northern Rajasthan, the majority of Bhils had adopted Meena as their surnames. Now, the student activists are discarding them.
Umesh Damor, for instance, carries the name Umesh Meena in all documents, from school certificates to his election affidavit. But he made sure all campaign posters were printed with his family’s original Bhil surname – Damor.
This cultural assertion poses a direct challenge to Hindutva politics. “We are not Hindus,” said Damor. “We are Bhils.”
The Bharatiya Tribal Party has expanded its influence rapidly, using smartphones and social media. “I must be part of a thousand WhatsApp groups,” said Damor, scrolling down the messaging service on his phone.
The party’s campaign is the most effective in the Banswara-Dungarpur Lok Sabha constituency, where it has fielded a popular local activist Kanti Lal Roat. The magnet of media attention, he makes pointed attacks on the BJP, the RSS and Prime Minister Modi in his interviews, without failing to add that the Congress only used Adivasi as a votebank without securing their rights. “Even the Forest Rights Act would not have been passed had it not been for the pressure of the Left,” he said.
In Udaipur, however, the Bharatiya Tribal Party’s outreach is limited. Even the candidate is an outsider.
With dim prospects of winning the Udaipur seat, wouldn’t the party take away Bhil votes from the Congress and spoil its chances of defeating the BJP, I asked Roat.
“We have planted a sapling,” he said. “It will take time to grow.”
Even at the cost of helping the BJP stay in power for another five years?
“They have been harming us for long,” he said. “We have tolerated them. We will tolerate them for five more years.”
He added: “Five years later, we will beat them.”
There is much speculation in Udaipur about Bhil voters, but none about the others. Even the Congress seems resigned to most upper castes and Other Backward Classes voting for the BJP.
Pramod Samar, the Lok Sabha in-charge of the BJP, admitted the party’s Assembly victories in Udaipur were propped up by exactly this arithmetic: the majority of the non-tribal votes combined with a smaller section of the tribal votes.
“Even if we get 40% of the ST [Scheduled Tribe] vote, that is enough to win,” he said. “As for the others [non-tribal communities], we will only add to the Assembly numbers, given the impact of the surgical strikes.”
The party’s campaign in Udaipur showed a singular focus: Modi, the strong leader that India needed to stay safe.
“A man who can kill the enemy by entering his home, isko kehte hai surma, he is a man of courage,” BJP MLA Phool Singh Meena told a village gathering on the outskirts of Udaipur city.
“Do you want to make a coward the prime minister or a surma [brave warrior]?” he asked.
“Surma,” the audience responded.
Almost uniformly, the first response of most BJP supporters, when asked why they were voting for the party, was the surgical strikes.
What is unclear, though, is whether the decision to vote for BJP hinged on the surgical strikes, or whether the surgical strikes had simply given them something to talk about.
In a meadow lit with the fading rays of the sun, under a ring of tungsten bulbs, young men were playing a game of cricket near Indora village.
“It is the quarter final of the Shri Ram Ratrakaleen [night-time] Cricket Tournament,” said Abhimanyu Singh Shaktawat, one of the spectators. An annual event for local teams, it had been converted into a fundraiser this year. “For the martyrs of Pulwama”, Singh said, referring to the Kashmir suicide bombing in February that had left 40 paramilitary soldiers dead.
Singh and his friends were from the Rajput community, from families that traditionally voted for the BJP – “Atal ji ke zamaane se”. From the time of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
This year as well, they were voting for the BJP. “Not that we need a reason,” said Singh, “but if you ask, because of the surgical strike.”
Read the first two pieces in the series here: Will BJP win again under Modi? A view from an agrarian district in Maharashtra