Govind Prajapati sat on the porch of his one-room house, with a small mirror in front of him, carefully shaving his chin. Without looking up, he said, “After the [joint] family was divided, we were forced to live in a jhopdi [hut]. Now at least we have this, now at least we have become human.”
He was referring to his family’s freshly-built pucca house, funded under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, the low-cost housing scheme of the Modi government. By giving poor families financial assistance of Rs 1.2 lakh to build a house, the scheme has aided the construction of about 70 lakh rural houses across India since 2016, at a pace faster than previous governments. (Read an evaluation here).
In Bisauri village in eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Chandauli district, where Prajapati lives, 61 such houses have been built.
While the Bharatiya Janata Party has often claimed the flagship scheme has created a groundswell of support in its favour, specially among women voters, the scheme, or for that matter any other welfare initiative of the Modi government, is largely missing from the party’s election campaign. In eastern Uttar Pradesh, BJP billboards are almost entirely focused on exhorting voters to elect a damdaar (powerful) government, a majboot (strong) government, a government that can take on terrorists.
There is a reason for silence on the schemes.
For all of Prajapati’s exultation over his new house, it hasn’t translated into a clear voting preference for the BJP. A floating voter, with no steady loyalty to any party, the middle-aged farmer voted for the BJP in 2014. “Because of the Modi wave,” he said. “It is best to back whoever is winning.”
Five years later, he is largely satisfied with the BJP government – his family received a cooking gas connection in addition to the housing grant. But a week before polling, he seemed to prevaricate, praising Modi is one breath, talking of change in another.
“After five years, you can only come down, not go up,” he said, cryptically. “If a new government comes to power, it might offer people something new.” His indecision seemed to reflect his difficulty in identifying the winner in what appeared to be a close contest.
His older brother Bhrigu Prajapati, however, was less equivocal and more supportive of the BJP, despite not having received a housing grant, something he was extremely sore about, to the point that he complained about it for 15 minutes straight. Yet, ahead of the election, he had rationalised his disappointment.
“Hum ko nahi mila to kissi ko to mila,” he said. Even if we did not get it, others did. “Kaam to hua”. At least work happened.
In four constituencies in four states – Maharashtra, Bihar, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh – this reporter found a similar pattern: a house under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana was a poor indicator of support of BJP. So were toilets under the Swachh Bharat scheme, or gas connections under Ujjwala Yojana.
But this does not mean Modi government’s schemes were irrelevant to the election. Their impact depended on the voters’ social context.
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 fourth part of The Modi Voter series which travelled to states where BJP did well in 2014 to look for answers.
In 2014, eastern Uttar Pradesh, also called Purvanchal, saw a near-sweep for the BJP, with the party and its ally Apna Dal winning 26 of 27 seats. The victory margins were above 20% in 10 seats. In Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi defeated the Congress candidate by a whopping 36.07%. Next door, in Chandauli constituency, BJP’s Mahendra Pandey won with a margin of 15.99%.
But in 2019, the picture is more complicated. The BJP’s two principal challengers, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, have joined forces to form what is being called the mahagathbandhan – the grand alliance. In several Purvanchal seats, their combined voteshare in 2014 outstripped that of the BJP.
In Chandauli, for instance, they won 47.07% of the voteshare, nearly 5 percentage points higher than the BJP.
At the party office in Mughalsarai town, part of Chandauli constituency, Samajwadi Party leaders exuded confidence over caste arithmetic pulling them ashore this time.
“The gathbandhan has more votes here,” declared Ramkishun Yadav, 63, a veteran leader, who won the 2009 parliamentary elections, but finished third in 2014. Enumerating the communities that are considered traditional supporters of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, he said, “Yadavs are 2.5 lakh-3 lakh here, Muslims 2 lakh, Harijans 2 lakh-2.5 lakh, of which Chamars alone are 1.5 lakh.” Yadavs are considered the support base of the Samajwadi Party while Chamars or Jatavs of the Bahujan Samaj Party.
“On top of this, we also have the Chauhans,” he said, referring to the Nonia Chauhans, the backward caste group from which the party has drawn its candidate, Sanjay Chauhan. “They number about a lakh.”
But the BJP leaders dismissed such calculations.
“In politics, two plus two is not equal to four,” said Shashi Shankar Singh, a regional coordinator of the BJP, who was presiding over a meeting of party workers in the campaign office in Chandauli. He had initially refused to discuss the social demographics of the constituency, claiming the BJP was above caste politics. But to push back against the view that the gathbandhan had the edge, he fell back on caste.
“In 2014, BSP had fielded a strong candidate, Anil Maurya, who comes from a prominent family,” he said. “He is with us now, he is our MLA from Sonabhadra. The 60,000-70,000 votes of the Maurya community which had gone to BSP then, will now come to us.”
He continued: “We are also happy the Samajwadi Party has not fielded Ramkishun Yadav. If he had been the candidate he would have taken away 15,000-20,000 of our Brahmin and Rajput votes through his personal connections.”
He had unwittingly admitted to what is well known about the BJP: that upper-caste communities like Brahmins and Rajputs form its primary social base. In recent elections, the party has successfully wooed non-Yadav backward castes like the Mauryas, Kushwahas, Rajbhars, and non-Jatav Dalits like Paswans and Sonkars, to build a larger social coalition in Uttar Pradesh.
In 2019, it faces the challenge of holding on to these voters, as well as bridging the gap in places where the gathbandhan had a larger voteshare.
In Chandauli, a minor source of worry for the BJP is the newly formed Jan Adhikar Party, which has fielded a candidate in alliance with the Congress. Led by Babulal Kushwaha, a former state minister, it seems to have emerged as an alternative for a small section of Kushwaha voters, as well as those from allied castes like the Mauryas, who do not want to vote for the Samajwadi Party because of the Yadav dominance, and yet are disappointed with the incumbent BJP candidate Mahendra Pandey.
“Party khadi ho gayi doli, band ho gayi BJP ki boli,” quipped Dwarka Prasad Maurya, a resident of Chiraigaon village. The wedding palanquin has silenced the BJP, he said, referring to the election symbol of the Jana Adhikar Party. Maurya had voted for the BJP in 2014 but felt slighted when its MP failed to turn up for a village event after accepting an invite.
Shashi Shankar Singh, however, maintained the party’s candidate did not face much anti-incumbency, “the Modi craze” would ride over local frictions, and most of all, the government’s schemes would supply the party with new voters.
“Those who got houses, toilets, etc, they have come to see us in a new light,” he said. “They are also supporting us.”
But is that really the case?
Samundri Devi could well be a poster woman for the Modi government. Living not far from the Prajapatis in Bisauri village, she too received a grant of Rs 1.3 lakh under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana to build a pucca house. In addition, she received Rs 12,000 under the Swachh Bharat Yojana to build a toilet, as well as a cooking gas connection under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjawala Yojana.
Yet, she and her neighbour Prema Devi were quick to declare they were voting for the gathbandhan, or the grand alliance of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party.
Both the parties are pro-poor, they claimed. Their governments gave poor women a monthly allowance of Rs 500. “To improve the nutrition of children,” said Samundri Devi, who was breastfeeding her fourth child. “But ever since the BJP came [to power in UP], this has been stopped.”
“Worse, even ration has stopped,” Prema Devi interjected. “Those whose fingerprints don’t match are turned away from the shop,” she said, referring to the disruption caused by the introduction of Aadhaar-based biometric authentication machines in the public distribution system that supplies subsidised foodgrains to poor families.
Underlying their support for the gathbandhan, however, was social identity. Samundri Devi and Prema Devi are Chamar by caste, also known as Jatav, the caste into which Mayawati, the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, was born.
“We have voted for Behenji from the start,” Prema Devi said, referring to Mayawati by a commonly used honorific. “When she was in government, the dabdaba [dominance] of Thakurs was under control. The police listened to us. But under the BJP government, they have become dabang. They beat us, even deny us our wages.”
Some members of the community got swayed by the Modi wave in 2014 and voted for the BJP, said Samundri Devi’s husband, Rajesh Kumar. “You see those ducks,” he said, pointing towards the pond abutting their house. “One duck walks and the others follow.”
He said: “In 2014, votes were divided. One vote for Behenji, one for Modi.”
Now, all the votes were back with Behenji, he claimed, also because “the BJP is finishing off aarakshan”, reservations in government jobs and colleges.
From Maharashtra to Rajasthan, this reporter heard similar concerns among Dalit and Adivasi voters. The fear of BJP tampering with the Constitution to end caste-based reservations appears to have decisively turned away a large section of voters from these marginalised communities.
When aarakshan is under threat, how can awas (housing) matter, Rajesh Kumar wryly remarked.
Others cited more prosaic reasons for not considering the housing benefits as a reason to vote for the BJP.
“Every government gives houses,” said Nathu Bhogiji, a Bhil Adivasi who lives in Darod village in Rajasthan’s Udaipur district, recalling the Indira Awas Yojana, which was a precursor of the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana.
But the Modi government had sanctioned a considerably higher amount of financial assistance under its scheme compared to the Indira Awas Yojana, I pointed out.
“So what? Even inflation has gone up,” Bhogiji said. “It now costs more to build a house.”
Among social groups that consider the Modi government an existential threat, the housing scheme is unlikely to make a dent. But it could strengthen the voting resolve of those already inclined towards the party.
In a village in Bihar’s Begusarai district, Tuntun Das, a daily wage worker, lived in a mud hut, surrounded by pucca homes built under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. Despite several trips to the panchayat and block offices, he had failed to get a housing grant for his family. Yet, he was voting for the BJP because it was in alliance with the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United), which he claimed had specially focused on uplifting the extremely backward castes, to which he belonged.
“I did not get [a house], but others have got,” he said. “Badiya kaam kiye hai.” Modi has done good work.
Across states, the houses, toilets and gas connections were rarely cited as the primary reason for voting for the BJP, but often came up as a secondary reason, even among those who were not their beneficiaries. The schemes signalled an abstract sense of good, a reason to continue to have faith in Modi, a sentiment that held sway among the non-Yadav backward castes in eastern Uttar Pradesh.
In Baburi village in Chandauli district, vegetable farmer Ramu Rajbhar’s large joint family lives on a small plot of land, mostly under thatched roofs over mud frames, and in some cases under tarpaulin sheets. Only his nephew’s family lives in a pucca house built under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana.
His wife Tara was livid at the rest of the family being denied the same benefits. “Look at how we are living, like animals, even in our old age,” she said.
But the anger dissipated when the discussion turned to the elections.
“We are voting for Modi,” said Rajbhar. “He is a good soldier of the country. He is protecting the country.”
But what about his development record?
“There is hope at least that he will give us a house,” said Tara, feebly.
Rajbhar elaborated: “What is there to fear in giving them another five years? Indira Gandhi ruled India for 14 years, one sided, non-stop.” He widened his eyes to signal menace.
Then, softening his tone, he continued, “It is possible Modi took five years to understand the country. In the next five years, he will show vikas [development].”
“And if he doesn’t,” Rajbhar folded his hands, “then whether he is a tea seller or a seller of ice candies, kshama karo bhai, please excuse us.”