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At Forbesganj town, about 15 kilometers south of the India-Nepal border in north India’s Bihar state, thousands gathered on April 26 to listen to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, braving the scorching summer temperature hovering around 42 degrees Celsius. 

Forebesganj is part of the Araria constituency of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament, which has 543 seats. On that day in late April, Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had come to campaign for the May 7 polling in Araria in the third phase of India’s seven-phase national elections.

With 40 parliamentary constituencies, Bihar is an important battlefield. While the state was reeling under the heatwave, Modi looked to raise the political temperature further.

“The 2024 election is to strengthen India economically and militarily,” he said, promising big moves in his third term, and then turned to his favorite subject – how the opposition parties are trying to deprive Hindus to please Muslims. 

Hindus constitute 79.8 percent of India’s population, as per the census of 2011, while Muslims are the largest minority group, with a 14.2 percent share of India’s population. 

During Modi and the BJP’s Hindu nationalist rule since 2014, discrimination against Muslims has been frequently reported from most of the BJP-ruled states in the country. Modi himself has been accused of discriminatory actions and speeches. 

The three factors are the absence of the “Modi wave,” giving prominence to local issues in some pockets of the region; the salience of caste questions in some constituencies; and the lower voter turnout, which could make for closer contests in some seats.

But his recent campaign accusing the opposition of conspiring to distribute Hindus’ property among Muslims has taken the anti-Muslim pitch of his electoral campaign to a new high (or perhaps a new low)

In his Araria address, Modi alleged that the Congress, India’s main opposition party, was sacrificing the interests of Hindus in order to appease the country’s Muslims. Congress could even change India’s constitution if elected to power, he warned. Modi added that Congress would take away people’s wealth and deprive them of their right to the inheritance of property.  

About an hour later, he repeated the charges during his speech in Munger, another constituency in Bihar. His message was that Congress is eying everyone’s property and inheritance rights and the it would rob Hindu backward castes of reservation benefits.

For the record, no opposition party has made any proposal like the ones that Modi attributed to Congress.

“The PM is resorting to the worst kind of hate campaign and disinformation drive to galvanize its core voter base,” said Dipankar Bhattacharya, who heads the Bihar-based Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), a component of the opposition alliance in Bihar. 

Bhattacharya told The Diplomat that many in the BJP’s “core voter base” are feeling dejected and the BJP got a sense of it following the first two phases of elections. “Modi’s aggressive misinformation reflects his desperation,” Bhattacharya said. 

The BJP’s core voter base lies in the Hindi heartland, the region inhabited by the speakers of Hindi, India’s most spoken language.

Comprising the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, and Delhi, which are spread over northern, central, and western India, this region accounts for 228 (42 percent) of India’s 543 parliamentary seats. 

The region propelled Modi to power in 2014. Of the 228 constituencies, 195 elected BJP candidates and 11 voted for its allies. In 2019, the belt gave the BJP 183 seats and another 25 to its allies. The region accounted for 61 percent and 59 percent of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA)’s tally of 336 seats and 353 seats, in 2014 and 2019, respectively. 

Having already achieved this peak, the BJP is now wary of a decline. 

Heartland Pulse 

The Hindi heartland is known for some peculiar characteristics. It is where religion and caste play the most important role in determining political alignments and equations. Reverence for the cow as a holy animal is unmatched among Hindus in this region, which is why the Hindi heartland is often called the “cow belt.”  These states have been the traditional bases of the Hindu nationalist forces since the 1960s.

In the BJP’s gradual rise since the 1989 parliamentary election, the Hindi heartland consistently gave the party over 60 percent of its all-India tally. The only exception was in 2009, when the Hindi heartland accounted for 67 of the BJP’s 116-seat tally (57.8 percent), and in 2019 when the part won 59 percent of the seats. But since 2014, the belt has overwhelmingly supported the BJP.

To secure a third term, the BJP must hold its fort in the Hindi heartland. The party has set an ambitious target of topping its 2019 tally in the heartland states by bagging 80 of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, riding the sentiments of around the newly inaugurated Ram Temple in Ayodhya town. They won 71 and 64 seats in Uttar Pradesh in 2014 and 2019, respectively.

However, political observers are not so convinced about the BJP’s high hopes. “Since the BJP has already peaked in the Hindi heartland, its tally can only go down,” said Sanjay Kumar, a political analyst at the Lokniti-CSDS, one of India’s leading electoral research groups.  

The party, too, has noticed some alarming signs, said politicians and analysts who spoke to The Diplomat.

A BJP spokesperson said that while the party remains confident, three factors keep the BJP concerned. 

“We are comfortably ahead in the race. The opposition is in disarray. We are just being cautious that there are three factors that require to be taken care of,” said the spokesperson, who refused to be identified, as he is not authorized to speak to the media on strategic matters. 

The three factors are the absence of the “Modi wave,” giving prominence to local issues in some pockets of the region; the salience of caste questions in some constituencies; and the lower voter turnout, which could make for closer contests in some seats. He estimated such seats to number around 20-25. 

“After PM Modi’s vocal tonic over the past few days, we are confident the larger issues that he raised will overshadow the local issues,” he said, referring to the Indian leader’s recent remarks on the campaign trail. 

Psephologist-turned-political activist Yogendra Yadav disagrees. He is confident that the BJP’s tally will go down in Uttar Pradesh. “It will surely be less than what they got in 2019. If they have a setback in UP, it is impossible that states like Bihar, MP, and Rajasthan remain unimpacted,” he told The Diplomat. 

Yadav said that something is happening in this election that observers and analysts have been unable to figure out yet.  

“Leaving Nothing to Chance”

One reason the BJP is being extra careful about the Hindi heartland is that two states outside the region contributed significantly to the BJP’s phenomenal rise in 2014 and 2019 – Maharashtra in western India and Karnataka in south India. They gave the BJP 40 seats in 2014 and 48 in 2019. Allies bagged another 18 both times. 

However, neither of the states looks likely to favor the BJP the same way this time, said several political observers contacted by The Diplomat. 

Among the Hindi heartland states, most political observers see the BJP comfortably placed in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. In these states, the opposition leadership has not been able to make much of an impression on voters, said multiple journalists covering these states. 

However, the developments in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Delhi are being keenly followed. 

“I’m for Modi but the 2019-like enthusiasm is missing this time,” said Vineet Sarwar, a small trader at Kumhari village in Katihar Lok Sabha constituency of eastern Bihar.  

The Modi wave had overshadowed all local issues in 2019 but this time concerns like unemployment, poor infrastructure, and caste equations are being discussed, he said.

In the last two elections, the BJP-led NDA swept Bihar, bagging 31 of 40 seats in 2014 and 39 in 2019. However, the 2020 state assembly election saw a close contest, with the NDA managing just a narrow victory. 

This time, the opposition hopes to cash in on anti-incumbency sentiment against Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who heads BJP ally Janata Dal (United). He has been serving as the chief minister since 2005, except for a gap of nine months.  

In Rajasthan, which has 25 seats, the Jats, an influential intermediary Hindu caste, are carrying out a high-pitched campaign against the BJP. Here, the BJP’s 2019 ally, the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party, is now with the Congress, and the latter has also allied with the Communist Party of India (Marxist). 

Kumar of Loktini-CSDS, however, pointed out that in states like Bihar and Rajasthan, there was no strong anti-incumbency sentiment noticeable, nor had the opposition parties managed to establish any strong positive narrative in their favor.

In Delhi, which has seven seats, the alliance between the Congress and its archrival, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), has made the BJP’s challenge tougher. 

While the BJP hopes the arrest of AAP helmsman and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on corruption charges has tarnished Kejriwal’s image and blunts the prospect of the AAP-Congress alliance, the opposition hopes people would take the arrest as an act of vindictive politics and sympathize with the party. 

In Uttar Pradesh, voters generally express satisfaction over an improved law and order scenario under the BJP’s Adityanath government, say local journalists. But Rajputs, an upper caste, are carrying out an anti-BJP campaign. 

Yadav said that something is happening in this election that observers and analysts have been unable to figure out yet. 

Here, the Congress-Samajwadi Party (SP) alliance hopes to better the opposition tally by raising issues of inflation and unemployment and uniting the votes of Muslims and the Yadav caste.   

Low voter turnout is another issue that has alarmed the BJP. If the average voter turnout in the first and second phases has been lower than 2019, it’s the lowest in the Hindi heartland states. 

In the first two phases, the voter turnout stood at 66.14 percent for 102 seats and 66.71 percent for 88 seats, respectively. While this was lower than the 2019 turnout for these seats, the turnout in the Hindi heartland has been significantly lower. 

The 16 Uttar Pradesh seats recorded 58.4 percent average polling, Bihar’s nine seats saw 55 percent average polling and Rajasthan’s 25 seats recorded 61.4 percent polling. 

Political observers say it would be wrong to infer the lower turnout would damage the BJP alone. Lower voter turnout usually reflects a lack of anti-incumbency, they point out. Besides, voter turnout has been low not only in Hindu-dominated seats but also Muslim concentration constituencies.  

Nevertheless, the BJP’s campaign strategy has undergone a significant change. They started a couple of months ago saying the election was a cakewalk and gave the slogan of “Ab Ki Baar, 400 paar,” meaning the party will win more than 400 seats this time. Later, they set a target of 370 seats to signify the “integration of Kashmir” by taking away its special status. 

However, after the first phase of polling, the party realized that the strategy may have backfired in two ways – causing complacency among BJP voters and panic among opposition voters. They changed tack to create panic over the possibility of the opposition coming to power. 

Modi, therefore, apart from warning the voters of the danger of the opposition coming to power, is routinely exhorting them to turn up at the polling stations in large numbers. 

“I know it’s the summer months. But in the national interest, to strengthen democracy, we must uphold the duty of casting our votes. Trying conditions must not deter us,” he said at Araria. 

He advised voters to go to their polling stations in a festive mood, in processions of 20-25 people, singing and banging pots and pans. 

Editor’s Note: A version of this piece originally appeared on The Diplomat and has been republished with permission from the editors.

***

Also Read: India’s Electoral Bond Conundrum

Image 1: Workers prepare political party badges in the western Indian city of Mumbai, Flickr Creative Commons

Image 2: BJP and Shiv Sena flags at a rally, Flickr Creative Commons

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