We are up and running for elections 2019, and what better a place to start than Uttar Pradesh.
This is the state that gave the BJP an absolute majority in 2014 and ensured its dominance in the NDA government that followed. The party swept 71 of 80 seats (73 with its allies) and followed up its 2014 whopper by walloping the opposition in the assembly election of 2017. If the BJP holds its ground here, then it is back with a bang; a minor slip and the party can still cobble together a coalition with support from outside the NDA as it stands; a big drop and the BJP could be staring at a bleak future.
In UP, rivals have become friends to fight their common enemy BJP. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Samajwadi Party (SP) and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and others are coming together in a mahagatbandan built on the hope that their combined strength will vanquish the adversary. They came second and third in 2014 in 60 constituencies. If their votes are combined, they could topple the BJP in half the seats (36) that it held. Another half a dozen could fall with a 2.5% swing against the BJP. Put another way, these losses would be equivalent to all the seats in Bihar or West Bengal.
Numbers such as these assume that votes are transferable from one party to another. The BSP has generally been able to deliver on transferring Dalit votes but the SP is not known for marshaling its forces that well. They also assume that the distribution of seats and candidates is palatable to the electorate. Besides, there is criticism that this mahagatbandan does not include the Congress, which, with 8% of UP votes in 2014, would have almost certainly ensured the defeat of the BJP in another 14 seats.
We begin our journey in Jat-dominated western UP, particularly Mathura, Hathras and Agra. In 2014 these were overwhelmingly BJP, with more than 50% of the vote. But these are not seats that are historically held by one party over a long series of elections, and any significant change here could portend difficulties for the BJP.
As we head to areas where the BJP did well, much of it is Charan Singh country usurped by the ruling party. Will the RLD of Charan Singh's son Ajit Singh help the opposition get its game together here?
Our first stop is a very middle-class highway restaurant on the Agra Expressway. Here, at Jolly Go food court, the overwhelming refrain is "Modi-ji". This segment of Indians seems to be firmly in his camp, be it young and local - or old and from Pune. They all have only good things to say about the BJP, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The manager of the establishment is more circumspect. While he strongly supports the BJP, he feels that in Jewar, where a new airport for Delhi is to come up, the support is not as strong as it was the last time. People, he suggests, are never satisfied.
In Jewar town, people are still waiting to see what will happen on the airport; nobody so far has been called to surrender land for it. But they all believe that an airport here would be a game-changer. Having won Gautam Buddha Nagar with just over 50% of the votes, the BJP should be safe in this constituency with its large middle class vote bank in Noida.
As we drive through the fertile agriculture belt of Mathura, potato and mustard are being harvested while wheat still has a month to go. The crop, by all accounts, has been plentiful though prices seem to be low. Most farmers admit they can no longer wait for the government to buy their mustard, so they are selling it to the local traders.
In Jaralia, Yogendra Singh, a Jat farmer, says he needs the Rs 2,500 a quintal now, not six weeks later. So if he is losing out on the government support price, too bad. He has debts to pay. But this has not weakened his support for the BJP. He says the party is still the best for the nation, if not for the farming community.
This distinction between what benefits them and what is good for the country is a common feature in this area. People seem to be willing to overlook corruption and mismanagement by the state BJP government and continue to support Modi.
Vegetable seller Devi Singh, a Jatav in Bajna, (Hathras constituency) mocks the toilet-building scheme in each home saying, "they dig a while and put a couple of bricks, that's it" and pocket the money. But he still feels that PM Modi is right for the country. As does Chandra Pal, a cook in the dhaba behind. A Jat, he says while the RLD may do well this time, "Modi-ji will win now and in 2024."
Similarly, while there is a lot of anger over cows trampling over and eating wheat crop and many feel the government should be doing more, others are more sanguine, like Yogendra Singh, who says, "Cows are part of our heritage and we need to deal with it."
Yogendra is more concerned about the high cost of electricity (Rs 1,850 per month) in his field and the low financial return on mustard.
This feeling that farmers are hard done by is quite prevalent. While many temper their comments, Raghubir Singh, a Jat farmer outside Brindavan, makes no effort to hide his frustration. From cattle trespassing to loan waivers, his criticism is all-encompassing. Even the armed forces are not spared.
He asks, if those who die for the country can get Rs 40 lakhs and a petrol pump, shouldn't farmers that die trying to feed the country also get something?
For him, the spending by the state BJP government in Prayagraj over the Mahakumbh was excessive. "Loans and the cost of cultivation are killing farmers, that's why there is suicide," he says, dramatically gesturing to show an imaginary noose around his neck.
Another farmer points to his haystack in the field and says that's where he sleeps at night to protect his crop from marauding cattle. Why do farmers have to sleep so uncomfortably, he asks, while the rest of the country can sleep in the comfort of their mattresses on beds?
And yet, despite the complaints, there seem to be many who are unwilling to blame the Modi government. At a tea stall in Govindpur, the farmers say, "Yes, the cattle have destroyed some crop and that's a problem, but the harvest is good, better than last year, so why worry?" Similarly, they say, the potato crop is excellent so obviously the price is going be around Rs 6 a kg. Store it and wait.
An elderly gentleman pops up and shouts, "Modi is the only one".
It is interesting that in almost any market or large group discussion, someone with strong BJP connections always appears and tries to steer the conversation a certain way. This subtle 'hijacking' also discourages a lot of people from voicing their opinions. Which is why, while everyone admits there is farmer anger and unemployment, the job crisis remains a strong undercurrent rather than a topic discussed.
Today's paper in Agra seemed to confirm the fact that the BJP still holds its ground in this area. It reported that in Fatehpur Sikri (once Mughal Emperor Akbar's capital) adjunct to Agra, last time's BSP candidate Seema Upadhyay, a former MP, is refusing to contest, perhaps feeling she cannot overturn a BJP majority of 2.5 lakhs.
Pulwama may just have strengthened the Modi factor somewhat in this area; after all this is a 'martial race' area.
(Ishwari Bajpai is Senior Advisor at NDTV.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.