Strong pro-Modi sentiment in eastern UP, central Bihar

ET Now caught up with its Consulting Editor Swaminathan Aiyar for his take on the current political scenario and the possible election outcome. Excerpts:

ET Now: You are just back from your election yatra. You have travelled across eastern UP and Bihar. What is the mood like on the ground? Is there a strong Modi wave, or is it only restricted to the television studios?

Swaminathan Aiyar: Both in eastern UP and in central Bihar, there was a very clear and strong sentiment in favour of Modi. I would say, it was the case even more in central Bihar than in eastern UP.

You found it in remote villages, which you would not have thought are particularly well informed. When you ask people, everybody seems to be feeling that Modi will do some good things.

They are usually not able to explain the basis of this, but word that has gone around is that this man has done good things in Gujarat and he will do good things here as well.

ET Now: The field report from Bihar seems to suggest that it is Lalu who is likely to make big gains there. What did you pick up?

Swaminathan Aiyar: Plain arithmetic suggests that Lalu is fairly strong in some areas and the opinion polls certainly put him at number two, well ahead of Nitish Kumar at number three.

It is also worth emphasising that a lot of people have told us that Nitish Kumar has done a good job, but voting for Nitish Kumar will be of no use in case of a parliamentary election. So many people said that they will vote for Nitish in the state elections, but vote for the BJP in the central election.

ET Now: The BJP fielded Modi from Varanasi because it felt that could positively impact the entire eastern UP belt. Do you see that happening?

Swaminathan Aiyar: Well, Varanasi has a lot of symbolic power. But I do not think symbolic power alone will do it. What seems to have happened is that a substantial amount of migrant labour has gone from Bihar and UP to Gujarat and they have reported back that things run very well there and run very peacefully.

So in spite of the accusations that Modi was responsible for the 2002 riots, they are saying that whatever may have happened in 2002, it appears that Gujarat is much more peaceful today than Uttar Pradesh.

So the message has come through very clearly that there was no fear of Gujarat, no fear of Modi as some people have been trying to portray. The word of mouth from the migrants carries much more weight than any number of interviews on television, or any number of propaganda, posters or TV advertisements.

ET Now: The BJP may deny it, but we have seen a lot of polarisation in this election. How is this going to play out and how do you think this will impact the Muslim vote?

Swaminathan Aiyar: The Muslims in eastern UP, whom I came across, are very clear that they will vote either for the BSP or the SP. They are not going to vote for the BJP.

But that is not surprising and that by itself does not tell you too much. Muslims are maybe 20% of the population. They will have an impact, if they do strategic voting in some constituencies, no doubt about it. So it is not as though there is going to be a 100% sweep and yet, I would not be surprised if Modi gets 50-plus seats in Uttar Pradesh.

ET Now: Many believe that the BSP could put up a strong show and catch everyone by surprise. Do you see that happening?

Swaminathan Aiyar: Simply by talking to villagers, we probably do not have a large enough sample to really give you anything authoritative. Yes, the Dalits are pro-BSP and yet, when we talked to the youngsters below the age of 30, even in Dalit villages, they were in favour of the BJP and they also talked about Narendra Modi.

So there is no doubt that Modi has eaten into the vote of the BSP to a certain extent. He has eaten into the vote of the SP also, because the so-called extreme backward classes, which once upon a time were perhaps with the SP, also seem to see Modi as one of them; as a person belonging to a very backward caste and somebody who is coming up and who is sending out a message of optimism and hope.

He will find it difficult to live up to that, but this message of optimism and hope has, I would say, captured the imagination of people across the Hindu castes, although not the Muslims. In these circumstances, if the BJP is going to get 50-plus seats, it means both the BSP and the SP are going to suffer severe losses.

ET Now: How do you read Modi’s comments on ‘neech rajneeti’. A lot of people say that is polarising voters on caste lines.

Swaminathan Aiyar: Most of this is political theatre and everybody understands that. People are hurling abuses and people are seeing all kinds of tendencies where they may not actually exist.

So whether or not he said Priyanka is his beti, or whether or not Priyanka actually said something about lower castes are being greatly exaggerated and magnified. I do not think these are issues which would decide the election.

There are much bigger and broader issues relating to what life has been like in the last few years and is there somebody who can find a way out of this. That big and broad picture is what matters.

ET Now: Let us talk about Amethi, the Gandhi stronghold. Will it be a tough contest there, or is it going to be another cakewalk, as always, for the Gandhis?

Swaminathan Aiyar: If you go back to the last state election in both Raebareli and Amethi, Priyanka was put in charge of those and she lost eight out of the 10 assembly segments. So it has to be said that the Congress is vulnerable.

Having said that, there is a very clear difference between whom you vote for in a parliamentary poll. In the parliamentary poll if you are voting for Sonia and Rahul, that is very different from voting for various miscellaneous Congressmen who have been put there for the state elections. So, most people will say that the two Gandhis should be safe.

ET Now: What do you think could be the best case scenario in UP from the BJP’s point of view? Could they top 50 seats?

Swaminathan Aiyar: That is credible. I think they could get more than 50 seats. It is worth recalling that Atal Bihari Vajpayee got 57 seats from UP in 1998. So it would not be unprecedented. It has happened before.

ET Now: The market mood is pretty much hinging on an anticipation of the magic number. Does 272 seats look probable for the NDA, or do you think like most others that they will fall short?

Swaminathan Aiyar: Well, I will simply say this. A difference of 1 or 2 percentage points can translate into 30-40 seats. So there are large areas of uncertainty. Is it possible, is it conceivable that the NDA will get 270? Is it conceivable? Is it probable? I think they will probably fall short.

ET Now: It is pretty clear that Mayawati and Mamata are unlikely to support the NDA. So whom can the BJP count on if they get 230 seats?

Swaminathan Aiyar: If the NDA can get 235 or 240, they will manage somehow to form a government even without the three formidable ladies — Mayawati, Mamata and Jayalalitha. That certainly will be their aim.

The second possible aim which some people are speculating about is that they will take at least two of the ladies on board, so that even if one of them threatens to desert, they will not be disturbed. That is completely theoretical. There is one line of thinking saying that if we are going to be dependent on these other people, we should not aim for 275, but we must aim for 325.

ET Now: Two months back you said that there is a 40% chance of Modi becoming PM and 40% chance of the BJP forming a government without Modi as the PM. What is it looking like now?

Swaminathan Aiyar: I would say that there is at least a 90% chance today of Modi becoming the PM. The chances of the BJP without Modi are zero. They have decided that if Modi cannot make it, they would rather allow a fragile Third Front to continue for some time and collapse and come back with Modi. The option of the BJP without Modi is more or less gone and the chances of the Third Front, which earlier I had put at 20%, would be only 10% by now.

What do you think?