Most of us are still struggling to grasp the dimensions of Narendra Modi’s victory. He won a mind-boggling 71 of Uttar Pradesh’s 80 seats. So he won far more seats in UP than the Congress party did in all India. Mayawati, who aspired to become prime minister in a hung Parliament, was so engulfed by the Modi wave that she did not win a single seat. In West Bengal, the BJP won as many seats as the Left Front, which had earlier won seven elections in a row.
For the first time the BJP emerged as a truly all-India party, winning seats in every region. It came first in distant Assam, made a clean sweep in Rajasthan and Gujarat, and came close to a clean sweep in Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.
These states are poor, backward and rural. Villagers there know little about conditions in other states. How did they get to see Modi’s Gujarat mode as a beacon of hope? Some analysts attribute this to massive election spending by the BJP, aided by contributions from big business. Others give the credit to the RSS cadres and Amit Shah’s organizational skills. Still others give the credit to the spread of TV and cellphones, which enabled Modi’s election campaign to reach even remote villages.
I disagree. The biggest, most credible explanation I found in a pre-election tour of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar was the message carried home by migrant workers in Gujarat.
Why did they think Modi would change their lives, and how had they heard about the Gujarat model? None of them said they had met, let alone been swayed, by RSS cadres. None had been won over by the BJP’s advertisement-packed campaign through TV and other media. Indeed, none of the villagers I met watched the cable channels that were full of BJP advertisements. They had no cable TV, and watched only Doordarshan, the government channel, which was obviously slanted in favour of the ruling Congress Party.
The villagers had a low opinion of politicians, as vultures who came around promising the moon at election time, and were never seen thereafter. Why then did the villagers see Modi as a different sort of politician, or believe his claims about what he had done in Gujarat?
This is where the answers got interesting. Many villagers said they had heard tales of good governance from migrant workers who had returned from Gujarat to nearby villages. This word of mouth had a credibility that would never be matched by expensive media campaigns or cadre blitzes. Nobody trusted the promises of politicians, but they readily believed tales carried by migrant workers. These tales were not very detailed or specific, but sufficed to be a beacon of hope for disillusioned villagers who despaired of getting anything from their local politicians.
We asked villagers, what about the riots in Gujarat in 2002? Are you not afraid that Modi will unleash similar violence if he is voted to power in New Delhi? The villagers replied that maybe there was some violence in Gujarat in 2002, but today all migrant workers said it was a peaceful place where there was public order and nobody lived in fear. One villager in UP said that there was constant violence and gangsterism in his state, no matter who ruled, so why worry about what happened in Gujarat a long time ago? The election campaigns of the Congress, SP and BSP tried to paint Modi’s Gujarat as a land of sectarian carnage, but migrant labourers told a very different story, one that was widely believed.
Muslim villagers in the two states told us they were not going to vote for Modi. But most other communities were sold on Modi. Older dalits in UP said they would definitely vote for Mayawati, but young dalits said they would vote for Modi, as they believed he would bring them jobs. This may help explain why Mayawati got wiped out in the state: her once impregnable dalit vote-bank has been seriously eroded.
Gujarat gets migrants mainly from the Hindi heartland, but also eastern states like Assam, Odisha and West Bengal. The numbers are not massive. But the stories of even a few migrants seem to carry credibility, and seem to spread over large areas in poor, backward areas. Modi can be happy that migrants have acted as independent evaluators and given him good marks. But he needs to stand warned that the process has raised impossibly high expectations that he will not be able to meet. He has a tough job ahead.