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India election

Modi's BJP bumps into regional opposition in India's election

Alliance of former rivals reaches out to Muslims and lower castes in Uttar Pradesh

An election campaign rally of Bahujan Samaj Party in 2016. The party formed an alliance with former rival in January.   © Reuters

MEERUT, India -- Many low-income voters in India's most populous state are throwing their weight behind an alliance of regional opposition parties, causing a headache for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling coalition in the general elections due to start next week.

Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India, is home to more than 200 million. It is a key battleground in the election starting April 11 and ending May 19, as it accounts for 80 of the 543 parliamentary seats up for grabs.

Sunil Kumar, 35, sells snacks by a university in Meerut in Uttar Pradesh's west. Although he believed that Modi had tried hard to serve the country, he said government projects to help alleviate poverty had not worked for him.

"I earn just 200 rupees ($2.90) a day and hear a lot about the government working to provide welfare for the poor but I haven't been receiving any benefit," Kumar said.

Voters like Kumar are flocking to the opposition alliance, that includes the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, and turning against Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Sunil Kumar, center, in Meerut in Uttar Pradesh's west. He says government projects to help alleviate poverty had not worked for him. (Photo by Kiran Sharma)

Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party were rivals that took turns to run the state government in recent decades until the BJP won a thumping victory in local polls in 2017.

In the 2014 general elections, BJP won 71 seats in Uttar Pradesh alone, of a total of 282 it clinched, highlighting the importance of keeping control of the state. Uttar Pradesh also gave another two seats to a BJP ally to help propel Modi to the position of prime minister and solidify the hold of his party over the state.

But the regional alliance is set to give BJP a hard time now. BJP was successful in the past in part because of a fractured opposition. Those parties have now organized themselves and will give BJP a run for its money, analysts said.

The traditional voters of Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party include Hindus in the lowest caste, known as Dalits, and other segments of society considered economically deprived. Muslims, who form about 15% of India's population, also tend to support those two parties. By contrast, Brahmins and Rajputs, the top Hindu castes, as well as the trading community, are seen as a key voting bloc for the BJP.

The two regional parties in January decided to form an alliance to stop the BJP's winning spree in Uttar Pradesh. Now together, they are expected to gain momentum.

According to India TV-CNX opinion poll released on Apr. 1, BJP is expected to win 45 seats in the state while one is likely to go to its ally Apna Dal. The regional opposition combine could get 30 seats.

Mohammad Shakeel, a 28-year-old Muslim, said the government had not done enough to find employment for him.

Shekhar from Gosna village in Uttar Pradesh wants the government to create more employment opportunities. (Photo by Kiran Sharma)

"I'm a laborer and do not always find work," said Shakeel who lives in Dungrawali village in Meerut, in the west of the state. He favors the regional party alliance over the BJP. "Whether this alliance wins or not, my vote will be for it."

Nineteen-year-old Shekhar, who is from Gosna village in Mathura district of the state which goes to the polls on April 18, said he hoped a regime change would help him find a stable job. He is now unemployed. "Our village has a Dalit population [of 1,500] so we will vote for the people from our caste in the opposition," he said.

Yet, it isn't just the young and disaffected who are casting their votes for the opposition. Chanderjeet, 72, a retired government employee from the same village said he and the rest of this family would also vote for the opposition alliance.

Analysts say Modi would find it hard to repeat the "2014 magic" that helped the BJP to scoop up more seats than ever in the state.

"Minorities are unhappy with BJP in the state," said Narayan Bareth, a political analyst. Part of the dissatisfaction with the government stems from the crackdown on the slaughter of cows, on which many Muslims depend for their livelihoods.

"Traders who were a traditional vote bank of BJP too are unhappy because of the goods and services tax [that was rolled out in 2017] and demonetization [of high-value banknotes in 2016] that disrupted their business," he added.

Opinion polls show that Modi's BJP is still in the lead and poised to return to power but if its majority in the lower house shrinks significantly, then it will have to compromise and rely on its allies in the coalition.

Analysts say Modi would find it hard to repeat the "2014 magic" that helped it to scoop up more seats than ever in the state.    © Reuters

Modi showed he realized the importance of securing a firm support base in the state and kicked off his party's campaign from Meerut where polling will be held on April 11.

"[Our government is capable] of killing the enemy by entering his house," he said in late March pointing to the Feb. 26 airstrike on militants in Pakistan in response to a suicide bombing in the Indian-controlled part of disputed Kashmir. As he spoke, the crowd passionately chanted "Modi, Modi."

Those who have benefited from Modi's election handouts in the budget announced in February could also still give BJP the boost it needs.

Prem Singh Yadav, 56, a farmer from Etah region in Uttar Pradesh where the polling will take place on April 23, said he would go with Modi.

"Although on the basis of my caste I should vote for the opposition combine but I'll go for Modi," said Yadav. He added that he received in March the first of the three yearly instalments of 2,000 rupees each under the prime minister's scheme to support farmers.

Modi's government vowed to build physical as well as social infrastructure for a $10 trillion economy by 2030 in an extravagant, populist interim budget for the fiscal year that started this month. Under this plan, every Indian family will have a roof over its head and live in a "healthy, clean and wholesome" environment by that time.

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