Message From The Grand Trunk Road Of Politics: There Is No One Message

Message From The Grand Trunk Road Of Politics: There Is No One Message

No one unique factor has apparently emerged out of the cacophony of news to capture the imagination of the diverse people who live in the Gangetic belt, the most populous part of the country

Jayanta Roy ChowdhuryUpdated: Sunday, May 12, 2024, 10:27 PM IST
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Representative Image | Pixabay

As one travelled from the east to the west, along the Grand Trunk Road, the conversation along the tea shops and dhabas that dot the highway seemed to indicate — there is no ‘ hawa’ or strong mood this time round even though elections to roughly half the constituencies in the lower house of Parliament are over.

More interestingly, with fewer new takers for the messaging on the Hindu-Muslim binary, local grievances against legislators, older caste loyalties and caste interests are once again becoming important factors in electoral decisions in vast swathes of the Hindi heartland, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Ram Mandir, Nitish Kumar, Mamata Benerjee, Arvind Kejriwal, all figure in the conversation but nothing or nobody is debated strongly or by all sections of the populace. No one unique factor has apparently emerged out of the cacophony of news bombarded through television, radio and social media channels, to capture the imagination of the diverse people who live in the Gangetic belt, the most populous part of the country.

The grand trunk highway, built in the centuries before Christ as Uttarapatha and rebuilt five centuries ago by Sher Shah Suri, is the lifeblood of India’s domestic commerce, as also of its political consciousness. More than a third of the seats in the Lok Sabha will be decided in voting in the states through which this road meanders.

Unlike in 2019, when the Balakot strike and how India had faced up to “Pakistan’s perfidy” figured in almost every second conversation along this same highway, helping create the mood which gave the ruling alliance a thumping majority in Parliament, or even 2004, when the question of whether India was indeed shining was uppermost on the minds of the people, no single issue seems to have emerged this time round.

Modi, the master messenger, still towers on billboards and on television screens and indeed on people’s mind space. BJP’s legions of supporters are visible everywhere as are TMC’s in Bengal, RJD’s in Bihar and Akhilesh Yadav’s in Uttar Pradesh.

Most people continue to see Modi as a “doer” and a “strong PM”. However that is where it stops. His latest outbursts on Adani and Ambani, the Opposition supporting the Muslim League’s thought process, is not gaining the traction it may have received in the past.

In fact the messaging claim by the PM on top industrial houses sending tempo-loads of money to the Congress has left the ordinary voter puzzled or at best cold. The rhetoric is finding few takers.

In fact the earlier Modi magic which had affected almost all parts of the country is now perhaps shrinking in its geographical spread. As one crosses the Hindi heartland boundary into states like West Bengal, Modi and Amit Shah are absent from the mind space of people going about their everyday life. The conversation revolves for or against Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in Bengal, for instance.

Even when one crosses the Mahananda river to enter Bihar from Bengal, Modi is no longer the only big picture star, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav, caste politics crop up and the picture gets blurred. He is still a big star as Amitabh Bachchan would be in a Bachchan-Amir Khan- Ritwik Roshan starrer. But there are other stars and other calculations which flash across the screen.

From Katihar on the Bengal border to the western limit of Sivan, the verdict in a state where people generally speak clearly, is still unclear.

Last time round in 2019, the NDA had won 39 out of 40 seats, with BJP alone winning 17. With Nitish evoking mixed response this time round, ranging from “Mukhya mantri toh har waqt team badalte hain” (the CM changes sides too frequently) to “Sushasak tho hain, par…” (he is a good ruler, but…) and the RJD-led mahagathbandhan gaining strength, the going may be tough for the NDA.

Another interesting insight from conversations is that the Prime Minsister’s de facto number two — Amit Shah — does not enjoy a similar screen presence as ‘Saheb’ does and the only man from his party who seems to enjoys a popularity comparable to his, in the country’s political heartland of Uttar Pradesh, remains Yogi Adityanath.

Most people in Uttar Pradesh are more than willing to comment on the politics of the nation, the problems of their constituency but are unwilling to reveal the way their vote will swing this time round. The silence may be the stillness before a storm or the silence borne out of disinterest in the election.

However, that should not worry the ruling BJP as much as the fact that its Ram Mandir gambit, which should have won it support and votes across at least the Hindi heartland, has not managed to garner the huge traction it should have.

The Mandir seems done and dusted, at least among the men in the tea shops on the route. Some 32 years after the fall of the Babri Masjid following the nationwide movement to garner support for a Ram temple through a whirlwind ‘Ratha Yatra’ by Modi’s then mentor L K Advani, and months after it was consecrated in the presence of the Prime Minister in a nationally televised ceremony, the temple is less of an issue than it should have been.

However, its impact should not be shrugged off, either. Traditional women across the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and even in pockets of Hindi speakers in the jute mill districts of Bengal feel the move to establish the Ram Mandir is an epochal one and needs to be welcomed. And women of course have half the vote in this country. It has to be remembered that according to data provided by the Election Commission women cast more votes in four states in the third round of polling — Bihar, West Bengal, Goa and Dadra and Nagar Haveli.

Nevertheless, most poor people seem to have moved on. Jobs, roads, rising prices, costly private health care and inadequate state-run hospitals, among other things, jostle for space, as do a host of other factors and worries. And election time is one when all this comes out in the open.

More interesting is the feeling among the people at the bottom of the country’s caste and economic pyramid — that an overwhelmingly strong government with a huge majority may change the constitution in any manner it wishes to.

While the messaging over a Universal Civil Code is designed to consolidate the county’s Hindu vote, somehow the lingering fear among many in the country’s scheduled castes, who count for one in every six Indians, is that the power to change the Constitution is a dangerous one and the benefits which B R Ambedkar gave to his brethren should not be tinkered with.

This is one election where the fight is getting more interesting as the days go by, despite the Opposition not managing to up its act in any significant manner or show far greater strength than it had when the polls began — except for winning the release on bail of one key campaigner, Arvind Kejriwal, whose political impact is limited mostly to Delhi, Haryana and Punjab. But then these states too figure along the Grand Trunk Road.

The writer is former head of PTI’s eastern region network

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