Rising prices threaten Modi’s hold on India’s most crucial state

Five years ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party won big in India’s most-populous state thanks in part to low-status voters who endorsed his economic vision. Now they’re showing signs of looking elsewhere.

Soaring prices, joblessness and health complications from a vicious wave of delta-fueled COVID-19 infections last summer are high on the minds of voters in Uttar Pradesh, the most crucial of five states that will reveal election results this week. Moreover, Modi’s Hindu-dominant Bharatiya Janata Party is pushing away some Muslims and voters from disadvantaged castes who once embraced him.

“Wages are coming down while inflation is rising — it’s becoming difficult to run the family and pay school fees,” Imtiyaz Ahmad, a 42-year-old Muslim who previously voted for Modi’s BJP, said in the swing district of Tanda while working long hours in the city’s textile factories to make extra cash. “We will vote for a change.”

While polls in the run-up to the election show Modi holding onto power in Uttar Pradesh, they predict the margin of victory to be much tighter than when the BJP won nearly 80% of seats in 2017. A particularly close race would raise questions about whether Modi is finally losing his touch after eight years in power, giving a disparate opposition hope to oust him at the next national election in 2024.

India’s inflation breached the upper limit of the central bank’s 2%-6% target range in January, driven by rising costs of food and fuel. Sanctions on Russia after it attacked Ukraine are further driving up oil prices, with JPMorgan Chase & Co. saying global benchmark Brent crude could end the year at $185 a barrel if Russian supply continues to be disrupted.

Ram Murti Verma, center, at a campaign event in Tanda, Uttar Pradesh, India. | BLOOMBERG
Ram Murti Verma, center, at a campaign event in Tanda, Uttar Pradesh, India. | BLOOMBERG

Much of Modi’s success has been due to an ability to unite Hindus who comprise 80% of India’s population and divide opposition parties that largely appeal to a particular caste or region. In Uttar Pradesh — a state with more people than Russia and Ukraine combined, almost a fifth of them Muslims — the main opposition party is looking to turn the tables on Modi by forming a united front with smaller groups.

If they’re successful when votes are counted on March 10, it will be due to gains in places like Tanda, a textile-producing town on the banks of the Ghaghara River, a tributary of the Ganges. The constituency has voted for the winning party’s candidate in the last three state elections dating back to 2007, including a BJP lawmaker five years ago.

This year the balance in Tanda appears to be tilting toward the Samajwadi Party, which is the closest challenger to the BJP in the polls. Party leader Akhilesh Yadav, who is a former state chief minister, is copying a page out of Modi’s playbook in a bid for an upset win: It has formed an alliance with nine smaller groups that have clout among the so-called backward castes. This strategy could draw away support from the BJP when it’s already been weakened because of a yearlong farmers’ protest against new agricultural laws that Modi was forced to reverse.

It’s not just Muslim voters like Ahmad who are switching their votes to the Samajwadi Party. Hindus, especially those belonging to groups that fall lower on the religion’s complex caste structure, are also looking away from the BJP.

“Youths in my village are roaming around — hardly anyone got jobs in the last five years,” said Abhay Raj, a 68-year-old Hindu farmer from a lower caste. “I have faith in the Samajwadi Party as they are talking about creating employment and giving benefits to farmers.”

Kapil Deo Verma speaks to villagers in Tanda, Uttar Pradesh, India. | BLOOMBERG
Kapil Deo Verma speaks to villagers in Tanda, Uttar Pradesh, India. | BLOOMBERG

Modi’s party is still confident of victory. On the campaign trail, BJP leaders have touted a mix of pro-poor policies — like low-cost housing and toilets — along with appeals to the Hindu majority spearheaded by firebrand Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

“Earlier they would build a Hajj House,” he said in a speech in January referring to facilities the previous government had made for Muslims going on the Hajj pilgrimage. “Our government made a building for those who go to Kailash Manasarovar,” he added, referring to a Hindu religious site.

The Samajwadi Party’s alliances “in the past two elections didn’t work,” said Hero Bajpai, a BJP spokesman. “Similarly this time, the alliance based on caste and religion won’t work.”

At one BJP campaign stop in Tanda, a group of actors performed a street play about how crime had fallen under the party’s rule. A campaign manager then hailed the bravery of Indian soldiers fighting neighboring Pakistan and Modi’s “bold” move to revoke seven decades of autonomy in the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir.

The local candidate, Kapil Deo Verma, said the BJP made women homeowners, providing low-cost housing while providing toilets and cooking gas cylinders to the poor. But the appeals to Hindus resonated most with voters on the ground.

A cutout of Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav at a store outside the party's office in Lucknow, India on Feb. 19. | BLOOMBERG
A cutout of Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav at a store outside the party’s office in Lucknow, India on Feb. 19. | BLOOMBERG

In Uttar Pradesh, Modi’s party has enacted laws against so-called love jihad — a reference to an alleged conspiracy of Muslim men luring Hindu women into marriage for conversion — and also cracked down on Muslims who protested India’s religion-based citizenship law.

“When the BJP talks about temples and Hindus that thrilled me,” said Arvind Kumar Verma, 38, adding that he would vote for the party even though he’s been hurt by rising prices and his mother died last year from COVID-19 after struggling to access medical care. “I have sympathy for BJP.”

At a separate stop in Tanda, Samajwadi’s candidate Ram Murti Verma kept the focus on rising prices and the lack of jobs. He drew cheers from supporters when talking about his party’s pledge of creating employment opportunities for the youth and providing openings for women in government jobs.

Still, he said his party’s alliance with small caste groups will have the biggest impact. “About 80 to 90% of the supporters of these groups who voted for BJP in the last assembly election will vote for the Samajwadi Party this time,” he said.

The opposition also aims to attract voters of all religions tired of some of the BJP’s religion-based policies. A ban on slaughtering cows — considered sacred by devout Hindus — has resulted in stray and often starving cattle roaming through villages, while so-called cow vigilantes roam the state attacking anyone they suspect of trading cattle for meat or leather.

“We work all day and then spend sleepless nights guarding our fields,” said Nirmala Devi, a 63-year-old Hindu farmer. “This is a big problem. I’m angry with the BJP.”

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