India election: Voters expect big changes from frontrunner Modi

If Narendra Modi's right-wing BJP-led coalition wins an outright majority in India's national election, it will be thanks to voters in bellwether states like Uttar Pradesh.

Ahmad Masood/Reuters
Voters get their names checked in a voter's lists at a polling station during the final phase of the general election in Varanasi in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh May 12, 2014.

If Narendra Modi pulls off the election victory that exit polls have predicted, he will have built it on his popularity in towns like Mirzapur, a dilapidated county seat where nothing works. 

“We desperately need sewer lines, all our irrigation canals are silted up, the water system was built in 1914 and there are hardly any jobs even for educated youngsters,” says Rajkumari Khatri, head of the town council, sitting cross-legged in the breezy shade of a Hindu temple porch with a group of fellow Modi supporters on the last day of India’s elections. Official results will be announced Friday. 

“If Modi wins,” she adds, “we can expect some development and industries that would create jobs” in this town of 250,000 on the banks of the Ganges river.

Here in the Hindu heartland, 500 miles southeast of the capital, Delhi, Mr. Modi’s relentless insistence on his ability to bring work, electricity, water, and good roads to the myriad towns and villages nationwide that lack such basics found a ready audience.

Uttar Pradesh, the state in which Mirzapur lies, is India's most populous state, electing 80 of parliament’s 543 members. “It is critical that Modi does very well in Uttar Pradesh,” says Ajoy Bose, author of a book on the state’s politics. Exit polls suggest that the coalition led by the Bharata Janata Party, which Modi heads, may have won as many as 45 of the state’s seats, up from nine at the 2009 elections. 

That apparent surge in support reflects rural Indian voters’ disenchantment with the Congress Party that has ruled the country for the past decade. After delivering an initial spurt of economic growth, the party has been buffeted in recent years by corruption scandals and rising food prices.

'Why not give him a chance?'

For many voters, Modi’s multi-billion, presidential-style election campaign, which swamped the country with TV and newspaper advertisements, made him the symbol of a new dawn.

“I heard on TV that if Modi comes, good days will come, so why not give him a chance?” asks Sudeshwari Devi, a white-haired woman who was voting in her 13th  general election at a whitewashed schoolhouse in Varanasi, India’s holy city.

Younger voters are also enthused by Modi’s promises – and fed up with their current government. “Sometimes we get no electricity all day,” complained first-time voter Rubi Bhola, a recently graduated doctor. “And the roads need mending. I like Narendra Modi and what he has done for Gujarat.” 

Experts debate the merits of the business-friendly development model that Modi has pursued in the western state of Gujarat during his 12 years as chief minister there. But the state is undeniably more prosperous than most of its counterparts, its government has attracted large amounts of investment from both local and foreign businesses, and rural residents have seen some basic services improve. 

A dark shadow, however, hangs over India’s leader-in-waiting – Hindu riots in Gujarat 2002 in which around 1,000 Muslims were massacred. A Supreme Court investigation found that he did not encourage the rioters, as some have alleged, but suspicions that he could have done more to stop them continue to sully his reputation.

'He believes in dividing society'

Such suspicions were uppermost in the mind of Siraj Ahmed Khan, a Muslim carpet weaver, as he stood in the shade of a spreading tree on Monday after casting his vote in the village of Basai Kalam, not far from Mirzapur. He said he had voted for Congress. 

“We cannot have such a radical and dogmatic person as prime minister,” he says, referring to Modi. “He believes in dividing society on religious grounds and if he wins, Muslims won’t get anything, we’ll be left out of any progress.” 

Mr. Khan is bound by a thread, literally, to the Hindus who live at the other end of his village, down a warren of narrow lanes. Hindu women spin and sell the yarn that Khan and his fellow Muslims weave into carpets.

Those women’s husbands and sons, standing in the shade of another tree after casting their own votes for a party allied with the BJP, shrugged off the possibility of heightened religious tensions in their district should Modi come to power.

Modi himself has discounted such fears, promising to be the leader of “one India.” Jayprakash Yadav, a young sales representative for a machinery company, says he does not believe that massacres such as the one that occurred in Gujarat could happen again in his village.

Nor was he – or his Hindu neighbors – hoping that Modi would win power for religious reasons, Mr. Yadav insisted. “We are voting for him because of all the jobs he created in Gujarat,” he explained. “He’ll do the same all over Uttar Pradesh and India.” 

Back in Mirzapur, sitting next to Ms. Khatri in the temple porch, discount airline executive Atul Mohan looks forward to better days for his hometown.

“No businessmen want to come here at the moment because we lack infrastructure, electricity and confidence,” he lamented. “Modi is new and he has a proven track record. If he does just 50 percent of what he has done for Gujarat it will be enough for us.”

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