LUCKNOW: Prime Minister Narendra Modi no longer commands the 2014 heights. The image created by master oratory and a determined media has been punctured in Uttar Pradesh with demonetisation that has become a major issue all over the state. Some speak about it, many do not but as the Ayodhya shopkeeper deep inside the gallis said, “you can see for yourself why do you want me to say it.”

Significantly, many of the candidates fielded by the BJP are not known to the people, and are in several constitutencies not even locals. There is no one prominent local leader who can even be looked upon as a potential chief minister, with PM Modi and Shah ruling the UP roost. Factionalism has divided the party from within, and like the state Congress, the BJP too has almost as many factions as it has local leaders. Old timers close to former BJP PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee like Lalji Tandon and Kalraj Mishra are keeping a safe distance from the polls and except for the PM and Shah there is no prominent personality from the party making state wide tours.

In Varanasi---the Prime Ministers Lok Sabha seat and that was promised the moon---there is open rebellion in one major Assembly segment, and partially in a second. In Varanasi South, for instance, the sitting MLA Shyamdeo Roy Choudhary was denied a ticket by Shah in favour of greenhorn Neelkanth Tiwari. Choudhary claimed that he was not even given the courtesy of a telephone call, and has publicly spoken out against the BJP with the result that a former MP who had defeated Murli Manohar Joshi in 2009, Rajesh Mishra is riding high on the Congress ticket in the Alliance. Shah reportedly spoke to Choudhary but despite this he is not coming out for the BJP in his constituency.

There are seven Assembly segments in the Varanasi parliamentary constituency and the BJP is struggling in at least five according to its own supporters.

The Jats in western UP were the most vocal in their opposition, standing in the market places of little towns and villages to insist loudly---for all to hear---that they were not going to vote for the BJP come what may. Their angst was over sugarcane promises not kept, demonetisation that had hit all of them, and even more so on reservations that the BJP had promised but done nothing about. This led BJP President Amit Shah to seek special meetings with the Jats, in a bid to persuade them “we care.”

PM Modi is campaigning like a local candidate, addressing as many as three meetings a day. In Lucknow shopkeepers are smiling at this effort, although most are not willing to say whether it will yeild results. But the desperation is showing as the PM has moved away from the issue of demonetisation and development, and has started playing the Hindu Muslim card openly. His rallies in eastern UP have ranged from the indifferent to the good, with the crowds not always enthusiastic--- in fact quite the opposite at times. As a local BJP leader said, it was not as easy as 2014 for the party to bring in the crowds for the rallies this time around.

BJP president Amit Shah is not particularly popular, and workers at BJP offices in the districts admit this. In fact he lost his temper in Amethi at a meeting to support the party candidate and the first wife of the Raja of Amethi Sanjay Singh, Garima Singh. The crowd that came in to hear him was thin by all accounts and Shah while leaving admonished the party workers asking how they expected to come to power in Lucknow with such numbers. Then to make matters worse, a BJP leader and candidate from the neighbouring constituency, shouted slogans for Amita Singh, the second wife and currently the Congress candidate from Amethi, instead of Garima Singh until the mike was snatched from him.

Garima Singh herself insisted that she had nothing to do with any communal divisive agenda. “I am here to work for everyone,” she insisted while her campaign managers came up to insist that for them only “justice and injustice” was the issue, the focus as it were. The injustice of Sanjay Singh leaving her 25 years ago and marrying Amita.

Shah’s unpopularity has left the party in some disarray in UP. The old leadership is sitting silently at home, doing little to help the BJP revive the old magic. Reports suggest that the RSS that had instructed its cadres to virtually run the polls in 2014 was also not present in the same numbers, leaving it to Shah and his new team of hopefuls. Hence the communal card while being raised by PM Modi from the ramparts, is not that visible in the districts with the campaign---if any---lowkey and certainly not sufficient to make a ripple. Or scare off non BJP voters. ‘

For instance, despite revving up the issue of Ram Mandir while releasing the BJP manifesto for the UP polls, the BJP has not been able to infuse life into this slogan in even Ayodhya. In that a lone Muslim shopkeeper in one of the gullies selling temple ware had no hesitation in criticising demonetisation loudly while the other shopkeepers heard him out in silence. There was no tension, and no visible animosity with people more worried about livelihood than the temple. The police was manning three circles of security acround the makeshift temple at the disputed site, searching the few visitors for combs and pens as part of the prohibited paraphernalia with nothing out of place.

It remains to be seen whether the communal card now pays the dividends that the BJP in the remaining phases of the polls as the BJP is hoping it will. But as the SP candidate from Kursi Farid Kidwai pointed out, “PM Modi had initially spoken of development in Bihar and then midway into the polls when it became clear that the Alliance there was forging ahead he started talking in divisive terms. The same seems to be happening here.”

Whether it is so will be determined on March 11 when the votes are counted, but it is clear that the BJP---win or lose--- is not riding any wave in UP this time. Far from it.

(Cover Photograph: BJP President Amit Shah at a meeting in Amethi in support of candidate Garima Singh)