Deadly Squalor May Spell Victory for India's Hindu Nationalists
One reason opposition candidate Narendra Modi is on track to become India’s next prime minister can be found in a 100-bed government-run hospital in the city of Jaunpur. Goats roam the corridors, used syringes and vomit litter the floors, and the walls display red spatter from tobacco that has been chewed and spat out.
The radiology department in the hospital, which serves as many as 2,000 patients a day in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, has been closed for three years due to a lack of doctors. Windows are cracked, blood supplies are low and ceiling fans don’t work in temperatures reaching 38 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit).
“I’m sure patients have died because we don’t have the right type of blood to give them,” said Alok Mani Tripathi, 28, a doctor at the hospital who plans to vote for the first time in elections concluding May 16. He’s supporting Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party over Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress and two regional parties that dominate politics in Uttar Pradesh.
“We have been let down by everyone,” he said in the Shaheed Uma Nath Singh District Hospital’s transfusion unit, where blotches of congealed blood mark the walls. “Modi is the only person who can turn the state around.”
In a state that holds the key to power in India and has one of the lowest turnout rates, dissatisfied voters like Tripathi are critical to Modi’s aspirations. The BJP leader is betting his message of economic development set against the government’s failings will unlock voter apathy and trump caste-based allegiances that shape the political contours of one of India’s poorest states.
Uttar Pradesh, with rates of child mortality that rival sub-Saharan Africa, is home to 200 million people and sends 80 of the nation’s 545 lawmakers to parliament -- more than any other area. Voting will start tomorrow in the state, part of nine rounds throughout the country that began April 7 and will end on May 12, four days before final results are announced.
The BJP has never formed a national government without winning the most seats in UP, and took at least 29 of the state’s constituencies in the three times it held power. At the last election in 2009, a quarter of the seats in Uttar Pradesh were won by a victory margin of less than three percent.
That isn’t lost on Modi. He appointed one of his most trusted lieutenants to wage the BJP’s campaign there and will contest the election in the state’s constituency of Varanasi, one of Hinduism’s holiest cities.
“Unless we do well here we have no future,” said Sanjay Bharadwaj, a BJP leader in Uttar Pradesh, where about 48 percent of voters cast a ballot in the last election, lower than the national average of 58 percent. “UP is critical to our game plan for coming to power.”
Polls show the BJP gaining from 2009, when it won only 10 constituencies in the state. The party will win between 42 and 53 seats, according to two opinion surveys. The polls, published by NDTV and CNN-IBN television channels, show Congress winning four to eight seats, down from 21 in the last election.
The NDTV poll, which was conducted in February and had a sampling error of 2 percent, included more than 200,000 voters across India. The CNN-IBN survey, which included 20,957 people and was conducted March 18 to 25, didn’t give a margin of error.
Most encouraging for Modi are forecasts that the BJP is eating into support for the two regional caste-based parties that have held power in the state for the past 15 years. The parties together have won the most seats in the last three parliamentary elections.
The Bahujan Samaj Party, which derives its support from the group at the bottom of India’s millennia-old caste system, will win seven seats, according to the NDTV poll. The Samajwadi Party, which gets its support largely from Muslims and a cow-herding caste, is on course to win 13 seats. In 2009, the BSP garnered 20 seats and SP got 23.
Patram Yadav, 59, who works in the state’s road department, has voted for caste-based parties his whole life. Now he’s considering voting for Modi.
On a hot mid-March day, he stood on the sidewalk outside the Shaheed Uma Nath Singh District Hospital, where the body of his son-in-law had just been dumped by medical staff and covered with a blue sheet. His daughter, distraught and wearing a bright red sari, sat on the floor wailing over her dead husband.
Yadav said he called an ambulance when his son-in-law started experiencing chest pain, but it didn’t arrive. After waiting for about two hours, he paid a taxi to take them 25 kilometers (16 miles) on a pothole-filled road to the hospital.
They arrived too late for doctors to save him. Medical staff told Yadav there were no ambulances to take the body back home to his village of Sarhana.
“Our hospital maintains a higher standard compared to hospitals in adjoining districts,” Bhasker Rai, chief medical superintendent of the hospital, said when asked about the incident. “The standard may not have been satisfactory because we lacked staff on that particular day due to holidays.”
In Sarhana, a cluster of mud-brick homes are built around a broken well. None have toilets or running water and only a few have electricity, for as many as five hours a day.
“If Modi is for development then I will vote for him,” Yadav said. “In past elections politicians promised they would help us, but until now nothing has happened.”
Development topped the concerns of Uttar Pradesh voters in the CNN-IBN poll, followed by rising prices and corruption. Two years ago the state had the most murder cases in the country, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, and United Nations data shows a person born in the state will on average live 14 years fewer than in the southern state of Kerala.
“Uttar Pradesh is the black hole of India,” said Surjit Singh Bhalla, chairman of Oxus Research and Investments in New Delhi and a former World Bank economist. “When people see Modi they think, ‘This guy offers me the chance of a better life.’’
A Modi-led coalition will accelerate moves to build infrastructure and restrain fiscal spending, Nomura International Plc said in a report dated April 8. It will also prompt a ‘‘further positive knee-jerk reaction’’ in Indian stocks, analysts led by Alastair Newton wrote in the report.
India’s economy has expanded on average 7.9 percent annually over the past decade, while Uttar Pradesh has grown at 6.6 percent. And while the state is home to a sixth of India’s 1.2 billion people, it only captured 0.2 percent of the total foreign investment into India in the last 14 years, according to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.
At campaign speeches in Uttar Pradesh, Modi has touted his economic stewardship as governor over the past 13 years of Gujarat, one of India’s most prosperous states. At a March 2 rally attended by half a million people in the state capital Lucknow, he contrasted Uttar Pradesh’s near-daily electricity cuts with a more reliable supply in Gujarat.
Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a spokesman for Congress, said voters wouldn’t be duped by Modi. ‘‘It shows how seriously they insult the intelligence of the people of India,” he said.
To get out the vote, the BJP is also tapping the grassroots network of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist group of which Modi was once a member and that opponents say has fueled religious conflict with Muslims.
Krishna Pratap Singh, the BJP candidate in Jaunpur, has met with RSS activists and on March 19 he visited a local Hindu shrine wearing a bright saffron color scarf that had the names of Hindu gods written on it. Uttar Pradesh holds about a fifth of India’s Muslims, who constitute about 13 percent of India’s population, according to the 2001 census.
“At the top level they talk about development and at the lower level they talk about communal issues,” said Sandeep Shastri, the pro-vice chancellor of Jain University in Bengaluru, formerly known as Bangalore, who carries out opinion polls for India’s top television channels. “The BJP is trying to divide voters along religious lines to overcome the web of caste-based polling that has dominated past elections in Uttar Pradesh.”
Police this week filed a hate speech complaint against Amit Shah, a key Modi aide who is heading the BJP’s campaign in UP, for telling a Hindu crowd that a vote for the party would be tantamount to “revenge” for religious riots in the state, according to Arvind Pundir, an official at a police station in Shamli. The town is near where about 50 people died in clashes between Hindus and Muslims last year.
Shah today filed a challenge in the state’s highest court to quash the police complaint, Press Trust of India reported, without citing anyone. His statement wasn’t a call to violence and wasn’t intended to cause discord between different communities, Nirmala Sitharaman, a BJP spokeswoman, said by phone. She rejected claims the party was exploiting communal divisions to win votes.
BJP infighting threatens to undermine the party’s chances in Uttar Pradesh. Modi’s decision to run in Varanasi forced incumbent Murli Manohar Joshi to step aside, causing resentment within BJP ranks, said Ram Pravesh Pathak, who teaches political science at Banaras Hindu University in the city.
“The internal rift within the local BJP units will cost them a lot of votes,” he said. “They have denied tickets to a lot of loyal party workers who are very disgruntled.”
The BJP’s Sitharaman said candidates were screened by the party’s central election committee, without elaborating on the process.
At the hospital in Jaunpur, Tripathi is the only person on duty in the blood bank. From his room, he can see cows grazing on the grass outside. He talks about how corruption, crime cartels and caste-based politics shape life in Uttar Pradesh.
“We change governments from time to time but nothing else seems to change,” said Tripathi. “It has always been like this. Maybe if Modi comes this time it will be different.”
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Daniel Ten Kate at email@example.com Peter Hirschberg