Why you should care

Because local politics is a finger in the wind for national trends in the biggest democracy on the planet. 

Ask your typical politicians in the north Indian city of Varanasi to talk policy, the impending 2017 elections or all the graffiti advertising various parties — including lotuses, elephants and the face of the prime minister — and they inevitably turn to broad-canvas conversations instead. They mention identity, ideology and what this sacred Hindu city located in India’s most populous state deserves.

But voters are a different story. Their concerns may touch on identity — which candidate is which caste or religion, and who has their back — but mostly they are focused on highways, potholes and the quickly rising river waters that are flooding the streets around the holy river Ganges. This city is a crucial political gauge for the rest of the country, and not just because it sits in a state with a population of 200 million — almost two-thirds that of the entire U.S. — or high representation in the national parliament. This sprawling metropolis also happens to be Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency, famous and ancient and yet riddled with case studies of the problems facing the rest of India too. The long list includes unequal water distribution, disastrous waste management and towers of garbage by the sides of the road that look like burlesque modern-art sculptures. “What are any of the politicians doing for any of us?” asks Ahmed Mohamad, a boatman on the Ganges who can’t take his vehicle out on the water because the river is so high it has submerged nearly all the ghats, the places pilgrims come to bathe.

Two years into Modi’s much-lauded reign, the nation’s political terrain is shifting as voters make up their minds about just how many of his development promises the prime minister has followed through on. Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is facing in the state of Uttar Pradesh a microcosm of trends nationally that shed light on the challenges Indian national parties face when pitted against local parties. “It’s not that ideology doesn’t matter,” says Gilles Verniers, an assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University in Haryana, who is writing his dissertation (at Sciences Politique in Paris) on politics in Uttar Pradesh. “It’s that anything related to tangible development tends to be rewarded more.” Bicycle availability, road construction, electrification — all these are tickets to voters’ hearts, Verniers says. Yes, even in this state, which for several decades was politically defined by its highly polarized caste voting blocs.

UP embodies a lot of the trends of Indian politics … and is basically seen as a political laboratory.

Gilles Verniers, assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University

Fascinatingly, though some politicians and scholars have seen shifts largely along caste and religious lines in other parts of the country, such as Maharashtra, that’s not the case in Uttar Pradesh, where polarization on caste lines is being replaced by voting lines reflecting that desire for concrete development. Today, Verniers says, “very few groups vote as a bloc.” One that still does, he adds, is Dalits — the lowermost caste, who vote overwhelmingly for the Bahujan Samaj Party and remain inspired by that party’s former chief minister Mayawati Prabhu Das. There’s also the Yadavs, a historically peasant caste who tend toward the Samajwadi Party, known for its socialist outreach to both urbanites and pastoral communities. Which leaves much of the rest of the state’s various communities up for grabs and what Verniers says is a “floating electorate,” including the high-caste Brahmins, the Muslims as well as the so-called “Other Backward Castes” and “Most Backward Castes” — each of which encompasses other downtrodden groups.

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A supporter of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

Source Sanjay Kanojia/Getty

Winning those groups is crucial for Prime Minister Modi’s BJP, Verniers argues, and helped them clinch support in 2014. For its part, the BJP did not reply to requests for comment through its national spokesman, Nalin Kohli, though longtime BJP local staffer and Hindu cultural activist Rakesh Tripati, through a thick mouthful of chewing paan, is shocked at the suggestion that voters could choose anyone but Modi. “He has started to follow through on the promises — he’s trying,” Tripati says, reasonably blaming many of the local urban problems facing Varanasi on local government. Even so, other parties are seizing on the chance to nab these voters — Rajkumar Jaisal, city president of the Samajwadi Party in Varanasi, says his party will do so by talking socioeconomics and preaching true socialism. Jaisal criticizes the Bahujan Samaj Party (whose spokesperson did not reply to a request for comment) for their narrow focus on caste.

Meanwhile, some watchers still aren’t sure whether the identity play has totally faded, especially among Other Backward Castes — so says A.K. Verma, chair of the political science department at Christ Church College in the city of Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. His research involves extensive door-to-door polling of the state’s voters and Modi hails from an Other Backward Caste. “People still think that if someone comes from their caste, they will support them,” Verma says. Seeing a candidate from one’s own turf, Verma says, becomes even more important when development has yet to trickle down — here, and around the country.

What happens in Uttar Pradesh doesn’t stay there. The state has massive political weight, “embodies a lot of the trends of Indian politics … and is basically seen as a political laboratory,” says Verniers. “A lot of the trends that started [there] have started appearing in other states afterward.”

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