“Chambal paar kartay hi Modi lehar khatm ho jaati hai,” Manish Kumar, a barber in Madhya Pradesh's Morena says dramatically.
The Chambal river marks the border between the south eastern districts of Rajasthan such as Dholpur, Karauli and Sawai Madhopur on one hand and the northern districts of Madhya Pradesh such as Morena and Sheopur on the other.
The 28-kilometre journey between Dholpur and Morena passes through the Chambal river and its famous ravines.
But along with the terrain, the political landscape also changes.
The Modi factor, which seems to be dominating the political narrative in Rajasthan is much more subdued, if not non-existent in Madhya Pradesh.
The Chambal region is a case in point of how the 2019 Lok Sabha elections have become a wave-less one, in which local factors and caste dynamics are playing a more dominant role.
Let's look at six seats spread across three states in this region: Bharatpur and Karauli Dholpur in Rajasthan, Morena, Bhind and Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh and Etawah in Uttar Pradesh.
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The 'Modi factor' appeared to be the highest in this seat. Several voters said that they voted for Congress in the Assembly elections last year, mainly out of anger towards the Vasundhara Raje-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the state but plan to vote for the BJP due to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Lok Sabha elections.
The Pulwama attacks and Balakot air strikes figured prominently in voters’ conversations and many credited Modi. However, as one moved out of the district headquarters towards smaller towns and villages, the intensity of support for Modi also reduced.
The enthusiasm for the BJP also seemed to be substantially lower among Dalit and tribal voters. The Congress' hopes in the seat are mostly dependent on Dalit and Muslim voters, who account for 22 percent and 14 percent of the population in Bharatpur, respectively. However, Jat voters are around 25-30 percent in the seat and they are said to be decisively leaning towards the BJP.
Even within Dalit voters, there is likely to be a divide. The BJP has given a ticket to a Koli Dalit Ranjeeta Koli while the Congress has fielded Abhijeet Kumar Jatav, who belongs to the Jatav sub-caste. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which secured over 13 percent votes in the Assembly elections in the area, has also fielded a Jatav candidate, which could harm the Congress.
Compared to Bharatpur, the Modi factor appeared slightly less strong in the predominantly rural Karauli-Dholpur seat. Many voters said that the Congress has a good chance of winning the seat. The party's prospects are largely hinged on Dalit, tribal and Muslim votes, which are 22 percent, 14 percent and 6 percent in the constituency.
The BJP on the other hand is hoping that Jat and some Upper Caste voters who had voted for the Congress in the Assembly elections, will vote for the party because of Prime Minister Modi.
However, compared to the Assembly polls, the BJP would need a much bigger swing in Karauli-Dholpur than in Bharatpur. In the Assembly elections, the Congress had secured nearly 47 percent of the votes in the eight Assembly segments in this seat put together, 12 percent more than that of the BJP. The BSP polled around 12 percent as well.
The BSP's vote share often reduces between the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections so a chunk of these votes could also come to the Congress, giving it an edge in the seat. Like Bharatpur, Karauli-Dholpur is also reserved for Scheduled Castes.
Here again, the Congress has fielded a Jatav candidate, Sanjay Kumar Jatav, while the BJP has fielded sitting MP Manoj Rajoria, who is from the much smaller Khateek community.
Across the river from Dholpur, is Morena. Like Manish Kumar who said that the Modi wave stops as you cross the Chambal, several voters in Morena said that there is no Modi factor in the constituency.
Morena has been a BJP bastion for over two decades. The party has won the seat continuously since 1996. The seat was won four times by Ashok Argal, one of the BJP's prominent Dalit faces in Madhya Pradesh.
However, Morena became a general seat before the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and it was won by BJP's Narendra Singh Tomar. In 2014, Tomar shifted to Gwalior and Morena was won by Anoop Mishra. Tomar, a minister in the Modi government, is contesting from here once again this time. He is up against Ram Niwas Rawat of the Congress.
Morena, along with Gwalior and Bhind, was the epicentre of the caste-based agitations surrounding the Prevention of Atrocities Act. While Upper Castes, mostly Thakurs, agitated in favour of the dilution of the Act, Dalits agitated against it.
This harmed the BJP in the Assembly elections as both these sections went against it.
Caste is likely play a key role in the Lok Sabha elections as well but with one key difference.
A chunk of Upper Caste voters that had drifted away from the BJP to the Congress and the new outfit SAPAKS in the Assembly polls, are likely to return to the BJP.
Thakurs, who account for around 15 percent of the population in the seat, are likely to consolidate behind BJP's Tomar, who is also a Thakur. Upper Caste voters are over 30 percent and a majority of this vote is likely to go with the BJP.
On the other hand, the Congress is critically dependent on Dalits, who account for around 20 percent of the votes in the seat. In addition to that the party is also banking upon Muslims, tribals as well as smaller backward communities like Rawats, who together account for close to 15 percent of the population.
A major obstacle for the Congress is the BSP, which polled 18 percent of votes in the Assembly elections. Giving further credence to speculation that the BSP is out to harm the Congress is the fact that the party replaced its strong candidate Ramlakhan Singh with Kartar Singh Bhadana.
Ramlakhan, a Thakur, would have eaten into the votes of Tomar but Bhadana, an OBC Gujjar is likely to harm Rawat more.
However, the Congress had a huge lead of over 10 percent in the Assembly polls and the BJP would need a big swing to win the seat.
There appears to be a high degree of anti-incumbency against the BJP in Gwalior, despite being an urban centre. Tomar, the sitting MP has shifted to Morena, and the party has fielded Vijay Sejwalkar who belongs to the sizeable Marathi community of Gwalior.
On the other hand, the Congress has fielded Ashok Singh, who gave an extremely tough fight to Tomar in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, losing by just 29,000 votes. By most accounts, Ashok Singh has a good chance of winning the seat, especially win the Congress sweeping seven out of eight Assembly segments during the state polls last year, with an overall lead of 10 percent over the BJP. Like Morena, the BSP is likely to play a spoiler for the Congress as it polled 14 percent votes during the Assembly elections.
However, like Morena, the Modi factor doesn't seem to be working much in Gwalior. Many voters in both these seats even said that there is a chance that Modi might get voted out. This is in sharp contrast to the perception as being "invincible" in seats like Bharatpur in Rajasthan.
The last time Congress won this seat was in 2004.
Few seats symbolise the Congress' caste calculations more than the Bhind reserved constituency in Madhya Pradesh. Here the party has fielded 28-year-old Dalit activist Devashish Jarariya, who is said to have led the Bharat Bandh in April last year protesting against the dilution of the Atrocities Act.
The Congress is counting on the young Dalit leader to break what has been a BJP bastion since three decades – the party hasn't lost the seat since 1989.
Despite being a reserved seat, Bhind appears to have become a proxy battle for Upper Caste, particularly Thakur, leaders within the Congress and the BJP.
Jarariya had to face rebellion from within the party with senior leaders objecting to his candidature. But he is said to have overcome this by seeking the support of chief minister Kamal Nath and senior leader Digvijaya Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia.
The BJP candidate Sandhya Rai has troubles of her own. She is seen to be the nominee of Narendra Singh Tomar and part of his efforts to capture control of the BJP in the region by edging out his rival Ashok Argal. Tomar's support for Rai may also spark opposition from another of his rivals – Ater MLA Arvind Singh Bhadoria.
The BJP is hoping for a complete consolidation of Upper Caste votes by presenting Jarariya as a radical. The Congress candidate has already filed a defamation case against BJP vice-president Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, who is said to have accused Jarariya of being "anti-national".
Like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the river Chambal also marks the border between Bhind district in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh's Etawah district. The 40 kilometre distance between Bhind and Etawah marks a change in terrain. The dry ravines near the Chambal give way to greener fields as we cross the Yamuna and enter the fertile Doab region of UP. The politics also changes radically as the BJP vs Congress battlefield of MP gives way to the BJP vs Mahagathbandhan contest in UP.
Most locals in Etawah credit SP leaders Mulayam Singh Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav for the infrastructure work in the city. The Yadav family is from Saifai in Etawah district but much of the family bastions fall in the Mainpuri parliamentary constituency. As a result, Upper Caste play a more important role in the Etawah seat, giving the BJP an edge.
The Modi factor is strong among Upper Caste voters in Etawah but not so much among other communities.
The BJP and Mahagathbandhan have both fielded candidates from the Dhanuk Dalit community – BJP's Ram Shankar Katheria and Kamlesh Katheria of the Samajwadi Party in this SC reserved seat. However, the Congress has fielded sitting BJP MP Ashok Dohrey, who recently joined the party. Being a Jatav, Dohrey could eat into the BSP's vote bank.
The SP's calculation would rely on consolidating Jatav, Yadav and Muslim votes and a chunk of non-Jatav Dalit votes. The BJP is hoping to consolidate Upper Caste, non-Yadav OBC and non-Jatav Dalit votes. The Congress is hoping that Dohrey's support among Jatavs along with the party's support among some Upper Castes and Muslims brings it in the race.
Etawah would be an important test case for BSP chief Mayawati's ability to transfer Jatav votes to SP candidates as well as her capacity to woo non-Jatav Dalits. SC voters are over 25 percent in Etawah.
Etawah has voted in the fourth phase of polling on 29 April.
The Big Picture
- The Modi factor exists and national security is an issue but their capacity to overshadow local anti-incumbency and caste factors has vastly reduced.
- Comparatively, these factors remain more pronounced for Upper Caste voters and a chunk of OBCs in urban areas. They reduce as one moves away from district headquarters to smaller towns and villages.
- Modi’s popularity is higher in Rajasthan, especially Bharatpur. But a number of voters in Morena, Bhind and even Etawah said that the BJP is likely to suffer heavy losses in the elections and it is possible that Modi may not return to power. “Aayega to Modi hi” is not a forgone conclusion.
- There is some positive sentiment for the Congress in Madhya Pradesh and tribal and Dalit pockets in Rajasthan. The receptivity to Congress increases as one moves out of urban areas. But this is largely due to resentment against the BJP, not so much due to the Congress leadership. People have heard of NYAY but it is yet to influence voting behaviour in a major way. Older voters seem more willing to vote for the Congress than younger ones.
- Caste is playing a major role across the region. Upper Caste voters are consolidating behind BJP in all the seats, while there is a clear discontent among Dalit voters against the party.
- There is a general unrest among farmers against the BJP across states and across caste groups. It’s political impact, however, is being shaped by caste factors. Upper Castes and Jats engaged in agriculture seemed more willing to ignore agrarian woes compared to OBCs and Dalits.