India’s marathon general election appears to have split the country politically into two halves – people who support and oppose Narendra Modi, the controversial prime ministerial candidate of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, writes journalist Madhuker Upadhyay.
This is probably the first time that a general election in India is centred around one personality who is loved and loathed in equal measure.
Mr Modi, who has been chief minister of the western state of Gujarat since 2001, is seen as a dynamic and efficient leader who has made his state an economic powerhouse.
But he is also accused of doing little to stop the 2002 religious riots when more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed – allegations he has consistently denied.
Those who believe in Mr Modi paint him as a messiah, while the non-believers are convinced that he is a divisive figure that India’s diverse society cannot afford. They see this split as the vindication of their argument.
The believers say there is an “unstoppable wave” in favour of Mr Modi.
A large section of the mainstream media has helped fan this perception, covering his energetic campaign with considerable enthusiasm. Opinion polls have also contributed to the feeling by predicting a veritable sweep for Mr Modi and the BJP, and the decimation of the ruling Congress party.
But many find it difficult to accept that there is a “wave” in favour of Mr Modi, making it a presidential style election in a parliamentary democracy.
They say voting behaviour in India is still determined by caste, class, religion and regional aspirations, among other things.
On an assignment for the BBC Hindi Service, I recently travelled 7,000km (4,349 miles) though nine states and three centrally-administered territories hugging India’s vast coastline.
I visited the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and and West Bengal. The centrally administered territories I went to included Daman and Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Pondicherry.
In Gujarat, Mr Modi’s fief, I found the near-total support for the leader remarkable.
Question Mr Modi’s record as an administrator or the much vauntedGujarat growth model which has apparently vaulted it to one of India’s most economically prosperous states and you are met with disbelief: “Don’t you know it?” his supporters ask. “Haven’t you seen it? Are you blind?”
Mr Modi does not need any posters, banners or billboards in Gujarat to prop up his image. His supporters say his work speaks for itself. Many here call him God.
But as one travels southwards from Gujarat, the non-believers seem to gain ground.
Change of mood
Brand Modi, as his image managers fondly call the leader, has reached the street corners of southern states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu. But how much of this awareness will translate into votes and parliamentary seats is a key question.
In the western coastal states of Maharashtra and Karnataka – both once ruled by the BJP – other factors are playing on the minds of voters.
While local issues and strong regional parties in Maharashtra pose a challenge to the BJP, allegations of corruption against the BJP government and caste politics may well make it difficult for the party to do well in Karnataka.
Apart from Gujarat, the only other state ruled by the BJP on India’s west coast is Goa. With just two parliament seats, Goa recently saw a political change of mood with the local Catholic church making an open appeal to voters to support secular parties.
Supporters of Narendra Modi at a public meeting in northern India
On the eastern coast too, the non-believers appear to be in a majority.
Politics in the bifurcated state of Andhra Pradesh and Orissa is generally centred around local issues and politicians. In West Bengal, the regional Trinamul Congress party led by the mercurial Mamata Banerjee is in a strong position.
And the three centrally-administered territories with one seat each may change hands but that would be for reasons other than a pro-Modi sentiment.
Interestingly, the nine states on the coast account for 269 of the 543 parliamentary seats. That’s just three seats short of a simple majority needed to win the election.
But as this region does not appear to be in the grip of a “wave” in favour of Mr Modi-led BJP and his 25-party alliance, analysts say to win the election, the BJP would need to win at least 200 of the remaining 274 seats.
So when votes are counted on 16 May, they don’t rule out a hung parliament with no party or alliance getting a clear majority.
This is a prospect which will not cheer the believers, and befuddle the non-believers.
Madhuker Upadhyay is a senior independent journalist
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