India election: Taking the voters' pulse at tea shops

A policeman stands guard at a Narendra Modi rally in Amroha, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh March 29, 2014. Narendra Modi is "the one issue" for the BJP in the general election

India's tea shops are places where people often gather to discuss local politics - not least with the country holding its general election. Sir Mark Tully, the former BBC India correspondent, goes on a tea shop tour in the central state of Uttar Pradesh, where campaigning is in full swing, to read the tea leaves.

Narendra Modi, the man the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hopes will be prime minister when the outcome of India's five-week-long election is finally announced on 16 May, is very proud of the fact that he started life working in a tea shop and it's possible that he first developed his understanding of politics there.

So I decided to stop at tea shops in four constituencies in the central area of Uttar Pradesh where polling is yet to take place.

The state is India's most populous, with more than 200 million people, and the way it votes may well decide the result of this election.

The two constituencies of Mr Modi's rivals - Sonia Gandhi, the president of her family's Congress party, and her son Rahul, the leader of the Congress election campaign, are situated in the region I chose.

But I steered clear of these constituencies as the situation there is by no means typical. Instead, I drove out of the state capital, Lucknow, into the countryside where the majority of India's population still lives.

Modi versus Gandhis

Although there are regional parties in the field, the media pay little attention to them. The spotlight is on the fight between the Gandhis on one side and Mr Modi on the other and opinion polls say Modi is well ahead. Many commentators have already declared him the future prime minister and the media talk of a "Modi wave".

Mr Modi is "the one" issue for the BJP. They call for a Modi government, claiming he will at last change India's notoriously corrupt and unresponsive system of government and develop the country rapidly.

Mark Tully speaks to a villager in Uttar Pradesh Sir Mark assesses the electorate of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state and one that may well decide the result

Mr Modi is the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat and Congress claims that he was complicit in vicious anti-Muslim riots which occurred when he was in power - charges he has always denied.

Mr Modi also has a lifelong connection with the Hindu nationalist group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The Gandhis maintain with this background he will "break" India by inciting hatred of its minorities, especially the Muslims.

From my very first tea shop in Barabanki constituency I became aware that it was not Mr Modi, or the Gandhis, who counted in the countryside. It was the traditional concerns of rural India. The three C's - caste, candidate and creed.

Development was being discussed by the customers drinking hot sweet tea from small clay cups, but Mr Modi wasn't mentioned. The developments under discussion had been achieved by the sitting Congress MP, in particular a bridge over a railway crossing and the electrification of villages. It was generally agreed this could well see him re-elected.

So in one constituency, a good candidate looked set to buck the trend and win for a party generally written off as an also-ran.

But in a tea shop in Mohanlalganj constituency, the Congress candidate's position was so bad that there had to be some discussion before the tea-drinkers could agree on his name.

In the same tea shop I asked whether the Gandhis' appeal for loyalty to their Nehru-Gandhi family was effective this time. A customer said gruffly: "They have driven down this road many times to get to their constituencies and they have never stopped to see us."

When I asked about Mr Modi, a young man piped up: "What's he got to do with us? He's not standing here."

That inspired another young man to say with pride that he had received a telephone call from Mr Modi - part of the highly sophisticated electronic campaign being run by the BJP. When asked whether that would make any difference to the way he voted, he replied no.

No Hindu-Muslims issues

In a tea shop in Faizabad constituency, I found a group of BJP workers celebrating a successful rally. They said they had instructions to propagate Mr Modi and the promise of development only. Religious issues were strictly forbidden.

Customers in other tea shops said no Hindu-Muslim issues were raised by BJP campaigners.

So nowhere did I find fear of the threat that the Gandhis maintain Mr Modi represents.

Baccha Vajpayee, tea shop owner and local BJP leader in Unnao Baccha Vajpayee says people generally vote on the basis of their caste

My companion on this tour, the former BBC correspondent in the state, Ram Dutt Tripathi, pointed out that the BJP campaign was still appealing to the party's hardcore Hindu supporters.

Mr Modi himself appeals to them because of his long association with the RSS. Also, he chose to contest from the Hindu holy city of Varanasi and in his nomination speech he said he felt he was the child of Mother Ganges - the sacred river.

In all my conversations, it was expected that Hindu votes would divide on caste lines. That should strengthen the position of the two regional parties that depend on the support of particular castes. The Muslims were expected to vote for whichever candidate they thought most likely to defeat the BJP.

When I came to Unnao constituency and my last tea shop, the three Cs came together in the person of the proprietor and local BJP boss, Baccha Vajpayee.

Wearing an orange lungi (sarong), the colour of his party and his Hindu religion, shovelling fresh samosas (vegetable pastries) out of a huge wok, he said: "We are hampered here by our candidate Sakshi Maharaj, he is going around saying why should I fight? I am a sadhu (holy man). This is Modi's election, not mine."

When I asked him whether there was a "Modi wave", he replied: "There is, but the problem is caste."

That's the problem the BJP hopes the "Modi wave" will overcome by sweeping away caste differences and uniting the Hindu vote.

It doesn't seem to have happened in crucial central Uttar Pradesh, but we will have to wait for the results to tell whether I have read the tea leaves right.

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