Voters in the crucial Indian state of Uttar Pradesh ask: Are we job seekers or Hindus first?

The under-construction Kashi Vishwanath Temple Corridor is visible from the Ganges River in Varanasi. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Vivek Singh

VARANASI, India – Shivam Chaudhari dreams of working with computers, maybe one day in Dubai. Instead, he says, he’s condemned to cremating bodies here on the banks of the Ganges River.

He has applied, and failed, to get one of the office jobs that are so scarce today. He has tried, and struggled, to save any money, with inflation so rampant. When the novel coronavirus struck this city of pilgrims two years ago, corpses were piled so far up the riverfront steps that it was “overwhelming,” he recalled. Yet, when his community, a low-ranked caste traditionally tasked with burning bodies, asked for masks and vaccines to carry out its work, the government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said no.

Still, when you ask the 22-year-old devout Hindu which party he supports, he doesn’t hesitate.

Shivam Chaudhari stands near a cremation at the Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi on Feb. 9. He is a member of the Dom caste, traditionally the keepers of cremation grounds. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Vivek Singh
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“The BJP,” Chaudhari said, as he showed off a video he took recently of Prime Minister Narendra Modi cruising in a boat on the Ganges, shortly after he inaugurated the $100 million renovation of a Hindu temple up the river. “The King of India,” Chaudhari captioned his Facebook post.

This month, roughly 150 million voters, including Chaudhari, are casting ballots in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India and a political battleground where the elections are widely seen as a referendum on Modi and his BJP.

At play are dueling personalities, perennial debates over economic development and law and order, and the rivalries between castes that make up the complex jigsaw of Uttar Pradesh politics. But beneath it all, the battle could be tipped by the same overriding force that has long polarized India: religion.

Pilgrims visit the Sarayu River in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, on Feb. 11. Elections in India’s most populous state will conclude in early March. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Vivek Singh

In interviews across Uttar Pradesh, next to fields of sugar cane, at vast political rallies and in the shadow of ancient temples, voters said they were weighing promises of jobs, stability and basic services made by Modi and his ally Yogi Adityanath, the firebrand Hindu cleric who has been chief minister of Uttar Pradesh since 2017. By those measures, some voters felt disappointed. Inflation in the state has topped 6%, according to India’s central bank, while the rate of employment in formal jobs, hurt by the pandemic, has fallen below 33%, from 38% in 2016, according to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, an independent think tank.

But even if jobs numbers have waned, many said, their sense of Hindu identity has not.

“I do blame the government for corona, but would someone other than Yogi have managed any better?” Chaudhari asked. What Adityanath has managed, he said, was making sure Muslims no longer dare to intimidate Hindus in Varanasi’s streets, or to wave the Pakistani flag in public. BJP officials and supporters often describe Hindus, who make up 80% of India, as facing threats – real or unfounded – from the country’s Muslim minority.

“The Muslims now stay in line,” he said with satisfaction. “Hindus finally feel secure.”

Gaurav Gautam, a boatman who ferries pilgrims on the Sarayu River in Ayodhya. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Vivek Singh

In 2014, Modi swept to power nationally by touting his economic know-how, his corruption-free image and, more subtly, his Hindu nationalist bona fides. But in 2017, the BJP overwhelmingly won the Uttar Pradesh state elections for the first time in decades with a more overtly religious platform: The party pledged the controversial construction of a temple to the Hindu god Ram in Ayodhya, on the site of a 16th-century mosque that had been demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992, and promised a grand renovation of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi. Modi inaugurated the temple renovation in December to Chaudhari’s delight.

Those banner projects, combined with a raft of new laws in Uttar Pradesh that appear to target Muslims, have fueled criticism from the BJP’s opponents, who say the ruling party is undermining modern India’s secular foundations.

But those initiatives also have left an impression on voters such as Gaurav Gautam. Sitting beside the Sarayu River in Ayodhya, the 38-year-old boatman said he was frustrated with BJP officials who once promised plumbing to poor residents like him. For the past eight months, Gautam has made calls, sent letters, even hired a lawyer for $15 to send online petitions to Modi and Adityanath so he could get a toilet installed at home. “No response,” he fumed.

Pilgrims and boats line the ghats, or riverfront steps, along the Sarayu in the temple town of Ayodhya. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Vivek Singh

Yet Ayodhya also has improved, Gautam acknowledged. Beyond its ghats and its timeless churn of bathing pilgrims, holy men and beggars stands a gleaming promenade, renovated by Adityanath in 2019. Outside town, there will soon be a new airport named after Lord Ram. A new train station will be the largest in Uttar Pradesh.

Thirty years ago, Gautam said, his family helped feed and shelter the Hindu “volunteers” who tore down the mosque. Today, off the main road, a new Ram temple is rising. And for Gautam, that was enough.

“Look, I’ll still vote for Yogi,” he said. “But, please, get me a toilet.”

A worsening divide

As the tight race has gathered steam in recent weeks, Modi has mostly pitched the BJP as the party that’s delivered tangible results to Uttar Pradesh: new highways, new loans for entrepreneurs, new colleges for aspiring doctors. Adityanath has been more pointed. This month in Shahjahanpur, a sugar cane region, he said his opponents were the ones who pander to religion.

“I talk about sugar cane, they talk about [Mohammad Ali] Jinnah,” he said, referring to the founding father of Pakistan at the partition of India in 1947. “I talk about holistic development, they talk about Muslim burial grounds.”

A day later, Akhilesh Yadav – the Samajwadi Party, or Socialist Party, leader who is seen as the BJP’s main rival – swooped into Shahjahanpur by helicopter bearing a different message. Onstage, a band played music reminiscent of both Sufi qawwalis and Hindu songs of worship, with lyrics that drove the point home:

We are residents of this country,

All its people, we love; Akhilesh, we love

“Akhilesh is our only hope,” said Hafeez Ansari, a Muslim member of the party, standing in the crowd.

That sense of apprehension has been echoed by Muslims across the state ahead of March 10, when results of the vote will be announced. With Adityanath at the helm for the past five years, Uttar Pradesh has passed laws to prevent the slaughtering of cows and discourage interfaith marriages, two measures that critics say target Muslims. Headlines about mobs lynching Muslims or right-wing leaders delivering hate-filled speeches have continued to crop up.

“We’re afraid of what will happen if they’re reelected,” said Maqbool Hasan, a leader of Varanasi’s Muslim weaving community. For one thing, the economy is so bad that the number of looms operating is a quarter of what it was during the early 2000s, he said. Weavers have quit to drive rickshaws and sell vegetables. Beggars are everywhere.

Then there is the worsening religious division.

“There’s poison in the air,” said Hasan, who says he fears that Muslims one day could be asked to vacate the Hindu holy city.

Despite high inflation and a drop in formal employment, some BJP supporters in Uttar Pradesh say they will vote based on the party’s religious promises. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Vivek Singh

A few weeks ago, a Hindu nationalist group put up posters telling non-Hindus they were forbidden to visit Varanasi’s ghats. (The posters were later taken down.) Hasan saw further worrying events this month. A protest had erupted in southern India over whether Muslim students could wear the hijab to class, sparking angry showdowns in several states between Muslim women in headscarves and Hindu men in saffron shawls.

Across town, Vishwambhar Mishra felt sympathy for the Muslims, even frustration.

As the high priest of the Sankat Mochan, one of the most influential Hindu temples in Varanasi, Mishra made for an unlikely critic of the BJP. But all around him, he said, he saw Hindu religious sentiment being “exploited.”

In December, Mishra said, Modi had swept into Varanasi, cameras in tow, to pray at a shrine to Shiva and give his blessings to the Kashi Vishwanath renovation, which will feature grand prayer halls and a dramatic waterfront staircase.

“If you say, ‘I can’t get a job, I can’t find a good hospital, the price of petrol is over 100 rupees,’ they say, ‘But look at the temple!’ ” he said, throwing his hands up. “What is this? Let me tell you: It’s not good for Hinduism, and it’s not good for the country.”

Enduring popularity

For every Mishra, there are Hindu voters such as the regulars at Pappu’s teahouse in Varanasi, a hangout renowned for political chatter. Over chai and chickpeas, locals offer their takes on the day’s headlines – and a glimpse into the BJP’s upper-class support.

It’s not all about Hindu nationalism, argued R.P. Singh, a retired archaeology professor. For all their faults, Modi and Adityanath have never been trailed by allegations of corruption, a rare quality in Indian politics, he said. The last time the Samajwadi Party’s Yadav served as chief minister, from 2012 to 2017, organized crime gangs run by Yadavs – members of the political leader’s caste – and Muslims ran amok, Singh said, echoing an allegation frequently made by the BJP against its opponents.

Ayodhya is home to the site of a 16th-century mosque that was demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Vivek Singh

“There were kidnappings, carjackings, politicians dropping by police stations bailing out criminals,” Singh said. On the campaign trail, Yadav has often retorted that the BJP, rather than his party, is filled with criminal elements and has pointed to examples of current and former BJP lawmakers who have faced accusations of murder and rape.

Too many people were expecting welfare handouts – and economic miracles – from the BJP, Singh said. “Instead of blaming the government, why don’t we blame ourselves?” he asked.

Milan Vaishnav, an expert on Indian politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the BJP’s law-and-order image, combined with the appeal of Hindutva, or a form of religious nationalism, could outweigh voters’ concerns about the slumping economy or its pandemic management.

“The link between performance and accountability is not at all clear,” Vaishnav said. “Modi’s popularity is still sky-high. There’s an enormous reservoir of goodwill and confidence in his leadership.”

For decades, Uttar Pradesh, with its dizzying array of castes jostling for power and a 20% Muslim population, was seen as an electoral puzzle that, if solved, would pave the way to the prime minister’s office in New Delhi. Some parties wooed Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, while others pursued Muslims as they cobbled together coalitions of support. In the 1990s, the BJP, once known as the party of middle-to-upper-class traders, began a concerted effort to win over all Hindus, reaping significant rewards.

This year, one region where the BJP could lose support among Hindus is western Uttar Pradesh. A stretch of farmland dominated by an agrarian caste known as Jats, the region became polarized along religious lines after deadly riots broke out in 2013, killing more than 60 people, the majority of them Muslims. After that, the Jats mobilized behind the BJP, giving it a crucial boost in Uttar Pradesh.

In the last state elections, the BJP swept the region, collecting 53 of the 58 seats in the Jat belt.

Then came 2020. Modi introduced an overhaul to agricultural subsidies, which sparked huge, year-long protests by growers. After angry farmers occupied Delhi’s borders in protest and fought with police, BJP leaders hit back, accusing the demonstrators of being a front for Sikh separatists or leftists.

Modi withdrew the laws in November, but at the side of a dusty road in Pinna village in Muzaffarnagar district, Rajveer Malik, a 59-year-old sugar cane farmer, wasn’t able to forgive the BJP. He was voting for the opposition.

“The farmers who feed the nation were called names,” he said. “In a democracy, everyone has the right to protest against the government. We haven’t seen such arrogance before.”

For many, the choice is harder. Sumit Malik, a 25-year-old farmer who is not related to Rajveer, said he has always voted for the BJP. “Modi made us feel pride in being Hindus,” he said.

But last year, he joined the farm law protests and, for the first time, began to question his allegiances. Soon after, other concerns surfaced. Unemployment was rising. Farming incomes were down, and electricity prices were shooting up. Last year, his family shelled out $225 on electricity bills, three times the amount they had paid previously, and to make ends meet, Malik felt compelled to open a shop selling pesticides.

What the BJP had done for the Hindus was good, said Malik, pointing – again – to the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

“But will that fill our stomach?” he asked. “For farmers, our fields are our temples.”

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