Large numbers of BJP’s followers remain loyal regardless of how the party is handling the pandemic, but its social media forums are buzzing with diehard supporters questioning the decisions to hold election rallies, export vaccines, and invite millions at Kumbh Mela well into India’s second wave.
Anshu Thakur is a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) IT cell, but the target of his latest Facebook outrage is the party itself. “This is no time for free food. Give us vaccines," he posted on Bihar BJP’s Facebook page in response to a post announcing 5kg of free foodgrain in May and June for the beneficiaries of the public distribution system of the state’s coalition government, where his party partners with Janata Dal (United).
In Jhanjharpur, a town in Mahbubani district where Thakur serves as a coordinator of the IT cell, he said “every second person is covid positive." He said health facilities are stretched, the member of Parliament has not been seen, and all people have is each other. Never before has he had a reason to question the party’s course of action. “Today, I have many questions. Questions for the government from the perspective of a common citizen. Questions for the party as a member. Questions for the leader as a supporter." As of today, Bihar has more than 100,000 active cases and 2,821 total deaths, but the dispatches from its remote corners hint at a manic spread of the virus.
Thakur said he is helping as many people as he can, but the resulting goodwill will no longer flow from the worker to the party: “Log samajhdar hote ja rahe hain, madam (people are becoming smarter)." He claimed that if the BJP did not come to its voters’ rescue now, it would face the consequences in future elections. “People put their trust in (Narendra) Modi ji last time (In Bihar). All of India went along with him. But if they are facing problems right now, naturally, they will go with the opposition the next time. There will be a 100% effect of this. It is already showing. You can even say the (West) Bengal election results showed that. You and I may not be facing problems, but it doesn’t mean people aren’t. Problem is there. Big problem is there."
Thakur’s frustration resonates with a growing number of workers, voters and followers of the BJP, cutting a wide swathe through the party’s support base. They include rural and urban residents, truck drivers and businessmen, first-time voters and lifelong supporters. Many of them have publicly blamed the party and the prime minister over the past few weeks as covid-19 threatens themselves and their families. To be sure, large numbers of BJP’s followers remain staunchly loyal regardless of how the party is handling the pandemic, but its social media forums are buzzing with diehard supporters questioning the decisions to hold election rallies, export vaccines, and invite millions of people to gather at Kumbh Mela well into India’s second wave. Some of them say similar discussions are taking place in the long queues at hospitals, pharmacies, oxygen vendors and crematoriums in the cities overtaken by the virus.
“One of my colleague’s mom died the other day. His token number said 80 at the crematorium. I have never seen tokens being handed out at a crematorium. I have only seen it at game parlours," said Sameer Mayank, a businessman from Lucknow who calls himself a “blind follower" of the BJP. “We are experiencing bizarre things here. My colleague got a token number for 80 while the city’s daily death figures stand below 40. If you ask me, Lucknow’s official numbers are 1/10th of the actual toll. Every second home in Lucknow according to me, has a covid patient. In 38 years of my life, I have never seen so many dead bodies." Mayank has been lashing out against the state government, which he accuses of delaying test results and denying hospital admissions: “I am only showing my anger against Mr Yogi (Adityanath). He is doing nothing. At least PM Modi is getting in foreign aid." His anger is personal. “My wife got infected; my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter got infected; my in-laws got infected. We tested them on 17 April. Their antigen tests were positive. But their RT-PCR results are pending as of 1 May. We treated ourselves at home. According to the government, they still don’t have covid. People are not getting beds, oxygen, even hospital admission, whether government or private, without RT-PCR results. If anyone died in my family, it would be a non-covid death."
As someone who has voted for BJP in every central and state election since he turned 18, Mayank says his expectations were much higher. “In this city, we are hardcore BJP supporters. Atal Bihari Vajpayee used to fight elections from here. Besides admiration for him, there is the caste factor. Pandits and Thakurs vote BJP only. The average voting time is 2-3 seconds over here. The first person comes out of the booth and tells everyone which number shows lotus. We don’t care who the candidate is. If a dog stands on a BJP ticket, he will also win from here."
He said the same people are “extremely frustrated" with BJP’s priorities. Even religion isn’t working as glue. “People are dying, and you are organizing Kumbh. Saints have died because of the congregation. I am a hardcore worshipper, but I can’t support this decision. How many oxygen plants could they have installed with the money that is being spent to build Ram mandir in Ayodhya?"
The party has a lot to lose if voters like him feel abandoned at this time, he argued.
“To be very honest, only in this pandemic, the government is non-performing. Lucknow is a sea of BJP supporters, but a tsunami of dissatisfaction is sweeping through us. At the Centre, BJP will return but not in this state. As far as my vote is concerned, it will go to NOTA (None of The Above)."
Some of BJP’s current critics were only drawn to the party because of PM Modi. Just months ago, they believed there was nothing he couldn’t do for the nation; today, they doubt everything he says.
Aditya Choudhary, a 27-year-old unemployed man from Bihar’s Sitamarhi, is one of them. “Bihar is in an awfully bad shape. Sitamarhi’s official website is showing 2,000 cases. But I don’t think there are 2,000 cases only. Test results are being delayed here. Those who are serious are not getting ICU beds or oxygen. They are bound to die, right? I get 200 calls every day. I connect people with local resources. But some people die before I can help them."
Choudhary argues that Bihar’s covid-19 crisis needs political intervention. “It’s beyond the control of administrative officials. They are helpless because they don’t have access to the resources they need." But he no longer trusts his chosen leader. “Before corona, I saw Modi ji in a different light. I saw him as a man who went abroad, met important people, raised India’s stature in the world. But being a world leader is pointless if you can’t stand up to the local needs. How can you send vaccine abroad when people are dying in your country? If you are not doing what the public chose you for, what is the point of making grand speeches?"
This is the first time his political instincts are defined by the ground realities. “These are hard times for people. If they aren’t sick, they are broke. What is he our Pradhan Sevak for? Modi ji’s image has been vitiated. This calamity will affect the upcoming elections, whether the party acknowledges this or not."
If Choudhary ever steps into a polling booth again, he said it would be to vote for himself.
“I will make my own party and lead the country one day, whether it’s today or tomorrow. Write it down."
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