Devotees at Sangam in Prayagraj (Allahabad), India Image Credit: Supplied

India is a country so huge nobody can correctly guess how people are voting in different states. Many years ago, even before the advent of quick phone surveys, veteran journalist Jawid Laiq found all of India at Sangam.

The Yamuna and the Ganga, rivers responsible for making north India among the most fertile lands on earth, merge into each other at Sangam in Prayagraj in eastern Uttar Pradesh. This is one of Hinduism’s holiest sites, and the mythical Saraswati river, Hindus believe, also merges at Sangam.

Like the confluence of rivers, there is also a confluence of Indians from remote parts of the country who come here for pilgrimage, to immerse the ashes of the dead, to bathe in the holy Sangam, to offer prayers to the river, and for tourism.

Your columnist followed in the footsteps of Jawid Laiq and spent two mornings talking to pilgrims from different states. They come in droves, getting down from buses and getting into boats. You can often guess which state they are from by looking at their attire and accents.

Contrary to the narrative that the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party has lost the narrative and is on a back-foot, the pilgrims were unequivocally in favour of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. When asked to speculate on the number of seats the BJP could win across India, many felt the BJP would win just a little more than 2019, when it won 303 of 543 seats.

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The swing states

There were exceptions to this. One small group from Odisha staunchly backed Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and even expressed anger at the BJP’s attacks on him. Patnaik has been the chief minister of Odisha for 24 years now. When asked the secret of Naveen Patnaik’s success, they singled out his women-centric schemes, especially loans to all-women self-help groups.

The BJP is widely expected to increase its seats in Odisha.

Pilgrims from Maharashtra were easy to spot from a distance, wearing their crisp white Gandhi caps. They were rather angry at the ban on onion exports, causing losses to onion farmers. A group from in and around the hotly contested Baramati seat said most of them had voted for Sharad Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule in Baramati.

This group felt the Congress-Uddhav Thackeray-Sharad Pawar alliance, called the Maha Vikas Aghadi, could win up to 30 out of 48 seats in the state. They felt the BJP would win around 15 seats by itself in the state, down from 23 last time.

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Pilgrims from Telangana, a new frontier for the BJP, were unequivocally in favour of the BJP. A chemist from Hyderabad said he had voted for the BJP because PM Modi was giving India a strong, decisive government.

When asked how many seats the BJP could win in Telangana, many said up to 10 seats out of 17. The BJP had won only 4 last time.

Pilgrims from Andhra Pradesh felt very strongly for either of the two regional parties, the TDP and the YSRCP, but a few said they had changed their votes from incumbent YSRCP to opposition TDP.

Retaining the heartland

A group from Churu district of Rajasthan said the Congress was winning their Churu seat, as well as Barmer in western Rajasthan, breaking the record of BJP winning every single seat in these two states in 2014 and 2019. But overall, in Rajasthan and India, they felt the BJP was returning to power with around the same seats as last time.

The local Nishad boatmen, who ferry the pilgrims from the ghat to the Sangam, felt the BJP was likely to marginally increase its seats in Uttar Pradesh, where it won 62 out of 80 seats last time. It is contesting 75 seats, having given 5 seats to three regional parties in alliance.

Many Indias, one leader

When asked why they were voting for the BJP, there were two kinds of answers. One kind focused more on Hindu nationalist achievements, such as the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir and the building of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. Many pilgrims were on an Ayodhya-Sangam-Kashi trip.

The other kind focused on development, with many pointing out improvements in roadways and other infrastructure. The poorer local Nishads spoke of free food grains.

When asked what the BJP should focus on in the next five years, the pilgrims had three points: education, health and jobs.

When asked about their choice for PM Modi’s successor, the unanimous answer was Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. They were impressed by his achievements on law and order, giving him a Modi-like “decisive” image.

When asked about Rahul Gandhi, many said they “didn’t know enough” about him to comment on him.

The crisis within

There is a row of tents under which sit Hindu priests known as “teerth Purohits”. They function a bit like the Election Commission of India, maintaining records of families as they come to immerse the ashes of their dead. These priests have their own symbol, much like symbols of political parties.

Speaking to the Purohits, they privately expressed more anger with the BJP than anyone on the river. They were unhappy by the BJP’s choice of candidates, and said the BJP wasn’t giving importance to its parent Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and marginalising mass leaders across the board.

The BJP hadn’t even developed the Sangam area the way they had developed other Hindu pilgrimage sites, they complained, hoping that things will improve as Sangam gets ready to host the once-in-12-years Mahakumbh in January 2025.