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­­­­­Hum Dekhenge: How Solid is Modi’s Electoral Ground?

Radhika Desai and Zoya Hasan
Apr 24, 2024
We found that underneath all the hype and hoop-la about India’s stellar economic performance and about the prime minister’s economic helmsmanship, on the ground there is no more important issue than that of unemployment.

With the elections well under way, while nearly all national and international media take a resounding Narendra Modi victory as a given, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) projects crossing the 400-seat mark in the 543-member Lok Sabha. Hard though it is to resist such mediatic and political juggernauts, we pause before these fawning and swaggering expectations.

To be sure, the BJP is going into this election with apparently overwhelming advantages: Modi’s personal popularity, placed at 77%, the highest of any leader in the world last December by Morning Consult; the consecration of the Ayodhya temple; India’s much-touted economic growth rate, allegedly the highest among major countries; his welfare schemes whose divisions of ‘labharthi’ stand ready to move electoral mountains; his funding advantage; RSS and Sangh parivar backing – and not to mention that of most of the country’s media and its state machinery; and a tame Election Commission. How could the BJP possibly lose?

If there is any way, it is likely to vindicate James Carville, Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, who answered the question of why George Bush Sr, the winner of the Cold War, did not get his second term in 1992: ‘It’s the economy, Stupid!’

As readers of this news portal, we are aware that serious questions have been raised by so many prominent economists about how India’s growth figures are dubious and nearly every other economic statistic indicates that an unprecedented level of economic misery has been inflicted on the ordinary Indian. Today, economic issues are biting – inflation, unemployment, demonetisation, mishandling of Covid, the devastation of small traders and SMEs by GST and so on. It is simply impossible that this scale of distress can be electorally costless, particularly when it is not even being addressed by a government more preoccupied with the statistical jugglery to hide India’s poor economic performance and with creating an image of a fast-growing economy.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

If this was not enough, the Supreme Court decision declaring the electoral bonds scheme unconstitutional has robbed the BJP of what remained of its image of a corruption-free government. This is big for at least two reasons. Modi’s BJP rode to power after a decade in the electoral doldrums chiefly on the strength of its anti-corruption message. At the same time, the ordinary Indian has witnessed it ‘dealing’ with corruption simply by making what was previously illegal legal for the top levels of the corporate elite and more generally running the economy in the interests of that group, neglecting not only the country’s millions of workers and farmers and small traders but also SME and the lower echelons of the corporate elite itself. The electoral bonds decision has shed harshly illuminating light on this core nexus on which Modi’s power rests.

So we decided to visit Lucknow, currently the Hindutva heartland, and to see for ourselves as we sought to discover whether Carville’s adage was being proven on this very distant electoral ground. It was not easy. For one thing, it was difficult to ‘see’ any election. Thanks to a combination of the long-drawn-out election schedule, progressive tightening of rules around public meetings and the use of loudspeakers, the heat and the rise of social media, the signs of elections hitherto – the hoardings, the noisy loud speakers, the messages scrawled on every available public surface and the rallies and pubic meetings – are few and far between. Indeed, one wonders whether there is an election at all. Undaunted, we spoke with various local politicians, activists, journalists and scholars. Here is what we found.

Also read: Mathura: Disenchantment Over Unemployment, Inflation, Hema Malini, But Brand Modi and Mandir Shine

Perhaps most fundamentally, we found that underneath all the hype and hoop-la about India’s stellar economic performance and about the prime minister’s economic helmsmanship, on the ground there is no more important issue than that of unemployment and it’s not working in the incumbent government’s favour. Indeed, this problem is particularly acute in Uttar Pradesh, where the hollowing-out of government employment opportunities through their replacement with temporary contract work is particularly advanced and hits the very OBC groups that the BJP must win in order to win the elections. The double-engine sarkar hasn’t quite worked in UP, and significantly labharathi is not a major factor in this election.

Secondly, the Ram temple consecration in Ayodhya, which was supposed to be this election’s Balakot and Pulwama rolled into one, the big bazooka that would guarantee Modi and the BJP victory, is turning out to be bit of a damp squib. It appeared to those with their ear to the local ground to have little electoral resonance. People realise that whatever they think of the construction and consecration, the simple fact is that even the Hindu devout know that temples do not provide ‘rozi-roti’. Whether or not the stories we heard of dwindling visits to the temple were true, it certainly seemed as though  ‘dull economic compulsions’ trumped piety even for the devout.

Thirdly, it appears as though the BJP’s strategy of dealing with the challenge of major OBC caste groups in UP, particularly Yadavs, whose Samajwadi Party remains implacably opposed to them, by foregrounding candidates from smaller OBC castes may no longer be working. With nearly a decade of experience of this strategy, the leaders of these groups have found themselves invariably sidelined after elections as power remained concentrated in the party’s upper caste leadership. Yes, it is true that those non-savarna groups, like the Jats in Western UP, have on occasion been won over solidly for the BJP, chiefly because they have profited from economic policy and state largesse at the centre and state levels. However, these groups represent a narrow electoral sliver at best, not surprisingly, given the narrowness of the social layers that have benefitted from the regime’s inequality-generating economic strategy. With few or no such gains to celebrate, most other OBC groups have found the BJP’s caste game turning sour.

Further, Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatras seem to have had considerable resonance in this area. In particular, his more recent Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra which passed through the area, drew great crowds and its distinctly progressive message – tackling unemployment with a clear plan for apprenticeship, a vast expansion of employment, a timeline for filling in government vacancies and implementing the caste census went down very well. There is a turnaround in Rahul’s image which might benefit the Congress.

Also read: Thakurs Emerge as the Biggest Chink in Modi’s Armour

Many people raised questions about EVMs and the battering of democracy. Our interlocutors noted a mood for change. There is palpable discontent as the BJP government hasn’t delivered a good life for all the people.

Needless to say, the opposition remains considerably handicapped, not least thanks to the massive funding imbalance, exacerbated by frozen bank accounts and a slew of other punitive measures this government has flung onto the opposition.

Yet, we leave Lucknow with the distinct feeling that June 4, Results Day, could spring a few surprises, perhaps even a big one.

Radhika Desai is Professor Department of Political Studies, University of Manitoba and Visiting Professor, Department of International Development, London School of Economics and Zoya Hasan is Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Distinguished Professor, Council for Social Debelooment, New Delhi.

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