Why Indians voted for Modi over jobs: it’s not the economy, stupid

By Kunal Purohit

Published: 9:00am, 24 May, 2019

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  • Unpopular economic policies don’t seem to have gotten in the way of another landslide victory for the Indian prime minister

  • The returning leader’s strategy sidelined the issue, targeting some voters with images of national resurgence, others with local development

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to supporters in Varanasi. Photo: Reuters

Just over two hours from New Delhi, in Muzaffarnagar district, Rohit Kumar’s routine revolves around helping his father in the family’s sugar cane fields.

Kumar is 21 years old and graduated in commerce a year ago from a college in Muzaffarnagar, a district that in 2013 saw Hindu-Muslim riots which killed more than 60 people and left tens of thousands displaced.

On a rickety local public bus from New Delhi, Kumar said he was a fan of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who on Thursday claimed his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party had won the election.

 

He gushed with pride, talking about the air strikes India conducted inside Pakistan in February, in response to a suicide terror attack that killed more than 40 Indian paramilitary personnel. In the same breath, he said: “It is due to Modi that India, today, is such a well-respected nation across the world. Earlier, no one cared about us”.

Kumar, like many Indians, has been struggling to find a job in the private sector. A leaked government report several months ago revealed India’s unemployment rate was at a 45-year high, at 6.1 per cent. Opposition leaders and Modi’s critics blamed the government’s economic policies, but Kumar disagreed.

“We are such a populous nation. How can Modi ji be blamed if everyone does not get a job? We must all understand and control the population, instead,” Kumar said.

Kumar is far from alone in expressing such sentiments. Economic concerns appear to have done precious little to sway voters in the world’s biggest democracy, much to Modi’s advantage.

Indian Congress party supporters shout slogans and hold placards during a protest on the eve of the first anniversary of India's demonetisation scheme in Mumbai on November 7, 2017. Photo: AFP

WORRYING SIGNALS

India’s macroeconomic indicators make for depressing reading. Half of India’s working-age population has been pushed out of the labour force, according to a government report. Apart from the jobs crisis, consumer spending in key sectors is down 16 per cent, causing a major dip in the sales of goods like automobiles. Its trade deficit has widened to US$15.33 billion, a five-month high. There has also been an increasing chorus of disapproval over irregularities in how the government calculates Gross Domestic Product (GDP) data.

The main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, has done its best to capitalise on fears for the economy. And it had the data to back up its claims – a recent report by a university think tank said 5 million jobs had been lost after the Modi government banned high-currency notes overnight in November 2016. But the opposition did not seem to be able to make its criticisms stick.

 

It is safe to assume that economic factors might be only one part of the bouquet of factors that affect people’s voting behaviour."

P SUDHA PAI

Professor Sudha Pai, a retired academic in political science from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the correlation between macroeconomic issues and Indian voter behaviour was unclear.

Pai cited Modi’s BJP winning a near two-thirds majority in the Uttar Pradesh state elections in 2017, despite the vote happening soon after the demonetisation exercise, which resulted in severe hardships and even deaths.

However, she said, ultimately “economic factors do matter because they affect people’s lives”.

“In fact, Modi’s election in 2014 was because he presented an economic vision of India’s progress which appealed to people,” she says.

“Hence, it is safe to assume that economic factors might be only one part of the bouquet of factors that affect people’s voting behaviour.”

Many commentators had even expected rural distress to play a role at the ballot box, after tens of thousands of farmers from across India marched on New Delhi late last year to protest against the government’s apathy towards agrarian issues.

But it seems even this failed to capture the imagination of voters.

Bharatiya Janata Party supporters wear masks of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an election campaign rally. Photo: AP

MODI’S METHOD

Modi’s campaign has managed to sideline such issues by taking a multipronged approach, targeting various voter groups with different narratives.

Thus voters like Kumar were lured with Modi’s narrative of a resurgent India and strong leadership, while for others, the national economy took a back seat to local issues such as candidate selection, welfare and development.

To capture these votes, the Modi government has been playing up its welfare schemes, burnishing its credentials as a pro-poor government – from allotting free homes to large poor populations to building toilets under its flagship programme to giving out free cooking gas cylinders.

To counter this, the opposition has promised its own dose of welfare schemes as well as social alliances of caste groups.

Many also believe that voters backing Modi despite the gloomy economic outlook has to do with the way he has cultivated his image.

“Modi has branded himself as a messiah and as a strong leader. So, while many realise that things are gloomy, they believe that he has the capability to make things better,” says political analyst and former political journalist Prakash Bal.

Bal said the opposition did not have the vision and credibility to convince voters that they could deliver better.

Hence, in Kumar’s Muzaffarnagar district, as elsewhere, it seems the Modi approach has worked well.

People waiting to exchange demonetised Indian currency, show their old 500 and 1,000 Rupee notes near the closed gates of the Reserve Bank of India in January 2017. Photo: AFP

In Johra village, consisting predominantly of Dalits, at the bottom of India’s caste hierarchy, Maniram, 71, is a marginal farmer. The farm income is not enough for him and he has to supplement it with other odd jobs. For years, he has been voting for a regional leader, Mayawati and her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which seeks to represent marginalised communities like his.

He says this year was no different, though he confesses to having been attracted to Modi’s persona.

“He has done so much work on the ground – even in villages like ours, you can see vikas [development],” he says of Modi. “We haven’t seen a better leader in this country and we won’t get one, any time soon.

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