Promises around development and economic growth were aplenty in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections 2019 but did they have any desirable effect on voters’ mindset?
Detailed accounts and reports suggest that the country’s overall growth was not among top factors that helped Narendra Modi’s party cruise to a landslide victory.
Modi’s social outreach
Independent journalist Kunal Purohit, who travelled extensively across the country’s hinterlands before the 2019 elections, reported that rising unemployment, farm distress and growth slowdown were not major concerns among voters residing in India’s poverty-stricken rural belts.
In a Twitter thread, Purohit talks about his encounter with voters he met during his travel across rural areas in Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh.
Most of the voters, according to Purohit, voted for Narendra Modi due to a range of social-welfare schemes like free houses and toilets, but not holistic development that includes adequate employment opportunities, better living conditions, and higher purchasing power.
During his visit to Malhar Toli in Jharkhand, which is a hamlet of approximately 250 people, Purohit encountered stark developmental issues including no roads leading to the village.
But roads, he wrote, were not the main concern for the Dalit Malhars residing here as some of them did not even have a permanent address.
Issues such as acute poverty and lack of local administration have stagnated development in the region for long and have led to several deaths in the past five years.
Despite no access to government schemes and ration cards for subsidised food, the people living in Malhar Toli and several other surrounding villages decided to vote for Narendra Modi. Why?
Because the government has been able to successfully implement schemes that directly affect the rural population.
BJP’s rural arithmetic
The government’s focus on Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) for providing LPGs to building toilets under the Swacch Bharat Mission for BPL families were some key initiatives which earned the BJP its massive vote share in the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections.
For the families residing in Malhar Toli and other rural belts across the country, Modi was the obvious choice. Most of the families testified that the government’s various schemes have provided them with basic amenities and a sense of security.
On the contrary, unemployment and economic progress hardly mattered to them as lack of elementary needs have hindered regional development.
This is evident from the fact that BJP expanded its social supporter base in Jharkhand to 51.8 per cent even as people living in those regions continue to face serious issues like unemployment, poverty, lack of administration, illiteracy and overall development.
Not just Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh but the BJP increased its vote share significantly across rural belts all around the country as it secured over 50 per cent vote share in over 224 seats out of the 303 seats it won.
Many economists argue that BJP’s aggressive push to implement ground-level social-welfare schemes in backward areas of the country in the past five years played a big role in tilting the vote share in its favour.
High on national security
In the run-up to the elections, when the united Opposition was busy raking up issues like growth slowdown and lack of data on unemployment, the nation was swirling to the tune of the government’s national security pitch, according to a survey conducted by CVOTER-IANS.
The airstrikes in Balakot following the Pulwama attack, many said, was the turning point in this year’s election as it gave the ruling party an opportunity to shroud Congress’s narrative on unemployment, agrarian distress and growth slowdown.
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While unemployment emerged as the number one issue in the nation with more than 29 per cent of surveyed people highlighting it as a major concern, the narrative surrounding jobs cooled off significantly to 22 per cent after the airstrikes.
Meanwhile, national security emerged as a top concern for the people in the country after the Indian Air Force’s aerial assault on a Jaish-e-Mohammed training camp in Balakot.
At least 26 per cent of the surveyed people listed it as a major concern after the air strikes compared to just 2.6 per cent in the first week of January.
“In today’s India, we have seen perhaps for the first time security issue competing and outdoing a bread-and-butter issue such as unemployment,” said psephologist Yashwant Deshmukh, adding the current atmospherics go in favour of Prime Minister Modi.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi and other opposition leaders tried changing the narrative post the airstrikes, but the BJP under the guidance of party president Amit Shah and Modi successfully took the narrative a notch higher with the “#MainBhiChowkidar” campaign on Twitter.
What worked in the party’s favour was how it branded national security as a major issue through a chain of organised campaigns.
Chowkidari trumps vikas
Analysing Narendra Modi’s speeches during pre-election campaign rallies showed that he spoke more on national security but avoided highlighting other economic policies introduced by the party.
A report by India Today’s DIU team from April shows how PM Modi’s poll pitch shifted from “vikas” to “chowkidari”.
Even though Congress launched numerous attacks on the prime minister, often calling him a thief (chor), it is clear that Modi’s narrative on national security and his stand on Pakistan helped his party win a clear mandate for a second term.
PM Modi hardly mentioned the word jobs during his pre-poll campaign addresses. Poverty and unemployment are two other domains which did not find adequate mention in BJP’s electoral manifesto.
How PM Modi’s speeches have shifted focus
While poverty was raked up significantly during 2014 Lok Sabha elections by the BJP, Modi’s party hardly flagged the issue in 2019. The same can be said for unemployment even though there has been a spiralling debate on missing job data in the country.
Despite Modi government’s reforms like demonetisation and GST, the economy has witnessed a gradual slowdown in GDP growth as well.
According to a recent report from the State Bank of India (SBI), India’s GDP growth is likely to fall below 7 per cent, which will be the lowest in almost five years.
Industrial output has also observed a sharp decline, indicating India’s labour output is on a gradual decline. Official data show that industrial output contracted to 0.1 per cent after a sharp decline in manufacturing activity.
However, many of these concerns did not emerge as top priorities for both urban and rural voters. Many of the voters interviewed said it is not fair to criticise Narendra Modi for the job crisis in India as it is a nation of 1.3 billion people.
According to Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the indicative rate of unemployment in India has almost touched 7 per cent as of May 28, 2019.
As many in the Opposition continue to contemplate reasons behind the humiliating poll outcome, it would be safe to say that the BJP’s focus on grassroots-level schemes and national security triumphed issues such unemployment and economic growth.