Four years ago, a young man from a family that had just stuck its head up into the middle-middle income group cohort of India ran into traffic trouble in Delhi. His mum who was riding pillion did not have a helmet. When the elite ride a two-wheeler, the cop knows how to handle them. With this young man, the cop was rough. He asked for the licence and pushed the young man a couple of times. Instead of reverting to the old maai-baap, hands-folded-back-bent-head-down position, the millennial pushed back. Not physically, but with words. His threat: “I will mail (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi about what just happened. You cut a challan and I will pay, but don’t push me." His mobile, with its ability to record and email India’s newly elected prime minister was enough for the cop to back off.
If there is one story for me that defines the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it is this. The ability of one man to overpower the imagination of the whole nation, positively or negatively. Elections 2019 is a referendum on Modi and what he has brought to the nation, both good and bad. On the plus side is a massive, never-before, audacious outreach to citizens on a whole range of goods and services.
Recognizing that the bureaucracy is the biggest roadblock to delivering through government services, a mix of technology and direct push from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) was used to target, communicate with, and benefit citizens.
Cooking gas connections, electrification, bank accounts, mudra loans, toilets, the ₹5 lakh medical cover and more have been pushed through, bypassing the leaky pipelines of India. It is not as if the success rate was 100%, but the quantum leap in coverage has shifted the growth trajectory. What would have taken 20 years to achieve at the old rate of progress got done in four years. A whole swathe of the population has benefitted.
Deeper reform such as the move to the goods and services tax (GST), the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, giving the Benami Transactions Act teeth, linking PAN to Aadhaar are difficult to perceive as hard wins for the mass voters, but add to overall narrative of the government that works.
ALSO READ | While we were not looking, India won some battles
However, once the basic needs are met, other worries arise in the minds of people, and the perception of the government as having a hardline Hindutva agenda swings the referendum to negative for many. People who are neither left nor right, reasonably secular in the true sense of the word, worry about the country losing its plurality. That may translate into negative voting, no matter who the local candidate is.
Across income bands, caste, community and other interests, the more muscular foreign policy that was manifest in the Balakot air strikes to take revenge for the Pulwama attack resonates. What are the alternatives? The Congress campaign that hinges on one income transfer scheme is reading the country wrong. The time for a well-dressed upper-class person hugging a destitute woman in an obvious body posture of appeal is over. I don’t think India is voting for that position of the maai-baap equation anymore.
To peg a whole election campaign on one income transfer scheme, whose details are not disclosed, to the bottom 20% of population with the tag line "Ab Hoga Nyay" is surprising. India is now not a predominately poor country, but one with about 20% poor people. The rest of the 80% are left wondering what’s in it for them and who will fund this dole.
The other point of disconnect is the attempt to position the leadership as practising Hindus. The river worship, temple run, pooja thali and janeu-dhaari (sacred thread worn by brahmins) positioning doesn’t go well when an obvious minority card is played, like when Congress president Rahul Gandhi decides to fight from a second seat in a constituency with a large minority population, or when appeals to minorities are made to vote as a block.
For the electorate, if the not-so-mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) does come to power, they would have completed their election mandate on day one: to get Modi out. Then what?
Monika Halan is consulting editor, Mint.
Get latest election news and live updates on Elections 2019 here