Around three months ago, I got a chance to peer through the thoughts and preferences of around 270,000 Indian voters across India through a survey that was painstakingly collected by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) in December 2018. I had anticipated gaining an in-depth understanding of the wants and needs of different Indian voters, expecting that Indians had varying priorities, given the size and the diversity of the country.

The results of the survey were surprising. India speaks in one voice when it comes to the country’s top issues and concerns. Indians want jobs. Beyond jobs, they want better healthcare and better access to drinking water, better roads and public transport as well.

Urban India has some specific priorities that relate to a desire for better urban governance: less traffic, better provision for pedestrians and cyclists, less air-, water-, and noise pollution, and a better urban environment. Rural India’s concerns overwhelmingly relate to faster growth in the agricultural sector: better availability of water and electricity for agriculture, access to loans and subsidies, and better price realisation in markets.

Surprisingly, among the issues that appear to be low on people’s list of priorities are the emotive hot-button ones: issues such as corruption, reservations, and terrorism. More than these, local issues of law and order, policing, and women’s safety matter more to voters. I learnt from studying this extensive survey that India is united on several issues and deeply cares about substantive ones that relate to the everyday life of the common man. This is excellent news. However, such a universal desire for a politics of substance does not necessarily translate into actual politics of substance.

In strategy classes, we teach Master of Business Administration (MBA) students that in a competitive environment, a strategic advantage is gained through differentiation. This is true in politics, too. On economic issues, voters and political parties in India appear to be broadly on the same page. There is a consensus that India at this moment needs rapid reforms, infrastructure investments and effective welfare spending to propel inclusive economic growth.

If Indian political parties offer similar economic ideas, then how can they differentiate themselves from each other? This is where hot-button issues, the ones that voters actually do not prioritize, begin to gather salience. Different demographic groups respond differently to hot-button issues. So, they gain disproportionately more salience in politics as a means through which political parties can set themselves apart.

Consider the issue of reservations. Parties can differentiate themselves to voters of different demographic groups by strategically supporting some communities for quotas. So, while political parties debate who gets which quota in tertiary education, less attention is paid to fixing something more urgent and important—the quality of and access to primary education.

Given a competitive political environment, the choice of controversial candidates and divisive rhetoric on hot-button issues in pursuit of differentiation is a feature of politics, not a glitch. The key challenge for voters is how a politics of substance, which tackles the everyday issues of Indian voters, can get the air time it deserves. The solution has to begin with the recognition that all Indians actually want similar things. On this, they are not as divided.

The solution also requires the cooperation of the media, and aggressive efforts from viewers to demand the broadcast of substantial issues during prime time. An analysis of associated keywords of Twitter hashtags promoted by Republic TV prime-time debates since 15 March showed that words relating to jobs, water or healthcare did not find any salience.

We need to focus on the everyday needs of Indians today. The Indian economy is growing fast, but it is not growing fast enough. Our neighbour China has an economy that is five times the size of India’s today. Such a lack of balance in economic, and consequently, military power is perilous for India’s security and sovereignty. We need rapid economic growth to compete with China, which can only happen if Indians begin to focus on local needs for economic growth.

How can India achieve growth if 600 million Indians face an acute water crisis? Indians consistently prioritize the issue of availability of water, as the ADR survey shows, and it remains the top issue in states such as Karnataka. Where was this issue on the priority list of politicians and how often did the media engage in a discussion on how to fix it during the elections?

Today, west and south India have achieved rapid economic growth, but north India’s Hindi heartland still remains largely stagnant. How can India achieve fast and sustainable growth if the region does not grow, if the future of its children is not insured, and politicians are prioritizing religion or culture?

As Indians, we need to distinguish issues that actually matter from issues that do not. At this moment in history, we cannot condone politicians who distract us with divisive hot-button issues that cannot be our priority. Our priorities are clear to all and are universally acknowledged. At this cusp of progress, India cannot afford to lose its focus.

Prateek Raj is assistant professor of strategy at Indian Institute of Management Bangalore

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