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Modi is making Lok Sabha polls all about himself

Modi is making Lok Sabha polls all about himself

I counted 50 pictures of Modi in the 69-page document before I gave up. The Congress Party, on the other hand, has deliberately underplayed the role of Rahul Gandhi, its de facto leader and star campaigner, in its 46-page manifesto.

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Last Updated : 16 April 2024, 04:16 IST
Last Updated : 16 April 2024, 04:16 IST
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By Andy Mukherjee

India’s general election will get under way this week as a big summer sale. The two main political rivals will each try to attract nearly 1 billion eligible voters by claiming that their version of the future will cause less buyers’ remorse five years from now.

Yet, the promotional packages are very different. The opposition Congress Party is offering a bouquet of assurances — on urban jobs and apprenticeships, basic incomes for the poor, minimum wages, floor prices for crops, religious freedom, and protection of constitutional rights. By contrast, the ruling, right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party has one product: Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The 24 key promises in the BJP manifesto are all “Modi ki guarantee,” Hindi for Modi’s guarantees.

I counted 50 pictures of Modi in the 69-page document before I gave up. The Congress Party, on the other hand, has deliberately underplayed the role of Rahul Gandhi, its de facto leader and star campaigner, in its 46-page manifesto. A part of that decision may be to shield the most famous last name in Indian politics — the family has given three prime ministers — from further attacks. Modi, a first-generation politician, misses no opportunity to accuse Gandhi of being a privileged political dynast.

Besides, to fulfil pledges, the Congress Party must first capture power. That part of the equation is itself looking shaky, with the most recent pre-poll survey giving a 12 percentage point lead to the ruling party and its allies. A 40 per cent vote share for BJP (plus 6 per cent for its allies) could well translate into the most convincing win in any Indian election in four decades. Even if Modi’s advantage narrows or disappears, and the Congress-led alliance of more than two dozen opposition parties somehow manages to snatch victory, other ambitious leaders of the coalition may not agree on Gandhi as their prime ministerial candidate. Or they may not back the Congress manifesto in its totality.

Still, if history is any guide, the contest isn’t over. Since 1997, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi has conducted the country’s most extensive investigation into voter attitudes under its Lokniti program. In 2004, 48 per cent respondents in the Lokniti-CSDS pre-poll survey had said the government of the day deserved another chance; 30 per cent had said no. And yet, the then BJP-led administration met with an unexpected defeat. This time, 44 per cent want a third term for Modi, while 39 per cent do not wish to see him return to power.

There is disaffection in the air, which is where the guarantees come in.

The top reason people are giving for wanting Modi back is that he has done good work. The Hindu temple he consecrated in January is the “work” for which they admire his government the most, they said while replying to a separate question. The second-biggest reason for supporting the prime minister is his welfare agenda.

Free food grains for 800 million Indians figures prominently in Modi’s guarantees. But this pandemic-era program has already been extended to 2029. Ditto for an affordable housing project, which has been around for nine years. Cash transfers in lieu of subsidies for cooking gas were introduced in 2013 by the previous administration, a Congress-led alliance. They were expanded and rebranded during Modi’s first term. Free electricity to poor households, another pledge in the BJP’s 2024 manifesto, was announced in February as part of a rooftop-solar plan.

In other words, the Indian welfare state, as the ruling party envisions it for the next five years, is already in place. Voters have to weigh the deal they’re already getting against what they are missing.

Those who seek political change cite unemployment, inflation and income insecurity as their top concerns. Lack of suitable work has become a raging crisis. Two out of three among the country’s jobless are young people with at least a secondary education. Every second young woman is neither working, nor studying. These are the areas where the Congress Party has chosen to focus its attack by promising a right to paid apprenticeship. If voted to power, the party has pledged to fill 3 million public sector vacancies. Modi has replaced regular hiring in the defense forces with four-year stints culminating in the decommissioning of three out of four young soldiers without pension or health benefits. The Congress says it would scrap the controversial arrangement and resume long-term contracts.

On inflation, both parties want to target healthcare costs. Gandhi is making a bold pledge of free and universal care up to 2.5 million rupees ($30,000), five times the coverage limit under Modi’s existing medical insurance plan. Then there are food and energy costs. The Congress Party says it will increase the utilization of subsidized cooking gas, though it doesn’t say if it will give bigger cash rebates. The BJP says it will stabilize prices of vegetables, edible oils and pulses.

But unlike Modi, Gandhi is proposing big expansions in India’s welfare state to address agrarian angst and inequality. He’s promising the urban poor jobs in city infrastructure and a legally mandated minimum support price to farmers — something Modi has long resisted. Similarly, the Congress Party’s proposed unconditional transfer of $1,200 a year to poor families will be a significant basic income in a country where 90 per cent of adults don’t earn the per capita average of $2,800, while fewer than 10,000 individuals make 2,000 times more, on average.

Pre-poll surveys do not explicitly capture extreme inequality as a concern. What they do show, however, is that 32 per cent of people now believe that more of the gains have gone to the rich, while 15 per cent believe there has been no development at all. All of this suggests that quid pro quo by billionaires seeking political favors may well turn out to be an issue in this election, thanks to the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to scrap opaque electoral funding and force some very embarrassing disclosures on corporate donations. If not the details, then at least the broad-brush message on rampant crony capitalism will have reached the average voter before polling begins April 19. In the Lokniti-CSDS survey, 55 per cent of respondents said that corruption has increased in the last five years.

Yet, the anti-Modi alliance’s chances are severely curtailed. Important opposition politicians are in jail or facing harassment by federal agencies. More alarmingly, faith in the Election Commission has crashed, from 51% who said they trusted the institution to a great extent after the 2019 poll, to 28% now. The survey shows a widespread belief that the ruling party can manipulate electronic voting machines. “We are rapidly sliding to become a one-party and one-person dictatorship,” warns the Congress manifesto. The BJP, however, brushes aside the concern and says it will promote the country’s “rich democratic traditions going back millennia.”

Voters will have to take that promise on its face value. There is no “Modi’s guarantee” on keeping India’s democracy alive.

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