Shadow of economic distress on polls : The Tribune India

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Shadow of economic distress on polls

Unemployment and price rise are two livelihood issues that can override politics of identity

Shadow of economic distress on polls

YARDSTICK: Jobs for the largest number of people out on the streets ought to be the real measure of a society’s progress. PTI



Rajesh Ramachandran

IS this the 2004 moment? That General Election remains special for the shocking results — not just for the loser but for the winner too — and has left a lasting impact on political observers for the deceptive campaign that ended in regime change. In fact, the Congress did not do much to win, but the BJP’s India Shining slogan did it in. For, India wasn’t shining for the majority, which, in turn, took offence to some smart alec copywriter’s punchline.

The govt has done micro-management at every level and PM Modi keeps talking about the welfare schemes that he has rolled out to address the concerns of the less fortunate.

What reminds one of the 2004 electioneering is a survey done recently by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) — a think tank founded by political scientists Rajni Kothari, DL Sheth and Ashis Nandy some 60 years ago. The results of the survey were published by a national daily on Thursday. According to the CSDS survey, unemployment and price rise are the key poll issues (or primary concerns, as the survey terms them) and not Hindutva.

The Ram Temple and corruption, with 8 percentage points each, are relegated to the fifth spot after jobs (27 per cent), inflation (23 per cent), development (13 per cent) and other answers (9 per cent) in the order of primacy of concerns. It is shocking to note the extent of distress over unemployment brought out by the surveyors, who claim to have gone to 400 polling stations in 100 parliamentary constituencies across 19 states to speak to 10,019 respondents.

About 62 per cent of those surveyed seemed to have found it difficult to get a job, more so in the big cities than in towns and villages. This is an alarming figure. Jobs for the largest number of people out on the streets ought to be the real measure of a society’s progress, not the rise and rise of the stock index or the wealth of Indian billionaires. When India was shining for the ruling party in 2004, it wasn’t for the poor, who expressed their displeasure on the voting day.

The other issue that hits a poor person is price rise: 71 per cent of those were surveyed talked about rising prices and that figure goes up for the poor — 76 per cent of them are upset. This should make the BJP sit up and take notice. Unemployment and price rise are two complementary livelihood issues that can override politics of identity. It actually does not matter what the opinion-makers and influencers think if the worse-off voters are upset because their numbers are huge, according to this survey, and this is all that counts.

Unlike in 2004, the government of the day seems to know about the distress. All its actions in the run-up to the polls show that the ruling party is in a hurry to make amends. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, the BJP has been either tying up with local partners or ensuring a three- or four-cornered contest to get the Opposition votes divided. Ghulam Nabi Azad’s party has ensured an effective multi-cornered contest at least in the Udhampur constituency, where Ghulam Mohammad Saroori is expected to split Muslim votes.

The four-cornered contest in Punjab is expected to offer a mixed bag of results, unlike a frontal fight between two fronts. The quiet ouster of Jannayak Janta Party (JJP) from the BJP government in Haryana will only help the ruling party split the Opposition’s Jat votes. The Chautala clan has two parties in the fray — JJP and Indian National Lok Dal — and both are expected to take a slice of Jat votes away, which would have otherwise accrued to the Congress’ Bhupinder Singh Hooda.

Now, with Birender Singh and his son back in the Congress, the party’s Jat credentials are getting burnished. But with OBC Chief Minister Nayab Singh Saini in the saddle, the BJP expects to overcome the anti-incumbency of Manohar Lal Khattar’s nine-year rule and also trigger a counter-consolidation of non-Jat votes. The ploy may or may not work, but what is on display is a poll plan based on an understanding of local issues, anti-incumbency and social factors. Can these measures counter the distress caused by unemployment?

According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), Haryana had the country’s worst unemployment rate (37.4 per cent) in January 2023. Sure, the Haryana Government had contested it and the CMIE data need not be taken as gospel truth but just an indicator. It is interesting to take note of the economic distress and the BJP’s political remedy — change of CM and a vote-splitting strategy.

In every state of consequence — unless there is a bipolar contest — and sometimes even in states where it does not have much at stake, the BJP has practised the art of alliances, vote-splitting, defections and realignment of social forces. For instance, reaching out to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Rashtriya Lok Dal’s Jayant Chaudhary in Uttar Pradesh, former Prime Minister Deve Gowda in Karnataka and winning over Shiv Sena and NCP splinter groups in Maharashtra were all distress-relieving measures in high-stakes states with a total of 196 seats.

Out of these seats, the BJP-led NDA had won 170 in 2019. The BJP seems to have foreseen economic distress as a cause for concern to have done electoral machinations in all these states. Now, the question is — will unemployment and inflation deal a body blow to the BJP so strong that it would be beyond the absorption threshold of these manoeuvres? In 2004, the economic distress had quietly defeated the BJP without the Congress having to do much. Then top BJP leader Pramod Mahajan acknowledged after the polls that the poor had brought the government down.

The situation now is different. The government knows what is in store for it. It has done micro-management at every level and PM Modi keeps talking about the welfare schemes that he has rolled out to address the concerns of the less fortunate. Will it work? Is it enough? Well, the anger of the poor so far is muted and shows no signs of turning into a tsunami of discontent. 

#Congress #Inflation #Unemployment


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