The conventional explanation about how Indians vote goes somewhat like this: in state elections when they’re voting for local leaders and a local government, they take local issues into consideration; in national elections when they’re electing a central government, they look at the bigger picture and issues of national interest. Hence, goes the conventional logic, it’s wrong to judge whom Indians will vote for at the Centre based on who they voted for in their states. The issues could be quite different and so could the outcomes of the elections. But what if the two sets of issues conflate? What if the local concerns of the majority of voters and their national concerns are the same? The recently concluded state assembly elections and their results have made such questions pertinent.
In Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the erstwhile Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments suffered a defeat at the hands of the Congress. In Rajasthan where there is a history of voters booting out incumbent governments, the outcome was widely expected: that the BJP would be voted out and Congress ushered in. In Madhya Pradesh, where the incumbent BJP government had been in power for over 13 years, the Congress won by a small margin this time; and in Chhattisgarh, the BJP government got defeated after 15 years as voters plumped overwhelmingly for the Congress.
In Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the Congress had strong leaders such as newly appointed chief minister Kamal Nath, Digvijay Singh, and Jyotiraditya Scindia, to forge an electoral strategy that has worked. Likewise in Rajasthan, veteran leader and now the new chief minister, Ashok Gehlot, and his younger colleague, Sachin Pilot, steered the Congress to win the polls. In Chhattisgarh, despite an absence of a strong leadership, the Congress was helped by the votes of scheduled castes and tribes, whose disenchantment with the BJP regime and a desire for change led the party to win.
While post facto, micro-level analysis of how the electorate in these Hindi belt northern states decided is best left to political strategists, psephologists and number crunchers, the twin themes that ran through these polls (which many see as a sign of what may happen in the national elections due in 2019) was the general disappointment of the youth, both in the cities and villages, and the plight of farmers and rural voters whose economic conditions have worsened over the past four years. These themes were common to all the three states (as well as in two others, Mizoram and Telangana, which also went to the polls in the same period and where strong regional parties won) during these elections.
Farm distress is widespread in India. While food inflation has been at historically low levels, this may have benefited those who consume but has adversely affected those who produce. Farmers all over the country have protested, either by staging marches, or, in more serious cases, committing suicide. The youth, who make up a large proportion of the population as well as the electorate in India, have been a disenchanted lot, mainly because the “better days’ that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised to usher in when he aggressively campaigned for and won the 2014 national elections have failed to materialise. The generation of jobs, especially in the rural and semi-urban sprawl of India has been insignificant, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Often even educated youth have to make do with underpaid jobs, while those who are less qualified fare much worse.
How two cohorts, India’s youth and its farmers, vote is likely to determine the outcome of the 2019 national elections, which the BJP, led by Mr. Modi and his party president, Mr. Amit Shah, badly want to win and get the alliance they lead re-elected, an outcome that the Congress and its allies, led by that party’s president, Mr. Rahul Gandhi, would badly want to disallow. In theory it may be relatively easier for the government in power to win over farmers and those who live off farm work. The central government has the option of announcing largesse in the form of loan waivers and hand-outs to the farm sector in the “mini budget” or vote-on-account that it can pass before the elections are due in May. It could also ensure that minimum support prices are paid for their produce and grant higher subsidies to the sector even if it means a squeeze on the exchequer.
Such populist measures could, to some extent at least, alleviate the economic woes that have continued to cause distress in the farm sector. And the BJP could hope to translate that into votes for it. However, when it comes to winning over India’s youth, it will not be easy. One estimate, based on the official census of 2011, suggests that 20 million Indians turn 18 every year. Eighteen in the voting age for Indians and if that estimate is even approximately correct it means that since 2014 and till 2019, there could theoretically be 100 million new voters. Those who were between 14 and 17 in 2014 when the last national election was held will now be eligible to vote. Over a third of Indians are estimated to be between 15 and 25. And India’s youth, rural, semi-urban, or urban, are brimming with aspirations. Partly this is because of increased awareness, often fuelled by easier access to media and information, but also because of the promises that Mr. Modi has been consistently making about development, “better days” (Achche Din), and other improvement that his government would make.
The problem is he and his government have largely failed to deliver on those. Generating jobs is one of them. 470 million of 1.3 billion Indians make up the country’s workforce. Nearly 80% of them are self-employed, a euphemism for actually being unemployed or doing things that earn them incomes that are below subsistence levels. Very few jobs that pay realistic wages and provide security are created annually compared to the 10-11 million estimated additions to the workforce. Mr. Modi’s government has tinkered with methodologies to portray India’s current GDP growth rates in a better light but it is widely known that this has had little bearing on people who eke out a living at the margins. India’s youth, including those who might turn out to vote in high numbers in 2019, are a disappointed lot–more so because the past five years under the BJP-led regime have done little to change their fortunes.
That kind of disappointment, coupled with high aspirations, can quickly turn into anger and deep resentment, factors that will likely influence their decisions when they head to the voting booths when the polls take place. The urban middle-class and its social media chatter is an incorrect indicator of voter mood in India. It is the poor, the disenchanted, and the droves of unsuccessful job seekers whose votes will ultimately matter. There is a stark lesson in the outcome of the recent state elections, particularly in the Hindi belt that used to be the BJP and its allies’ main stronghold. The BJP will have to take note of that in the run-up to the polls but it could be too late. There is a lesson too for the Congress, whose spirits are obviously buoyed by the recent victories. India is a youthful country and there are huge advantages in that but no political party can hope to leverage that unless it is serious about delivering what the young expect.