Bhakt goggles? Why jobs became secondary in this poll campaign

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As we wait for the end of this long election season, one of the big questions that has flummoxed all liberals and those fighting the BJP is why Brand Modi still seems relatively impervious to the problem of falling job-creation and several declining economic indicators, which would have brought any other government low. Irrespective of the final result and whichever side of the ideological fence you are on, this campaign has been defined on the simple praxis of whether you are personally for or against the Prime Minister.

Consider the latest job numbers. While the quarterly employment survey is being rejigged with a new methodology and economists continue to argue about the quality of the government’s larger economic numbers, survey data from the independent Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) released right in the middle of the poll campaign in April 2019 showed that unemployment had increased to 7.6%, the highest point since October 2016.

Plot these job numbers on a national map and the reddest states showing unemployment over 10% are bang in the middle of the BJP’s core Hindi heartland base: Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. Yet look at the campaign in these states and its not jobs or candidates but other local factors that dominated. Like in UP, the entire election rests on the caste debate and whether constituency-level arithmetic of the gathbandhan calculus can trump Modi’s chemistry or not.
So, does this mean that the economy does not matter politically in today’s India? The idea that politics follows economics has been conventional wisdom at least since the American political strategist James Carville put up a notice saying ‘The economy, stupid’, outside Bill Clinton’s campaign office in 1992. But has it been checkmated in India by the Modi blend of personality politics and a virulent Hindutva-induced cocktail of post-Balakot muscular nationalism?

Conversely, are economic concerns over-hyped by naysayers, as the government has been arguing? Or are people being hoodwinked by clever propaganda and identity politics, as the Congress has argued?

The Opposition’s beliefs are best exemplified by Congress’ caustic ‘Bhakt ka chashma’ video, which shows a young man looking to buy goggles and being taken for a ride as he tries out a magic saffron pair that tints the way the world looks to him. Where there is poverty, the saffron goggles show a vision of prosperity; where there is sickness, they show neat and clean hospitals; and where there are pakoda sellers, they show happy degree-wielding job holders.

The broad elite assumption is that people are gullible, may not be as aware of their own realities as they should be and are being carried away by a “propaganda machinery” as Priyanka Gandhi put it.

But the poll dynamic may be far more complicated than that. Reserve Bank of India’s periodic consumer confidence surveys show that net public opinion about what people think about their own employment prospects rose sharply just after the Modi government came to power in 2014, but collapsed after demonetisation, falling to much worse than UPA 2 levels in 2017-18 before suddenly recovering in March 2019 (see chart).

This contrast becomes even starker when people are asked about their future prospects. Unlike the complete despondency on this question at the end of UPA 2, net future expectations about the economy in India clocked in at 48.6% positive in March 2019. This, astoundingly, is at a higher level than when the Modi government was sworn in.

Politics is about emotion and perception. It seems that while people may personally be unhappy in economic terms, they have been much more positive about how they view the larger economic direction of the country.

Now, Indians have historically been much more hopeful about the future than those in developed western countries. Yet, even within this frame, the distinction between what they believe is good for them as opposed to what they see as good for the nation is striking.

This explains why Modi shifted the election discourse from jobs to wider touchpoints like nationalism, dynasty politics and other such themes.

Secondly, there is no question that the new government will face a huge economic challenge with several worrying economic indicators like falling two-wheeler sales, oil prices and problems in the financial sector indicating an upcoming reckoning. The point is that people have somehow not felt it has reached a crisis point yet for it to override other factors.

Though there has been a fair bit of fatigue, Brand Modi may have weathered better than what the economic numbers might otherwise suggest. The final tally will tell us how much.

released right in the middle of the poll campaign in April 2019 showed that unemployment had increased to 7.6%, the highest point since October 2016.

Plot these job numbers on a national map and the reddest states showing unemployment over 10% are bang in the middle of the BJP’s core Hindi heartland base: Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. Yet look at the campaign in these states and its not jobs or candidates but other local factors that dominated. Like in UP, the entire election rests on the caste debate and whether constituency-level arithmetic of the gathbandhan calculus can trump Modi’s chemistry or not.
So, does this mean that the economy does not matter politically in today’s India? The idea that politics follows economics has been conventional wisdom at least since the American political strategist James Carville put up a notice saying ‘The economy, stupid’, outside Bill Clinton’s campaign office in 1992. But has it been checkmated in India by the Modi blend of personality politics and a virulent Hindutva-induced cocktail of post-Balakot muscular nationalism?

Conversely, are economic concerns over-hyped by naysayers, as the government has been arguing? Or are people being hoodwinked by clever propaganda and identity politics, as the Congress has argued?

The Opposition’s beliefs are best exemplified by Congress’ caustic ‘Bhakt ka chashma’ video, which shows a young man looking to buy goggles and being taken for a ride as he tries out a magic saffron pair that tints the way the world looks to him. Where there is poverty, the saffron goggles show a vision of prosperity; where there is sickness, they show neat and clean hospitals; and where there are pakoda sellers, they show happy degree-wielding job holders.

The broad elite assumption is that people are gullible, may not be as aware of their own realities as they should be and are being carried away by a “propaganda machinery” as Priyanka Gandhi put it.

But the poll dynamic may be far more complicated than that. Reserve Bank of India’s periodic consumer confidence surveys show that net public opinion about what people think about their own employment prospects rose sharply just after the Modi government came to power in 2014, but collapsed after demonetisation, falling to much worse than UPA 2 levels in 2017-18 before suddenly recovering in March 2019 (see chart).

This contrast becomes even starker when people are asked about their future prospects. Unlike the complete despondency on this question at the end of UPA 2, net future expectations about the economy in India clocked in at 48.6% positive in March 2019. This, astoundingly, is at a higher level than when the Modi government was sworn in.

Politics is about emotion and perception. It seems that while people may personally be unhappy in economic terms, they have been much more positive about how they view the larger economic direction of the country.

Now, Indians have historically been much more hopeful about the future than those in developed western countries. Yet, even within this frame, the distinction between what they believe is good for them as opposed to what they see as good for the nation is striking.

This explains why Modi shifted the election discourse from jobs to wider touchpoints like nationalism, dynasty politics and other such themes.

Secondly, there is no question that the new government will face a huge economic challenge with several worrying economic indicators like falling two-wheeler sales, oil prices and problems in the financial sector indicating an upcoming reckoning. The point is that people have somehow not felt it has reached a crisis point yet for it to override other factors.

Though there has been a fair bit of fatigue, Brand Modi may have weathered better than what the economic numbers might otherwise suggest. The final tally will tell us how much.





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