The bugle has been sounded, and the race is underway. For the next two months or so, the big political parties and alliances in India will be competing towards getting the big prize – enough seats in parliament to form the government. The smaller parties will be competing to get enough seats so that they can have a seat at the table when post-poll alliances form. And, while the airwaves are muddied with claims of “we are more patriotic”, the fact remains that the underlying issues in the elections are neither so simplistic nor so attractive. The issues are likely to be the issues that elections have been fought on in the past – how well has the incumbent government fared in the last five years; how well has the voter fared under them and how confident are they of a better life in the coming 5 years.
At the top of the election list is the issue of jobs, rather lack of them. The
NSSO report that was leaked earlier in the year said that unemployment was at a forty-five year high, at 6.1 percent. The government suggested, vehemently, that the report was wrong. And, while the government’s defence may have worked with ardent supporters, it really didn’t cut ice especially when people knew that they were sitting at home without a job, and worse, without the hope of a job. The CMIE report that came out earlier this month termed the employment situation in India as 'distressing'. Its figures showed that the unemployment rate had gone up to 7.2 percent. According to the CMIE, approximately 397 million people in India were in employment in December 2018, 11 million people fewer than those employed in December 2017. As someone who teaches post-graduate students just before they enter the job market, I am seeing swathes of students who have not yet been placed. The problem is real, and not something that can be wished away by juggling statistics. And, this will be a real resonating election issue, if the opposition can capitalise on it, and tell the voters how they will be able to change the situation.
The second problem is the
rate of inflation. While the rate at which prices have been growing has been dropping, the actual price of goods is going up. You see this every day in markets – vegetables, eggs, meat, grains are all dearer than they were. While per capita income is growing, it is not growing as fast as the increase in aspirations. In 2016-17 the per capita income of Indians was Rs 103,219. In 2017-18, it rose by 8.3 percent to touch Rs 111,782. However, In many families you see a situation where there were multiple wage earners, now having to cope with a single wage, if they are lucky. And the rupee can only stretch so far. While there is data to suggest that this government has managed to combat inflation successfully, it has not really been able to communicate this to the voters. A kilo of potatoes that costs Rs 30 is an emotive issue, and that coupled with unemployment is an election campaign issue.
The third issue — and this may be most problematic for the incumbent government — is the level of
rural distress. Rural wages have grown by a meagre 3.8 percent year-on-year. Compounding this has been the fact that there has been a cut in MGNREGA jobs, as well as the more pressing fact that those who have worked are yet to receive payments. The central government has asked the states to clear the MGNREGA dues by the end of March, but cash strapped states may not be able to deliver this in such a short period of time.
At the core, the elections should be about the state of the economy, and how it has progressed. While there have been schemes announced and rolled out, roads built, and statues erected – governments aren’t evaluated on the big things. They are judged on issues that impact us directly.
While terror is an emotive issue and garners interest – because each of us has a view on terror, terrorism and how to handle it – the same is not the case with the economy. We know prices are high, we know there are no jobs – but there is no easy solution to either problem. So it is easier for parties to focus on 'naamdaar', 'kaamdaar', and 'chowkidaar' than to focus on the underlying issues facing the economy. But, as
Bill Clinton said during his winning campaign against George Bush – after Bush led America to victory in the First Gulf War – “It is the Economy, stupid”. It always is, and it always will be.
But, this election will be won or lost on the same issues that decided most of our other elections – do we have an enhanced sense of wellbeing? are aspirations being met? and is your party going to deliver either? It would be good if the parties addressed the issues, rather than regaling us with entertainment. After all, if we wanted to laugh, we can switch on comedy shows. It might be slightly more difficult to get comedians to run the country.
Harini Calamur writes on politics, gender and her areas of interest are the intersections of technology, media, and audiences.