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  Opinion   Columnists  10 Jun 2024  Patralekha Chatterjee | Citizens send a message to Modi 3.0: Time to get real

Patralekha Chatterjee | Citizens send a message to Modi 3.0: Time to get real

Patralekha Chatterjee focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at
Published : Jun 11, 2024, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Jun 11, 2024, 12:05 am IST

Modi's third term: Voters demand focus on present realities over historical rhetoric

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses officials of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), at South Block, in New Delhi, Monday, June 10, 2024. (PTI Photo)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses officials of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), at South Block, in New Delhi, Monday, June 10, 2024. (PTI Photo)

In this season of scorching heat and searing poll analysis, there is one key message — “get real”. One can slice and dice the 2024 general election results in many ways but the final tally shows that millions of Indian voters want the government to urgently focus on the real lives of everyday people. In short, the present, instead of the distant past or the dead. People are worried more about money, their meagre incomes, rather than the Mughals, who ruled large parts of northern India from the early 16th to mid-19th century, and have been repeatedly referenced by BJP leaders as Muslim invaders.

The ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has won. Narendra Modi, 73, has become India’s Prime Minister for the third time, but with a shrunken halo. This time, there was no landslide victory. Instead, there is a stronger than expected Opposition. The Opposition INDIA bloc collectively garnered 232 seats. The BJP secured 240 seats, less than the 272-seat majority needed to form a government on its own. Modi 3.0 is dependent on key NDA allies including the Telugu Desam Party and the Janata Dal (United), as well as smaller groups.

It is hard to definitively say why people voted the way they did. From ground reports, however, a few things are clear. The new government needs to pay attention. Indians remain overwhelmingly religious. Millions, however, have begun to realise that religious fervour alone does not pay the bills; Hindu-Muslim polarisation does not fill bellies. At the end of the day, everyone needs jobs. Welfare benefits — cash transfers, subsidised cooking gas, piped water and free grain — are welcome, but not enough.

Many analysts are shocked that the BJP was defeated in Uttar Pradesh’s Faizabad constituency, which houses the temple town of Ayodhya where Prime Minister Modi had participated in the star-studded inauguration of the Ram Mandir, built over the demolished Babri Masjid. How can voters reject the party which delivered on its long-standing promise of building a Ram temple on the site believed to be the birthplace of the deity, many ask. But the Samajwadi Party’s Awadhesh Prasad, a senior politician and a Dalit, defeated the sitting BJP MP Lallu Singh by more than 50,000 votes. This does not mean that the electorate is forsaking faith or Lord Ram. But it does signal their mounting concern about economic realities. 

To those who have been paying attention, the story of rural distress and rising joblessness among youth in India is not new. There have been persistent alerts.

The numerous “paper leaks” in the Hindi heartland, for example, are telling pointers to the job crisis and growing desperation in a country without social security. Earlier this year, nearly 1,000 aspirants for jobs as constables in the Uttar Pradesh police flo-cked to a Gurgaon resort, just before the competitive examination, to access a leaked question paper, according to the police.

Despatches from the ground point out that while in Faizabad and Ayodhya towns, many spoke about voting for the BJP because of the development work done in the area and the prospects of a rising temple economy, there were others who spoke of distress and displacement. The mood in rural pockets of the same constituency was a lot more sombre. Here, the voters, largely backward classes, Dalits, and minorities, felt their issues were being ignored and that they did not benefit much from the temple economy and redevelopment of the city.

“Locals whose property was demolished in redevelopment feel displaced by soaring land prices and scant compensation. And some from the city’s sizeable Muslim community of an estimated 3,50,000 said they are not reaping the benefits of the boom,” a Reuters report noted last December.

Which brings us to a key issue in India today. India may be one of the fastest-growing economies with many billionaires. But it remains a deeply unequal society with millions struggling to just survive. That is not to say no development has happened. But its benefits have not trickled down to everyone. Alongside a rising GDP, there is rising household debt and declining household savings. Nearly 800 million Indians depend on the government’s free foodgrain scheme. 

In India, the luxury revolution saga is unfolding alongside rural distress and a jobs crisis. French luxury brand Hermès recently launched its third retail store in the country in Mumbai; the demand for luxury apartments is going up. Ditto with luxury car and SUV sales.

But a darker reality lurks beyond the glamour and glitz. Millions of people, especially in villages and urban slums, are struggling to make ends meet. Cultivators, and not just in Uttar Pradesh, complain that farming has become increasingly unprofitable. While average annual agriculture growth is usually at three per cent, it was only 1.4 per cent in 2023-24. Add to this the high food prices.

Those at the bottom, on the margins, and in the rural hinterland want the new government to get real.

Livelihood issues go beyond agriculture. “While wages of casual labourers maintained a modest upward trend during 2012-22, real wages of regular workers either remained stagnant or declined. Self-employed real earnings also declined after 2019. Overall, wages have remained low. As much as 62 per cent of the unskilled casual agriculture workers and 70 per cent of such workers in the construction sector at the all-India level did not receive the prescribed daily minimum wages in 2022,” points out the India Employment Report 2024, brought out by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Delhi-based Institute for Human Development. 

Arguably, the service sector has been the primary driver of India’s growth since 2000. The ILO report notes that software, IT, IT-enabled services, business, and financial services have generated direct employment opportunities and stimulated job growth in other sectors through multiplier effects and that these services “consistently generated highly paid, regular formal job opportunities”.

The catch — not everyone can get these jobs.

The report goes on to observe that because states are at different stages of demographic transition, the potential demographic advantage also varies across them, as do the employment outcomes. And that “the youth unemployment rate has increased with the level of education, with the highest rates among those with a graduate degree or higher and higher among women than men”.

The bottom line: the past may be imperfect, the future uncertain; what matters most to voters is the present. Many voters made clear that they would rather have a better life here and now, than be part of a dream project in the distant future.

Will India’s new coalition government opt for a reset, a course-correction?

The jury is out.



Tags: bjp-nda government, prime minister narendra modi, 2024 lok sabha elections