THE General Class compartment – the cheapest – is full and Team Ceritalah are forced to perch on what are supposed to be the luggage racks (and therefore situated directly above the normal seats).
It’s an express train from Hyderabad to Chennai. The summer heat (well over 40c) has enveloped the parched Deccan plateau. The tickets – only INR225 (RM13.40) – are relatively inexpensive. Still, it’s a stifling fifteen-hour journey – two hours longer than scheduled.
The Indian elections are a five week-long marathon. The first stage of the exhausting process has already begun and voting has started. The southern states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh – only recently divided from one another – are seething with talk of politics. The train carriage is a hubbub. Besides given the cramped seating arrangements, no one can sleep.
There’s an animated conversation among the men sitting on the luggage racks – two shopkeepers, a government employee, an IT worker and a manual labourer. Everyone agrees that Hyderabad is more developed than Chennai. They are fascinated by the brand new air-conditioned bus stops in the city.
As the discussion becomes more expansive, discussing political preferences and even revealing how they voted, the labourer – he’s a mason from Vijayawada – and clearly the poorest in the group pipes up: “I voted for Modi.”
When asked why, he explains straightforwardly, “under Congress, pulses (he uses the Telugu word ‘pappu’) cost INR120 (RM7.15) whereas now they’re only INR80 (RM4.80).”
Realising his more straitened circumstances, no one questions him any further. Instead they fall silent.
While the chattering classes may well view the upcoming polls as part of an ongoing struggle between conflicting visions for the Republic – with the BJP and its assertive and increasingly anti-democratic Hindutva agenda on the one hand and the Gandhi-Nehru family’s secular socialist dreams on the other for – most people the questions are more immediate: it’s all about jobs, prices, and basic government services. Indeed, electoral politics the world over is essentially all about – “what’s in it for me?”
And it’s in this respect that the BJP’s Narendra Modi was so dynamic and indeed successful five years ago when his party won 282 seats and an outright majority in the Lok Sabha. As the architect of the Gujarat ‘miracle’, he swept into power promising all three (jobs, low prices and government services) after a decade of Congress’ lackluster and corruption-riddled leadership. His simple code word for it, ‘ache din’ or “the good days are coming”.
Unfortunately, the reality hasn’t been so rosy. Instead, unemployment has risen inexorably, reaching a 45 year high of 6.1%. Indeed, statistics have become a hotly-contested battleground as embarrassing data (at least for the incumbents) has allegedly been suppressed by Government departments. Even the IMF, in the person of its Chief Economist Gita Gopinath, has questioned the integrity of Indian sources. Certainly, the constant complaints on the ground over jobs and spotty economic growth would seem to underline international scepticism.
Indeed, the pain has been most acute in the rural areas where two thirds of the population reside and some 84% of the job losses have occurred. Deflation – sagging crop prices such as pappu the poorly dressed traveller was referring to – has decimated agricultural incomes, leading to mass immiseration.
Moreover, given that ten to twelve million young people flood the job market every year, one can only imagine the level of dissatisfaction.
A point to be highlighted is that these statistics take into consideration the nation’s formal sector whilst ignoring the informal sector – in which many have become unemployed especially after demonetisation. A recent survey by the All India Manufacturers’ Organisation revealed that the economy is struggling. The survey established that the number of jobs in micro and small enterprises had declined by roughly a third since 2014. In medium-scale enterprises, about a quarter of jobs had been lost, and among traders the decline was over 40%.
The frustration on the ground is palpable.
Nestled away in Hyderabad’s old city, is a famous Falooda and Lassi shop, Matwale Doodh Ghar. Matwale, the owner, laments that costs have increased tremendously. The Old City is a historic but poorer sector of the IT hub, in the Indian summer heat, the yogurt drink is a cheap treat.
Matwale is a front line victim of the BJP’s introduction of Goods and Service Taxes. GST was meant to simplify taxes which differed between states and increase ease of business. The new system however, is as opaque as the last, has arbitrary rates for various products and has demolished the unorganised sector.
He says, “It is impossible to transfer all of it onto the customer, although I get thousands of customers every day, a hike in price would drive many away”.
His frustration is mainly aimed at the central government for its policies. The high costs are also why he chose to send his eldest son to China to study medicine.
The overnight announcement of the demonetisation (removal of 86.5% of Indian currency) in November 2016 and the implementation of the GST in mid-2017 were intended to prove the capability of a BJP-led administration. Instead what the Ceritalah team saw on the ground was economic frustration. Farmer’s suicides, mass-unemployment and the migration that is tied to it and struggling traders.
Whether this will mean they vote for the BJP, the Indian National Congress or regional opposition parties is a question that still hangs in there. It’s a question that hovers somewhere between the luggage racks in trains as it were.
The question “what’s in it for me”, is not as easily answerable now for everyday Indians as it was in the shock-and-awe publicity campaign of Modi in 2014.
The Modi magic that was promised in 2014 is something that seems to have all but evaporated.