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Mahangai” (inflation) would be the single stock response from almost every second voter that we would encounter on our journey from Meerut to Kanpur when asked what is the one issue that mattered to them. It would take a bit more subtle questioning to delve deeper into more actionable responses like “Gundayi” (hooliganism) – if the respondents belonged to SC or MBC segments – and “education” if the respondents belonged to upper castes or middle castes.

Bhrashtachar” (corruption) would be the second commonest stock response from most voters in that journey. This was some 12 years ago in the winter of 2006 in run-up to the 2007 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections in which the Mayawati led BSP swept to power winning a clear majority in UP for the first time since 1991. Yours truly was part of the ground teams for the pilot survey (before the full survey would be commissioned) to understand voter behavior in the largest Indian state.

That 2006 journey offered a great learning curve to us because it taught us an important lesson about India’s voters. And that lesson was a simple one – that at any given point of time among any given subset of population, “inflation & corruption” would be the two primary issues that matter most to the voters.

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In fact, ever since India’s polling industry began to mature in the early 1980’s, these two issues have remained as top choices amongst a cross section of opinion and exit polls conducted by umpteen polling agencies. Take the case of every poll in the 1990s and the first decade of 2000s and you will observe that “inflation and corruption” are the two commonest issues that affect the voters irrespective of who is in power. Every government at the center and the state whether it belonged to Congress, BJP or the regional parties had failed to curb price rise or big bang corruption throughout these post-emergency decades.

These twin issues hit a peak in 2013-14 in the run-up to the last general elections even as the Sonia-Manmohan led UPA failed spectacularly in curbing inflation while giving birth to some of the biggest corruption scandals in the history of India like the 2G, CWG and Coalgate scams. 5 years ago, around this time, food inflation was debilitatingly hurting the poor families both in urban as well as rural India even as corruption had become all pervasive.

Today, when we take the same journey from Meerut to Kanpur by road and ask people what issues are bothering them most, hardly anybody even mentions the word “Bhrashtachar” (corruption) and a staggering 9 out of 10 voters do not utter the word “Mahangai” (inflation) even after prodding! 

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The two perineal issues of inflation and corruption plaguing ordinary Indians for almost the whole of 67 years until 2014 have now moved to the background! This has been the single biggest achievement of the Modi government at the center that has not yet been understood fully. It is a massive culture change that is sweeping across India. Ask anybody who has got a LPG gas cylinder in Hathras (Uttar Pradesh) or a toilet in Nawada (Bihar) or a house in Jhabua (Madhya Pradesh) – through the PM rural housing scheme – and the one unequivocal response you would get is that none of them paid even as much as a 10-rupee bribe to either the government servant or the contractor or any middleman. Contrast this with the situation just 6 years ago when the poorest of poor in rural India would have to dole out 10% of their earnings to even get a paltry 150 rupees from the local Sarpanch/contractor under MGNREGA scheme!

Thus, it is not just the absence of big-ticket corruption scandals that have gone missing from the headlines in the last 5 years, but also there has been a bottom-up culture change in the form of a corruption-free environment for end users who utilize government services like free LPG, building toilets, Ayushman Bharat or other DBT schemes.

The biggest implication of near eradication of corruption and inflation as the primary socio-political concerns of Indian democracy is that for the first time after independence Indian voters have moved on to the next socio-economic level of aspiration beyond basic existence. We therefore today see greater demand for better paying jobs in urban areas and better value for their agricultural produce in rural areas. It is these two issues which have been falsely highlighted as “jobs crisis” and “farm distress” by most Delhi based media outlets and economists. In essence, the Indian voter is saying “thank you for solving the inflation and corruption problems, now give us better jobs and improve rural agronomy”!

Thus, 2019 should in all probability be a positive vote for Modi from the electorate, for hasn’t he delivered on two of the greatest problems plaguing Indians for at least the last 50 years? Well, the opposition/liberal counter to that question is the argument that if such a “positive vote” was a reality, then how come BJP lost 3 state elections in just last December? The answer to that argument is pretty simple, but let us try and analyze the same dispassionately.

Firstly, beyond the larger narrative of Congress winning in December, what remained true is that BJP’s vote-share was amazingly stable at around 40% in both Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. In fact, if anything just a minor positive swing of 2% would have meant BJP retaining both those large states which also means that Congress’s majority is quite tenuous at best in both Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Of course, the smaller state of Chhattisgarh was the real surprise (which even we completely misread), but such anomalies do arise from time to time and they are not signals of larger trend reversals.

Secondly, all state assembly elections are weighed in heavily by localized anti-incumbency factors not only against the state governments but also against sitting legislators. In such a scenario, if BJP has still maintained a 40% range in state elections, then the signs for opposition parties are quite ominous because Indian electorate looks at the central government through a completely different prism.

Thirdly, most of BJP’s support loss whether it was in the state assembly elections of December 2018 or the Karnataka elections (specifically in Bangalore city) before that or even the various by-polls of last 2 years have all come about due to dwindling support from the middle-class and upper castes who have had a string of grievances against the BJP. It is this third factor that needs to be addressed more seriously.

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As per various estimates based on vast amounts of data, BJP/NDA’s share among all India upper caste votes in 2014 stood at a whopping 72% with minor regional variations. Similarly, among the middle classes, BJP/NDA’s share stood at 55%. Essentially, 1 out of every 2 middle class voters and 7 out of every 10 upper caste voters supported Modi unequivocally in the last general elections. (One must note here that “Upper Caste” and “middle class” are not synonymous terms; while the former is an ‘ethnic’ classification that accounts for 27% of India’s voting population, the latter is an economic classification that accounts for 46% of India’s voters).

Over the last couple of years, this support for Modi among upper castes and middle class had fallen down by anywhere between 12 to 20%. The reasons for this dissatisfaction ranged from economic measures like GST to politico-religious aspects like BJP’s perceived lack of interest in supporting Hindu causes to socio-economic factors like lack of any new innovations in the reservation policy et al.

One of the primary rallying points for Indian middle classes and the upper castes has always been Pakistan and India’s weakness in handling Pakistan sponsored terrorism. This is where the post-Pulwama response of Indian military adventure so deep into Pakistani territory has created such a big halo around Modi. No doubt, there have been other corrective measures taken by the central government after December 2018, like for example, reservations for forward castes, but what really has energized upper-castes and middle-class is the way India responded to Pakistan’s nuclear bluff and especially more so the way opposition handled the whole affair by questioning the strikes and almost creating a perception of siding with Pakistan.

Let me narrate a short story to illustrate this point further. About 3 days after the Balakot air-strikes, an upper caste Congress MLA’s wife in a small town in north India had typically forwarded a message within her WhatsApp group which simply suggested that Modi was looking for “electoral gains by striking Pakistan after Pulwama”. The apparent severe backlash that she received from even some of her staunchest friends had left her so frustrated that she had to finally apologize publically in a political rally last Friday when many among the crowd started sloganeering against her. “Earlier, when she forwarded such messages against Modi, ridiculing his policies like GST, she would either get support from her WhatsApp group or at best be met with a silence… this time the reactions were completely hostile” narrated a famous local doctor to me recently.

This Balakot halo around Modi therefore has a specific targeted audience of middle class and upper castes who can potentially beat the 2014 peak this time around in terms of supporting Modi, and the opposition has played straight into Modi’s hands by not taking a nuanced supportive stand on that issue. Some news anchors and editors are hammering day in and day out that the real issues of 2019 are “jobs” and “angry farmer”, but opposition Karyakartas know that these issues are mostly manufactured ones and cannot gain traction beyond a limited scope. Hence, 2019’s big problem is not just a lack of a national leader to take on Modi, but lack of real issues to present an alternate vision for India.