Let's start with a health warning: The exit polls could be wrong. But even Prime Minister Narendra Modi's worst critics concede he will win at least 200-odd seats. This, in itself, is a remarkable feat. A government that has presided over a palpable economic slowdown, widespread unemployment and deep farmer distress will still end up with a clear shot at returning to power.
The typical liberal response will be to say that Modi managed to polarise voters and distract them from the 'real' issues. The other explanation is that the opposition didn't have a credible face who could appear as an alternative to Modi. There is some weight to these arguments, but they aren't enough.
The truth is job creation and unemployment have never affected voter choice. RBI-KLEMS employment data shows that jobs grew at an annual rate of 2.3% when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister. In terms of numbers, that's about 94 lakh jobs being added per year. Between 2004 and 2009, under Manmohan Singh, annual job growth dropped to just 0.8% or just 38 lakh new jobs per year. In fact, between 2005-09, in its last four years, the Manmohan Singh government added a total of just 32 lakh jobs.
If jobs were to matter, Vajpayee should have been voted back to power, and Manmohan Singh thrown out. Ironically, when UPA was routed in 2014, its job creation record had improved. Average annual job growth increased to 1% or 46 lakh new jobs. In its last year, UPA-2 outdid every government since at least 1980. 2.3 crore jobs were added to the economy in 2013-14, a growth of 3% in just one year.
So, why did Vajpayee lose, UPA-1 win and then UPA-2 lose, even though the record shows employment grew at the slowest pace in 2004-09? To answer this, we will first have to raise a question: Do India's poor really want an enabling economic environment where they can compete for jobs? My answer is - no, they don't.
India's poor are overwhelmingly backward caste, SC, ST or Muslim. Several studies show that their caste and religious status makes it tougher for them to compete for jobs. So, even in an economy that's creating jobs at a fast pace - such as during Vajpayee's tenure - the poor found it difficult to compete as equals. In other words, their social status marks a large chunk of India's poor as unequal citizens.
What do the poor rely on to survive? Unlike the urban middle-class which wants minimum government, the poor want maximum government. They survive through the multiplication of government schemes to add to their subsistence level income. These range from cheap rice and wheat to access to medical insurance through Ayushman Bharat. Along with that, they also depend on contingent concessions from the government, which bypass the law. One obvious example of this is the regularisation of encroachments through specific government orders.
The political theorist Partha Chatterjee calls this the domain of 'political society'. This is different from 'Civil Society' where you and I exist as individual citizens, with equal rights and equal access to resources. The poor, on the other hand, require multiple access points to 'tap' the government. Most often, they do it collectively, through already existing social collectives, such as their sub-caste. In other words, they build a connection with the government and the government, in turn, connects to them through their sub-castes.
The Modi government might have failed in the fields that we recognise to be essential from within the domain of Civil Society. These are the various type of 'measures' through which modern nations gauge their government's performance - GDP, industrial output, profit growth, employment, and similar 'data' that states produce. It has, however, been extremely successful in creating 'touch-points' between the government and the poor.
Swachh Bharat, PMAY, Ujjwala, Jan Dhan, Ayushman Bharat, Mudra, PM Kisan, are all such touch-points, that aid the operation of 'governmentality'. On top of that, it has continued to fund MNREGA, at least at the level at which it was done by the UPA. More importantly, the Modi government launched a massive publicity campaign to identify each of these schemes with the Prime Minister. Each of these were seen as Modi's personal gift to the poor.
Critics have pointed to the fact that many of these schemes haven't worked very well on the ground. Toilets have been built, but there's no water. Free cylinders have been distributed, but refills are too expensive. The point, however, is that even if the schemes have failed, they have provided 'touch-points' for people who didn't have any way to access the government. It is the promise of future access that is as important as the scheme itself.
Ujjwala was targeted at Dalit households, and PM Kisan towards small and marginal farmers, an overwhelming majority being OBC or Dalit. These schemes have created the grounds of undermining the SP and the BSP, which rely heavily on votes from single sub-castes - Yadavs and Jatavs, respectively. The BJP has not only created a political network of non-Jatav Dalits, non-Yadav OBCs, it has also backed it up with schemes that bring the government into their lives.
This has helped many such sub-castes break out of caste-based political mobilisation that marked the politics of the nineties and the aughts. In the absence of a unifying political ideology that caste-politics provided, these non-dominant sub-castes amongst OBCs and Dalits have turned to Hindutva and nationalism as a substitute. It is a new form of 'sanskritisation' to use the much-maligned term introduced by the sociologist MN Srinivas.
The idea of a strong bellicose India and a strident Hinduism appeals not only to its traditional forward caste supporters, but also to the backward castes and Dalits who have been broken out of old-style caste-mobilisation. This is the material ground on which polarisation plays and wins.
One could legitimately ask why the BJP lost state elections in the past one year, if it has constructed together such an unbeatable structure of power. The answer probably lies in the fact the Modi government had slowed down in rolling out these schemes and funding them. The setback in the Hindi heartland in the winter of 2018, gave it the necessary push to open coffers.
PM Kisan was its immediate outcome. It is important to note that out of the 2.6 crore beneficiaries of the scheme, over one crore are in Uttar Pradesh. The latest food price inflation figures indicate that procurement is taking place at higher prices. So, the person who voted for Modi in 2014, then shifted away in 2018, has got a reason to return to the BJP again.
Of course, 23rd of May could prove the exit polls wrong, and there is an outside chance that Narendra Modi may not come back to power. But, liberals must explain why he is still the No.1 choice, even after messing up the economy as the 'civil society' understands it.
(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV's Hindi and Business news channels. He now anchors Simple Samachar on NDTV India.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.
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