Until the results are out on May 23, I am not going to believe the numbers given out by exit polls. Not that I believe in the conspiracy theory that the elections are rigged, or that the EVMs have been manipulated. I don't believe this data because the reality, as I see it, looks different. I may be wrong or I may have missed noticing when India changed so drastically. Real data has to convince me.
I accept that in the last five years this country has changed to some extent. It has become more "Hindu" than ever. Hindus in the earlier era were shy of flaunting their Hindu identity, but not anymore. This, I feel, is the real "contribution" of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. If LK Advani should be credited with igniting thoughts among a section of Hindus that despite being in an overwhelming majority, they were the discriminated lot, Modi has turned that feeling into winning currency.
Muslims are no longer the only vote bank. There is a bigger Hindu vote bank and it has made the Muslim vote bank almost irrelevant. The prejudice against Muslims among a section of Hindus - Mahatma Gandhi referred to it in his book Hind Swaraj in 1909 - has turned into a new muscular identity. Prejudice has taken concrete shape. Like political Islam, it has crystalised into a Political Hindu.
But the bigger question is - has this political Hindu acquired such a vast proportion that its economic personality has become a non-entity? That it does not matter if sons and daughters are not getting jobs or that their buying power has diminished in last few years and they cannot go out and buy things like cars when they want? Or that savings are shrinking and businesses are running at a loss? The fact today is that India, despite being the fastest growing economy, is no longer in good health. Every economic indicator is telling a horrible story and economists are warning that India is slowly heading for recession and the days ahead will be difficult for the country as a whole.
I am not willing to believe that this new political Hindu has become so oblivious of its economic identity that the daily suffering has no meaning. Data shows that unemployment has broken all records; it is the highest in 45 years and shows no sign of dipping.
The latest CMIE data shows that in the third week of April, unemployment was standing tall with 8.4% - an all-time high. The government has consistently disputed such data. In fact, the government has stopped publishing employment numbers and its agencies are questioning the veracity of the data. NSSO and CMIE data is being mocked. Industrial production is down, the manufacturing and service sector are no longer viable, consumption, especially rural consumption is down, auto sales has shown a drastic dip in recent months.
I have argued in my book Hindu Rashtra that the "promise of paradise" is lethal as an instrument of mass hypnotism. This phenomenon was witnessed during demonetization and soon after. The whole world was perplexed when despite demonetization the BJP scored a stunning victory in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand in 2017. But afterwards, the way the GST (Goods and Services Tax) was implemented, people's suffering increased manifold and that was the time when it was felt that Modi's popularity is waning. The results of the Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan assembly elections proved that point.
But it is hard to believe that since December 2018, the situation has changed so dramatically and the people have forgotten their miseries so much that they decided to give Modi a mandate bigger than 2014 - when he was perceived to be the messiah and not the divider-in-Chief.
Modi in 2019 is not the same man. In 2014 he did not talk about contentious issues. He harped on development. He promised jobs, he promised rejuvenation of the economy, he promised the moon. He promised that he would make India a "Vishwa Guru". He did not touch communal issues; Hindu-Muslim issues were not on his agenda. He promised Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas. In 2019, he is a changed man. He vociferously raised the issue of minority and majority when Rahul Gandhi decided to contest from Wayanad. He brazenly spoke about Hindus raising the slogan of Jai Shri Ram being persecuted in West Bengal and Muslims being given preferential treatment in the state. He invoked the valour of the Army despite the Election Commission's order. He bragged how under his leadership, the army had given a strong response to the Pulwama terror attack by killing terrorists on their home turf.
In 2014, the opposition was divided. The Congress was highly discredited by serious corruption charges. Modi presented himself as a breath of fresh air.
In 2019, the opposition unity index was much higher but it could have been better. It was not the Congress but Modi who had to answer on whether he had delivered on promises he had made five years back. And his score card was not looking bright. A few government welfare schemes were marketed well but if those were enough to get a another term, I have my doubts. Yet, the exit polls are trying to say that people are not only happy with his tenure in office but are willing to give him a vastly improved mandate.
Modi is credited with always having his ears to the ground. But if he has any inkling of the results as shown by exit polls, he would not have looked dejected, tired and defensive. Modi loves to present himself as confident, bright and chirpy. But in that press conference that he never addressed, he was anything but himself. He looked a worried man. Was he acting? I don't think so.
Despite not being a conspiracy theorist, I am finding it hard to accept these figures to be true. I don't want to believe that these polls reflect the true thinking of the people or reflect the will of the people. So let's wait for the final results, the actual ones. Only then can it be said if India has become what it should not.
(Ashutosh is a Delhi-based author and journalist.)
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