Some weeks ago, I tweeted that the Indian opposition wasn’t campaigning around one of the biggest issues the country is facing, unemployment. Labour rights activists Anumeha Yadav ticked me off, telling me that I had no understanding of employment seekers, who typically don’t blame the government for lack of work.
Such assertions about Indians not knowing what’s good for them are part of a broad left-liberal narrative in India that infantilises the voter. We are repeatedly told by the anti-Modi brigade that the majority Hindu voter is in a Hindu fundamentalist trance, preferring the subjugation of Indian Muslims over their own bread and butter.
People who hold this view should come visit Bihar this week. The state is going through a three-phase election. The results will be out on 10 November. Regardless of what the results are, it is worth listening to the voices here in Bihar, voices from the campaign as well as those of voters. You will hear unemployment as the top reason why voters say they want to dump the incumbent chief minister Nitish Kumar.
Kumar has now ruled the state for 15 years and at his peak he’s been incredibly popular. He earned the moniker of Sushasan Babu or Mr Good Governance. He brought the state out of its darkest days and gave it roads and electricity and tap water supply in the farthest of places.
His ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has through the Narendra Modi-led central government given people free ration for months to cope with the economic distress caused by the Covid lockdown. Modi has given people free toilets, free houses, free gas cylinders apart from a heavy dose of nationalism and Hindu fundamentalism. And he reaped rich electoral dividends in the general elections last year.
But now the voter is not happy with incremental infrastructure. He can’t eat concrete or live on a few thousand rupees of dole in the bank account. Everywhere you go in Bihar you hear jobs, jobs, jobs. We can’t eat these roads, people complain.
The opposition leader, Tejashwi Yadav, has promised to create a million jobs on the government payroll alone, if elected to power. Chief minister Nitish Kumar retorted this wasn’t possible, the state’s coffers don’t have the money to do this. His ally the Bharatiya Janata Party embarrassed him by promising 1.9 million jobs. Left-liberals are so used to hand-wringing about identity politics that they are unable to appreciate this: the Indian voter’s primary concern is her own economic well-being.
Tejashwi Yadav started his campaign at the eleventh hour. If he had started earlier, we might have heard this noise earlier. So, opposition matters. The opposition’s job is to give voice to the people’s concerns. Unemployment was also the top public issue before the 2019 general elections but national opposition leader Rahul Gandhi failed to exploit it. He went on and on about alleged corruption in a defence deal nobody cared about
Not swayed by construction of a new temple
Left-liberal intellectuals see absolutely no fault in Rahul Gandhi’s inability to read the public mood and instead blame the voter for being swayed by Modi’s identity politics. To know how wrong they are about his, they should take a flight to Patna. Just a conversation with a taxi driver in Patna alone will tell them the Bihari voter is not being swayed by the construction of a new temple upon the site of a demolished mosque.
The Bihari voter is not giving into the blackmail of nationalism over border tensions with China. The Bihari voter is not, this election, jumping with joy over the abrogation of autonomy for Kashmir and saying it makes him happy enough to sleep hungry. No.
Talk to the poorest in this state, and many who voted Modi in 2019 are in a bad way in 2020, a year when the Indian economy is contracting by up to 10%, a historic low. This has been a year when Bihari migrant labour, which can be found across India, was suddenly deprived of an income by the Covid lockdown. Worse, they weren’t allowed to return home, thus walking back hundreds of kilometres, some losing lives in the process.
Do you think Bihari voters are not talking about that? Are they busy getting “polarised” over Hindu-Muslim divides and provocative fake news? No! They’re talking about just that. They’re angry and they’re letting you know, and they are certain to let Nitish Kumar know.
The Indian voter knows what’s good for her. Stop infantilising the voter and start pressuring the opposition for doing their job of amplifying the voter’s voice. Take the next flight to Patna and know your country.