With videos emerging of people fighting over biscuits at a railway station in Bihar, or of men, women and children walking barefoot in the sweltering Indian summer, exhausted to death just trying to reach home, one wonders if the Narendra Modi government has completely lost its human touch.
Even if we assume that Prime Minister Modi’s Rs 20 lakh crore economic package will have a direct impact on India’s economy, it will be hard to undo the miseries of this brutal lockdown, described by many as one of the world’s most stringent.
The Modi government’s inability to address the woes of the poor and its act of passing off the onus of their wellbeing on the state governments, that too after two months of delay, clearly show its political thinking: the middle class is all the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) needs to win elections.
No country for poor men
The fact that the economic package has a middle class bias is not a figment of imagination. Finance minister Nirmala Sitaraman has herself spelt it out. “@PMOIndia ’s vision: #AatmanirbharBharat Abhiyan to include everyone-a hawker/street vendor, a trader, a MSME, an honest tax-paying middle class, a manufacturer etc. This shall not be just a financial package, but a reform stimulus, a mindset overhaul, and a thrust in governance,” she recently tweeted.
On 12 May, the BJP supporters sprang into action explaining the genius of Modi’s Rs 20 lakh crore economic package: “at the 20th hour of the day, into the 20th minute of his speech in the year 2020”. The middle class of India, it seems, gets cheap thrills out of these quirky facts they receive on WhatsApp, given their virality on social media. They are already hooked.
But India’s poor remain unheard and unseen. Simple measures by the Modi government could have gone a long way in making the poor feel like equal citizens. Buses could have been organised much earlier to take the walking migrants home since they have been anyway forced to violate social distancing norms for sheer survival. Police officers could have been instructed to chart out a safe passage for them instead of beating the half dead, who are trying to cover hundreds of kilometres on foot in temperatures reaching above 40 degree celsius.
The poor don’t need just food to live. Most of them face the survival question: how will they manage to pay rents, their bills, in cities they migrated to for work, now that their jobs are gone? And is it too much for a poor to want to be with her/his family in these trying, lonely times when mental health is even affecting the middle class? Evidently, the poor are not allowed to have that luxury. They are supposed to get by just with food handouts and be thankful for not starving to death.
And just when someone else tries to do the right thing, meet the migrants, speak with them, understand their reasoning for not staying put and wanting to go home, the ruling party’s finance minister is quick to call it “dramebaazi”. Washing the feet of clean and bathed sanitary workers in the Kumbh Mela is symbolic but Rahul Gandhi sitting on the pavement with migrant workers is “dramebaazi”? And if it was indeed dramebaazi, why were the migrants who were being taken home in the vehicle Gandhi arranged for them detained after the cops admitted that they received orders “from the top” to do so? When will we see BJP doing some dramebaazi and reaching out to the poor?
Middle class is at the centre
But the middle class is indulged. With students from various states being brought in buses to their hometowns and Indians in foreign countries being expatriated on special flights being flown at the behest of the Modi government, which cares about its citizens “stuck” abroad, it’s only too clear how the government seems to be prioritising its citizens. Sixty-four flights in the week beginning 7 May brought back 14,800 Indians from 13 different countries. A total of 14 Navy warships have been readied to evacuate Indian citizens from Gulf and other countries.
And now the Modi government’s ‘priority citizens’ have an economic package to sing paeans about. The Congress party and Modi critics have denounced the stimulus package as a mere “jumla”, stating that of the Rs 20 lakh crore, Rs 9.75 lakh crore worth of liquidity and transfers was already announced by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the finance minister in the past. The remaining Rs 10.25 lakh crore is the actual amount, which only accounts for 5 per cent of the GDP and not 10 per cent as being advertised.
But even if it isn’t a “jumla”, are we actually expecting a package whose lion’s share will go to those dying on the roads and highways, starving or being run over by vehicles? Chances are very slim. This package is aimed to aid the middle class of India, considered to be Modi’s “core voters”.
The middle class vote
According to the National Election Studies 2019, 44 per cent of the upper middle class and rich voted for the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha election while 36 per cent of the lower classes and poor voted for the party. This is where the BJP seems to be missing the point. The definition of middle class is not only loose but fluid. An economic downturn can slip the lower middle class into poverty and the middle class into lower middle class.
According to data from the India Human Development Survey (2011–12), 28 per cent of India’s population is middle class — of which 14 per cent is lower middle class and about 3 per cent is upper middle class. The RBI says that 25.7 per cent of India’s population lives below the poverty line.
With no daily wages and no work, this number will inflate in the coming months. The poor, who are at the mercy of the government, are experiencing its indifference first hand. And it is unlikely that they will forget this treatment.
Elections come and go. The BJP will use its tried and tested means to win them. But some cuts are too deep to forget and the coronavirus pandemic might just be the scar that turns the mood of the poor against them.
The author is a political observer and writer. Views are personal.