There was a time, not long ago, when we used to be told about how the Indian voter is “aspirational”. The Indian voter’s expectations and aspirations were so high that most governments in power were voted out.
This phenomenon was explained with a term unique to Indian politics — “anti-incumbency”. The incumbent could run a decent government but would face a natural disadvantage in the elections by virtue of being an incumbent. And no incumbent could deliver on the Indian voter’s sky-high expectations.
Narendra Modi tapped into the Indian voter’s desire to jump through the hurdles of prosperity in 2014. The most memorable of his ideas were to bring back all Indian black money stashed abroad, build the world’s tallest statue, make the country’s first bullet train, create one crore jobs and double farmers’ income.
Only of one those dreams has come true — the most useless one, a statue.
The mystery is that the Indian voter has suddenly stopped being aspirational. The voter’s contention is that she doesn’t have a better leader than Narendra Modi to consider. That’s all very well. Nobody — not even the Congress party — is asking you to seriously consider Rahul Gandhi for the prime minister’s office. But that doesn’t explain why people don’t aspire anymore.
Bullet train to nowhere
The best metaphor for Modi’s failure is the bullet train that’s far from becoming reality in six long years. Instead, today regular trains can’t run because Prime Minister Modi has failed miserably to curb the spread of a communicable disease that even Rahul Gandhi had issued an early warning about. When trains do run, as in for migrant labourers, they reach some place totally different from their destination.
It would be funny if it weren’t sad. What’s more bizarre than ‘lost’ trains is how the Indian voter is so content to be taken for a ride. Perhaps, the Indian voter’s aspiration was not to travel fast in bullet speed but to slow down time. Indians have lived in poverty for centuries, what’s another few decades?
Usually, the government has to make excuses for failure. In India, it is the opposite today. It is people who make excuses for the government’s failure. The more Narendra Modi fails, the more he succeeds. You can fact-check the government’s claim but how do you tell the truth to a people so willing to lie to themselves?
Daddy, I don’t want anything
The Indian voter doesn’t stand up and ask Narendra Modi, whatever happened to Digital India? Where’s all that fibre optic? Where are those online clinics helping rural India cope with the paucity of doctors? How will children get online education when they don’t have smartphones, laptops, or data packs? And how will parents get them the gadgets when they are losing jobs, getting salary cuts, being pushed back into poverty?
Such people blame themselves, and sometimes die by suicide. In the BM era, Before Modi, people had the expectation that the government will solve their problems. Today people are happy with slogans, and content even when they are lied to.
It’s all very well that Modi plays a father figure to the voter, but children also have expectations of their parents. You don’t need surveys, elections or media to sense that Indians seem at peace with -23.9 per cent GDP contraction, job losses and a stand-off with China. Mere faith in Modi doesn’t explain this zen state of the Indian voter amid a historic diminution of India’s hopes. This strange disappearance of the desire to scale heights is a mystery.
Impossible is everything
It is a cop-out to blame the coronavirus pandemic for our ills. Growth has been falling so consistently since demonetisation in 2016 that even data fudging can’t hide it. Not that Modi has been able to give a hisaab-kitaab of how much black money was recovered through demonetisation, either. It’s not as if the bullet train was almost complete before Covid came along.
The pandemic itself is also a great example of how Indians don’t want good governance anymore. When it became clear that speedy, widespread testing was necessary to curb the spread of Covid, Indians defended low testing rates by telling themselves that it was impossible to test everyone. In Wuhan, where the novel coronavirus originated, the Chinese government tested every single resident for Covid in May. Today, they’re partying without masks.
Indians have now replaced their go-getter spirit of the early 2000s with the word ‘impossible’.
Sab maya hai
One explanation for the death of aspirations is that Modi has persuaded the Indian voter to think of the nation, not herself. How is that the Indian voter can’t see that the nation isn’t doing very well either? How is it that the Indian voter doesn’t even get offended when she is told the Indian economy hasn’t performed the worst, but only the second-worst among the major economies?
Once upon a time, the Indian voter was told that a rural jobs programme was a symbol of failure of the BM era. Today, the government is said to be planning to expand the guaranteed jobs scheme to urban India. And yet, we will all watch with rapt attention and watch Modi the performer say, ‘Sab changa si’. All is well.
How is it that the Indian voter thinks India has become a global power thanks to Modi when even brotherly Nepal is waging border disputes with India? What is the Indian voter smoking to not be so agitated when the prime minister lies about Chinese aggression, and when we don’t even know how much Indian territory China has recently taken?
When we felt the Indian voter was aspirational, we thought the aspirations were material. It turns out the Indian voter’s aspiration was merely to get a national baba delivering sermons and convincing them, sab maya hai. It is all an illusion.
The author is contributing editor, ThePrint. Views are personal.
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