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Election slogan humour masks serious issues in India

Rising unemployment and a slowing economy are no laughing matter for millions of voters, but the ruling BJP makes national security its campaign focus.

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Supporters holding masks of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi cheering as they attend his election campaign rally at Kathua, about 90kms from Jammu, India, on April 14.

INDIAN election slogans have never been short on humour. Examples include the former Bihar chief minister's one-liner using the symbol of the aloo or potato: "Samose mein Aloo, Bihar mein Laloo," (Aloo in samosa and Laloo in Bihar), and Indira Gandhi's famous put-down of her weak-kneed opponents in a 1978 by-election: "Ek Sherni, sau Langoor" (One tigress and hundred monkeys).

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's current slogans, "Main bhi Chowkidar (I'm a guard too) and "Namumkin ab mumkin hai" (Impossible is now possible), are evoking peals of laughter because of the party's failure to deliver on the economic front.

The real issues are not funny at all.

In the current general election, the BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is ignoring the core issues of massive unemployment and sluggish economic growth. When the party came to power in 2014, it promised spectacular economic reforms, but it did not honour its pledges. The party no longer harps on making India an economic superpower.

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The BJP is aiming to attract votes by using the theme of right-wing nationalism, and is whipping up a frenzy over the threat posed by Pakistan.

The party expects to cash in on the vote of the Hindus who comprise about 80 per cent of the country's 1.3 billion people.

A galaxy of former chiefs of the army, navy and air force are outraged by the blatant misuse of the military by the BJP in its campaign advertisements, especially the party's claim that the Indian armed forces are Mr Modi's army (Modiji ki sena).

The party has disregarded these warnings not to politicise the military, and it has continued to use the army as a tactic in the election, the final results of which will be counted on May 23.

The news on the economy is bad for the BJP. Soon after voting began, new data showed that industrial production grew at a sluggish 0.1 per cent in February this year, the slowest pace in 20 months.

The manufacturing sector, which accounts for more than 77 per cent of the index of industrial production, contracted by 0.3 per cent in the same month, compared to an expansion of 8.4 per cent a year ago.

RISING UNEMPLOYMENT

The slowing economic engine renewed worries about a sputtering economy and the lack of credibility in the economic data released by the government, which has suppressed employment statistics since last year as it exposes the government's failure to create jobs.

Yet, Mr Modi's ruling alliance is expected to win a thin majority in parliament, according to opinion polls. The economy is being ignored because the non-issues are playing better with the BJP's traditional Hindu vote bank.

So, what are the chief election issues? First, at the top of voters' concerns are jobs, as shown in surveys. More than half the country's population is younger than 25 years of age, and millions more are desperately trying to enter the workforce every year.

The BJP's electoral prospects are expected to be hurt by ever-rising unemployment. A government report leaked to the press has declared that unemployment rose to 6.1 per cent as at June 2018, the highest in at least 45 years.

Another report by the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy showed unemployment rising to an alarming 7.2 per cent in February this year, and that employment contracted by 3.5 million jobs in 2016 following demonetisation.

In contrast to the BJP, the election manifesto of the main opposition Congress Party promises strong measures to quickly reduce unemployment by half.

A second election issue is that of right-wing nationalism which the ruling party is using - a tactic to divert public attention from the real issues. Mr Modi has been constantly talking about his efforts to promote national security following a clash with Pakistan that was triggered by an attack in Indian Kashmir in February by Pakistan-based terrorists that killed 40 Indian paramilitary troops.

The Hindu nationalist BJP says the decision to send warplanes to Pakistan to bomb a terrorist training camp was proof of Mr Modi's muscular response. According to surveys, the clash with Pakistan may boost Mr Modi's support among voters. The BJP has made national security the main focus of its campaign.

STRUGGLING FARMERS

A third issue that is expected to influence the election is that of the financially distressed farmers who are expected to vote against the ruling party for ignoring their plight as millions of them struggle with rising costs and lower crop prices.

The farmers are a crucial constituency because about half the national population works in farms. More than 80 per cent of 263 million farmers own land plots smaller than two hectares.

The farmers are expected to vote against the BJP. In state assembly elections in three predominantly farming states last December, the BJP lost to the Congress. Analysts believe that these populous states may again vote against the ruling party in the general election. In response to the losses, the government announced an annual handout of 6,000 rupees (S$116) to small farmers, peanuts by any yardstick, in the budget in February 2019.

The Congress has declared that it will provide relief to farmers by expanding a jobs programme to guarantee farmers 150 days of work a year. It has also promised annual handouts of 72,000 rupees to the country's poorest families.

A fourth issue is around religion and caste. The BJP has repeated its commitment to build a Hindu temple in the town of Ayodhya at a site disputed by Muslims. The temple issue first entered the political mainstream when a militant Hindu mob destroyed a 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, leading to riots that killed about 2,000 people.

The issue of caste has always been a factor in elections, particularly in the northern states. An alliance between two regional parties in Uttar Pradesh threatens to unseat the BJP in that state, which elects the most MPs to parliament. While the BJP has the support of many upper-caste Hindus, it is regarded with resentment by lower-caste voters and non-Hindus.

Ultimately, it comes down to charisma versus track record. Mr Modi has lost some sheen because of unkept promises, and his challenger, Rahul Gandhi, faces huge obstacles in building an alliance to stop the Modi machine. Moreover, as many as 23 regional parties banded together under a united front in Kolkata in January "to oust the BJP".

In the end, humorous electoral slogans are preferable to the cocktail of election issues that are whipping up nationalism, threatening minority communities, dividing the country, and ignoring the crisis of joblessness.

  • The writer is the editor-in-chief of The Calcutta Journal of Global Affairs