Going by the exit polls, the NDA is set to make a big comeback. Even if its tally doesn’t quite match what some pollsters have predicted, it looks set to get the numbers to form the next government. And as many commentators have pointed out, this victory for the BJP, led by prime minister Narendra Modi, would be far more remarkable than the one in 2014. After all, this time around, voters have taken a far more informed view of the PM and his team. And if they want him back at the helm, they are convinced there is no one better to lead the country.
Even if the NDA hasn’t done all that it promised, especially in terms of creating more jobs, the voters believe the PM has tried. Importantly, they believe he is more capable of delivering the goods than any other leader. The short point: no one’s willing to risk a khichdi cabinet, petty political squabbling and a prime minister with no experience in government. On the ground, many are impressed with the PM as an individual and his ability to work hard, his modest upbringing and concern for the under-privileged.
One would have thought the severe distress in rural India—first, due to two consecutive poor monsoons and, later, due to the collapse in crop prices—would have caused resentment in the farm community. The NDA did very little by way of agri-reforms and, while it did raise support prices sharply last year, little was procured. But, the Rs 6,000 payment to farmers, most of whom received at least one installment in February, seems to have revived the faith and assuaged their concerns for the moment. Indeed, if the exit poll numbers are to be believed, even the pain of demonetisation and GST have been brushed aside, if not forgotten. Some say the poor appreciate the crusade against corruption and are content to see the better-off suffer.
Even the losses to farmers from the tens of thousands of straying cows—which have damaged the crop, and have required farmers to spend Rs 10,000-15,000 on fencing their fields—doesn’t seem to have angered them. It is possible this will cost the BJP a few seats, but, by and large, farmers seem to willing to forgive the government. If the exit poll numbers are right, the NDA is perceived to be a government that cares for the poor. The several social welfare schemes—Ujjwala, Swachh Bharat, Ayushman Bharat and the eleventh-hour Kisan Samman Yojana—have been appreciated. To be sure, these schemes may not have been the big success they are made out to be. But, the effort has been appreciated.
Also, the PM focusing the discourse on national issues has worked with the masses. To be sure, making the Balakot strikes an election issue and references to the army as Modi sena were strictly avoidable, as was the PM asking for votes in the name of the army. But, the tough-on-terror narrative, after the Pulwama attack in which 44 jawans were kille, seems to have struck a chord. Perhaps, what the recent military action between India and Pakistan has done is to make people more conscious of the problems on the border. There may be no real military threat at this point, but people want to feel safe and secure. Again, the exit polls suggest the electorate clearly believes Modi is a strong, decisive leader capable of protecting the country, even if he is considered to be autocratic. The numbers also suggests that much of the electorate is ignoring the NDA’s
Hindutva agenda. While, in some parts of the country (West Bengal, for instance), the appeasement of minorities has upset the majority community—and could cost the TMC more seats than it may have anticipated—there seems to be little concern on Hindutva. It is possible that the lack of jobs and the general weak state of the economy is compelling people to be practical.
Even the corporate community in Mumbai, which is largely not comfortable with the NDA’s Hindutva agenda, knows the economy needs to be in strong hands. So, they are setting aside their secular ideals and their discomfort with the BJP fielding the likes of a Pragya Singh Thakur, a terror accused, as a candidate. Of course, the business community is small. In general, though, the exit polls suggest the electorate is not overly concerned about issues that other have highlighted—for instance, the devaluation of institutions.
One can’t really say that the Modi government has done a great job on the economy—there has been very little progress or none at all in reforming labour laws and a lot more could have been done to attract foreign capital where the approach has been unduly conservative. Despite all the noise on MUDRA loans, it doesn’t look like small businesses are flourishing. Growth is decelerating, demand is weak and there is little private investment. But, there is little doubt the IBC has been a game-changer, without which the banks would have remained riddled with bad assets with the promoters continuing to take them for a ride. If the markets have rallied and the rupee has rebounded, it is evident India Inc wants a second NDA innings.