It must count among one of the media’s major failures in election coverage this season that in search of issues that are relevant to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, it remained blind to perhaps the only issue that matters — Narendra Modi. The prime minister remains the biggest talking point in this poll, and almost a billion people will vote in seven phases to either keep him or vote him out of office.
The Opposition is caught in a paradox. The more it tries to brand Modi a failure, the more it reinforces BJP’s attempts to turn the election into a mandate for one man. Take the case of the Congress’ most potent weapon, the minimum income guarantee, or NYAY, through which it promises to give Rs 72,000 per annum to the poorest 20 percent in the country. Even the name of its flagship scheme — NYAY (justice) — is a reference to Modi, whom the Congress accuses of failing to do justice to the poor.
While the poll has turned into a referendum on Modi, the media has been hunting for issues that would make it, at least superficially, into an even-handed contest. We have periodic references to the economy, the debate on employment data, intolerance, nationalism, Balakot air strikes and rural distress as issues that may affect the electorate. The trouble with this lens is that it fails to understand why Modi is a candidate of choice for the masses, and how he has changed the lexicon of Indian political discourse.
It is fashionable to identify the change agent as political Hinduism that Modi is perceived to have introduced by his dint of promoting Hindu culture, symbols, traditions and ideology. But the difference between political Islam and political Hinduism is that the latter is not a supremacist ideology. It is accommodative, understanding and syncretic. To argue that the majority of Indians who backed Modi in 2014 and, by all metrics, continue to do so are motivated by lynching and "otherisation" of minorities is agenda-driven, flagrant nonsense.
Modi’s ability to straddle pubic imagination might have a more mundane reason, one that is backed by hard work and relentless activism. The media also routinely underestimates his ability to plan, organise execute projects on scale in a gargantuan nation such as India. This happens because an account of gas connections or electricity connections as headlines is decidedly un-sexy and calls for a deep dive into the nether regions of India away from the glitz and glamour of studios. But these issues bring a change in perception.
Far too often, the prime minister has been accused of focusing on "fear" to win this election instead of "development" that, the media tells us, was his calling card in 2014. The truth is that in speeches after speeches in conclaves, rallies and almost every other forum, Modi has never shied away from giving an account of his work.
During a recent pitch to the trading community at a gathering organised at the Talkatora stadium in Delhi, the prime minister took this accountability rhetoric a few notches up by choosing to give an account of what he does in a day. Claiming to be putting out this information in the public domain for the first time, he rattled off staggering statistics of what his government delivers in a day.
He said the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana scheme disburses nearly 70,000 free gas connections to mothers on a daily basis. He emphasised the word ‘daily’ repeatedly in his speech. He pointed out that under the Saubhagya scheme, nearly 50,000 households get free electricity daily.
Under the Jan Dhan project, nearly two lakh bank accounts are opened every day, while one lakh entrepreneurs have been getting Mudra loans on a daily basis, he said.
The direct benefit transfer scheme, according to the prime minister, transfers Rs 400 crore daily to the accounts of the poor, while the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (housing for all by 2022) scheme ensures that keys to 11,000 houses are given every day to their owners.
Modi quipped that just as traders “maintain a register every evening to calculate their personal finances, I do the same for the entire country, every day.” Modi went on to add that under the Swachh Bharat scheme, 60,000 toilets are built daily, and that approximately 1.3 lakh farmers get soil health cards, once again, daily.
In the field of healthcare, Modi said that the flagship Ayushman Bharat scheme treats around 9,000 poor patients from different parts of the country every day, while the Pradhan Mantri Surakhsha Bima Yojana benefits 1,05,000 people every day.
The figures, while approximate, are staggering and may provide a clue behind Modi’s continued popularity. An assessment of the impact of these schemes is essential in getting a true picture of the way this election is stacked.
The prime minister, while promising a welfare board, credit card, loans of up to Rs 50 lakh without collateral, a policy for retail businesses and accident insurance of Rs 10 lakh to those registered on the GST network admitted that he may have made mistakes in implementing schemes such as GST, but claimed that he did move quickly to mitigate it.
The point that befuddles the media and even the Opposition is that when someone is perceived to be honest, sincere, hardworking, and is seen to be trying to make a difference in the lives of millions through schemes that bring transformative changes, then that leader enjoys a greater degree of tolerance for failure that is otherwise denied to his peers.
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Updated Date: Apr 21, 2019 22:23:30 IST