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In a village in eastern Uttar Pradesh, Sarita Kumari had noticed changes in the government school where her children were enrolled. The Congress’s Central schemes meant new buildings, midday meals, notebooks and uniforms. But she was not satisfied. “The English teacher doesn’t come,” she complained. So she spent half her monthly income on private lessons for her children. Asked whom she would vote for, she replied without hesitation: “Narendra Modi.”
This interview was part of a five-state election series for The Indian Express titled, “Is there a vikas vote?” I travelled to constituencies with recent improvements in health, MGNREGA, electricity, schools and roads. These changes were being fuelled by large infusions of Central funds (the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana alone cost an astonishing Rs 21,700 crore a year) and better implementation by the state government. But the translation of this vikas to votes was a more complex story. Overall, three broad trends emerged: material well-being was unleashing aspiration, not gratitude; development votes were going to effective state leaders, not the Centre; and the Congress’s attempts to speak in multiple tongues sounded like mumbo-jumbo to the voter.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi begins his tenure on the promiseof development, these trends need elaboration.
The first is that development is not automatically leading to grateful voters. The Congress’s welfare schemes have improved the lives of more Indians than its measly 44 seats demonstrates. Rural roads in west Bihar, schools in eastern UP, MGNREGA in Tamil Nadu, infant mortality reductions in Jharkhand and electricity in Gujarat — these were all consequences of funds pouring in through expensive Central schemes. “Achhe din already aa gaye hain,” a hassled Congress worker in Gujarat proclaimed. But Sarita Kumari hadn’t noticed. All she saw was rising prices, a corrupt Congress and teachers who didn’t show up. The Congress’s pitch for gratitude was lost on her. Their messaging was all wrong.
As was Nitish Kumar’s. Champaran in west Bihar was once the kidnapping capital of India. Today, little girls in school dress run beside smooth roads that glisten in the afternoon sun. Every voter I spoke to credited Nitish with this “change” but was unwilling to reward him with their vote. They were interested in fashioning a future, not rewarding the past. They wanted more.
Modi’s brilliance was to grasp this yearning for more. Voters didn’t care that the Gujarat model he marketed was an exaggeration. All advertisements are. The point was that it was a reasonable product, marketed in a way that exactly fit consumer demand. That’s why they bought it, that’s why he won. But Modi must know that this brand of salesmanship has an expiry date. Aspirations feed on themselves. Five years from now, Modi will have to point to continuing progress and promise more. Or the Modi model will go the way of the Congress’s schemes and Nitish’s roads.
The second trend is that the vikas vote vests not in Delhi, but in state capitals. In India’s federal polity, things of immediate concern to the voter — law and order, roads, education, continued…