A mighty statue of Sardar Patel stands on the edge of the Narmada. So huge is this statue of this Congress leader who is deeply admired by the BJP, that when the Prime Minister inaugurated it and stood for a photo-op beside one of its gigantic feet, he looked like a tiny white speck. Rude comments were made about this by a Congress spokesperson that I shall not repeat. Plans have been announced to build a mighty statue of Ram on the edge of the Saryu river. And, pressure is building from the RSS and Hindu religious sects to begin construction on that temple in Ayodhya before next year’s general election. Plans are also afoot to build a statue of Shivaji on land reclaimed from the sea near Mumbai.
Meanwhile, the chief ministers of our leading Hindutva political party have been busy renaming towns and railway stations that have in them the smallest hint of Islamic rule. Mughalsarai used to be a junction I remember from childhood train journeys because the trains always stopped there late at night and the name had in it such a romantic ring. It saddened me to see this grand old junction renamed after a leader who those who do not belong to the BJP have barely heard of.
Will all these efforts at promoting the causes of Hindutva win Narendra Modi a second term next year? That really is the question we should be asking because that really is what all these exercises are about. Modi has been a polarising Prime Minister from the day he was elected. Now there seems to be an attempt by the BJP’s strategists to use this to his advantage. Will they succeed?
Having spent several days in the past month talking to people in rural Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, I can report that not a single person I talked to — Hindu or Muslim — mentioned Ayodhya, Ram or Sardar Patel. In Rajasthan they talked of the failed rains that have caused a terrible drought in western parts of the state as their main concern. They said they were disappointed with the usual careless manner in which drought relief is being provided. Muslims said they had heard of the killings by vigilantes in Alwar and Ajmer and did not like what they heard. But, their main concern was the grim scarcity of water.
In Madhya Pradesh, I visited villages in which Modi’s government has made strenuous efforts to build pucca homes for those who lived in homes of mud and thatch. I saw some homes that have truly transformed the lives of some of our poorest citizens. They had electricity and gas connections and toilets and in some cases even a certain aesthetic appeal compared to the concrete boxes that were built under earlier housing schemes. The reason why this housing scheme is working well is because money for the houses is being transferred directly to the bank accounts of beneficiaries. I also saw roads being built where none had existed before. And schools that had real classrooms with desks and chairs and separate toilets for girls and boys.
So will these things win Modi a second term? The answer is complicated. Because although people living in desperate poverty are happy that welfare schemes are working well, what seems to worry them most is the complete absence of new jobs. They said they thought Modi was a good man but did not believe that he had succeeded in bringing the ‘parivartan’ and ‘vikas’ that he had promised. When I asked what exactly they meant by this, everyone said what they needed were jobs. The one issue that crosses the lines between rural and urban India is jobs. And, their absence is being defined as an absence of ‘parivartan’. It has always been my contention that it was economic reasons that got Modi elected Prime Minister with the first full majority in 30 years. Not Hindutva. It will now be economic reasons that could cause him to be defeated, or returned to office with a reduced majority. It was not about Hindutva then and it is not about Hindutva now. But, Modi has been a Prime Minister who has functioned in such total isolation that he could have lost touch with the populist pulse. Lutyens’ Delhi is an evil cocoon but even in that cocoon Modi has built his own little cocoon in which feedback comes only from digital sources and bureaucrats.
There seems to be no other explanation for why in these last months of his first term in office he is encouraging temples and statues instead of finding ways to create new jobs. The Finance Minister made a valiant defence of demonetisation last week, but has anyone told him that the jobs lost because of it have not come back yet? And, no new ones have come.