When a political leader captures the imagination of people to evolve into a phenomenon, it is a positive boon for his very first electoral campaign. The citizenry is brimming with hope and enthusiasm while the leader usually has no record to be judged on. Hence a landslide victory is achieved with much ease.
But this boon of being an icon can rapidly devolve into a bane for re-election. The leader is perceived as a messiah by supporters who expect all their problems to be resolved promptly. Since all cannot be delivered in a single term, abject disenchantment and subsequent abandonment are quite inevitable.
This desertion by voters begins from the very first day. Some voters will be disappointed with the inaugural address because they think their leader is caving in on key issues. Some desert their leader because of the choice of cabinet ministers. Some voters give up by the end of the term because of the failure to implement a campaign promise that was close to their heart. The reasons may even be trivial, but the downward spiral endures.
The key is to retard this rate of desertion such that the numbers are adequate to secure a second term. Perhaps implement policies that appeal beyond the previous voter base. But it is impossible to recreate the magic that once sprung out of the bottle. Those elected as heroes will see their profile diminish with every successful election and will eventually be voted out as villains. Regular politicians have an advantage, there is no astronomic rise and hence there isn’t a precipitous fall.
It was therefore nothing short of an astounding miracle that Narendra Modi not only managed to retain his remarkable mandate from 2014 but also managed to enhance it.
‘Experts’ who had initially predicted a certain doom for Modi offered several explanations for the emphatic victory. But one of the most convincing and poignant of explanations was offered in an open-air rickshaw while enduring the intense summer heat of Mumbai and engulfed in traffic that was beyond the range of vision.
“It is extremely hot this year in my home town as well,” said the friendly rickshaw driver in response to my whine about the sultry weather. As the conversation progressed, he proudly informed me that he hailed from a small town in the heartland of India.
“So did you vote for Modi?” was my first question, perhaps a frantic attempt to get my mind off the agonizing heat.
“Of course!” he retorted promptly as if it was the obvious choice to make. Before I could ask the reason, he launched into a very detailed elucidation.
“My name is Ram Sharan. I am forty-five years of age. For almost all my life I never had a toilet in our home. If we had to empty our bowels, we had either to go far away in open fields or there was the swamp area. The women had to wait until it was dark or just endure the great discomfort. There were occasions when a patrolling security guard or somebody else caught us. If it wasn’t the security guard it was a stray animal who chased us. We had no option but to cover up and flee, and eventually the clean-up. Everybody I know has suffered this experience several times in his or her life. Oh the humiliation!” said Ram Sharan shaking his head in utter dismay.
I had never heard their plight described in such detail, perhaps the shock showed on my face.
“I realize these details may nauseate you. But I implore you to listen to me further. The consequence of the lack of toilets was frequent epidemics of diarrhoea and cholera. If any of us suffered from a bout of diarrhoea or dysentery, we didn’t have any energy left to go to a faraway field, we would go near the house. Somebody from the family had to clean up but the stench would prevail. My young sisters stopped going to school because there were no proper toilets there. In fact, when I migrated to Mumbai and rented a room, I was absolutely elated to have a closed toilet just for myself,” Ram Sharan continued as he wryly laughed.
“Modi is the first Prime Minister to utter the word ‘toilet’ in his speech from the Red Fort. He was ridiculed for being trivial, they said leaders should only address matters of gravitas. But for millions like me, this was the issue that desperately needed to be talked about. Thanks to the Clean India mission, in 2015, for the first time in my life we had a proper toilet constructed in our house. In time, we had proper running water and a drainage system. Toilets were built all over my home town including the schools and offices. My nieces now attend school regularly and my sister doesn’t hesitate to go to work. This is something that my people will never ever forgot. I know of people who voted other parties in 2014 but switched to Modi after their toilets were built,” said Ram Sharan.
Before I could ask for other reason that he voted for Modi, he was on to it.
“My parents draw a small pension. They worked at a government office. At the end of every month, my parents, my uncle and aunt had to hire a taxi to the nearest government office. They were compelled to stand in queue for hours before the ‘top’ official arrived. The officials demanded various documents and derived great pleasure in sending them back for the lack of one. The money was received in cash and fifteen per cent or more was charged as ‘processing fees’ which was actually a bribe. There were times when my father felt like refusing the money owing to the indignity it was associated with. My mother suffers from an acute case of arthritis and travelling is such a hassle. But all was endured because we need the money,” said a distressed Ram Sharan as his voice turned shaky.
“Jan Dhan Yojana was, therefore, a blessing from heaven. You have to remember that being poor and not highly educated we never even dared enter the premise of a bank. Now each family member has a bank account. All welfare funds and other money I send is transferred directly to their account. For every transaction, there is a simple text message. They even have an ATM card and have learned how to use it. No extra money to be spent on a taxi. No time wasted going to the government office. Above all, no more humiliation at the hand of the top officer,” said Ram Sharan almost laughing out loud.
Before I could contemplate getting a word in he was on to his next point
“Document attestation was a considerable bother, we had to queue for hours outside the offices of government officials simply for a stamp and signature. I remember there was a time when I urgently to get my documents attested and all the top officials were away. I had to rush to the neighbouring village and get it done by a lawyer for which I was heavily charged. Because the Modi government began accepting self-attested documents our life is much easier. We just sign copies of our documents,” said Ram Sharan with a broad smile.
“The list of schemes that have touched the lives of regular people who live in small towns and village is endless. Because of the Ujwala Scheme has my mother and sister have a gas cylinder for the first time in her life. It is efficient and much easier and there is no smoke all over the house from the burning wood that caused my father to break into spells of coughing. I send money home so payment isn’t a problem,” said Ram Sharan proudly.
“I know of somebody who had developed a tumour, urgently needed an operation but he just could not afford it. Because of Ayushman Bharat, he was operated for almost no cost and is on his road to recovery. No more begging for money to pay for the treatment. His family would have been destitute without the sole breadwinner. There are so many who made great use of the Mudra Yojana for their small businesses, no more begging before greedy money lenders. The PMO’s website is very swift in resolving issues. All you have to do is talk to people in any small town or village and you will find hundreds of such stories,” said Ram Sharan as I reached my destination.
I said it sounded too picture perfect to me and that I knew there were problems.
“The farmers are in desperate need of support, the youth want jobs and are eager to be trained for better prospects. Demonetization did cause distress and losses for small businesses. So yes, we still have a myriad of serious issues that desperately need to be addressed. But when we weigh the gains versus pains, it is the gains that resoundingly triumph.” said Ram Sharan cheerfully as he drove away bidding me farewell.
Back in 2012, renowned economist Lant Pritchett called India a flailing state because “There is rampant absenteeism, indifference, incompetence, and corruption in the police, tax collection, education, healthcare, power, water supply and in nearly every routine service. In many sectors, the everyday actions of the field agents of the state – policemen, engineers, teachers, workers are usually beyond the control of the administration at the national or state level.”
Macro-economic plans and schemes devised to facilitate growth and elevate the underprivileged usually suffered an instant death at the implementation stage owing to the apathy, ineptitude, corruption and a lack of accountability that Pritchett mentioned. It was in this context that former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi famously remarked for every rupee that the government spends only fifteen paise of reaches the needy.
At times the plans are inherently deficient because they emanate from the experiences of those who are disconnected from the India that lives in the small towns and villages. We may have grown as an economy, but sadly the growth has not trickled down to those who desperately need it. A perfect example of this failure was some of our citizens being compelled to defecate in the open or suffer humiliation for the most basic of services that are rightfully owed to them.
If one were to examine the schemes that mattered the amiable Ram Sharan; such as toilets, bank accounts, the self-attestation facility, even Mudra Yojana loan or Ayushman Bharat, the common thread across them all was a quest to live with dignity. For too long have many of our citizens suffered humiliation simply because they belong to a part of India has been forgotten by the powers that be. It took Prime Minister Modi, a man connected with the grassroots to empathize with their plight and address rather summarily. The perpetual cynics and compulsive contrarians will always find problems here as well and some of these issues may be valid. But for the beneficiaries, these are the significant first steps in their pursuit of dignity.
This has made Narendra Modi a symbol that is probably bigger than the man himself. The man may falter on occasions but the symbol will prevail and will never be abandoned easily. It is probably for this reason that we heard people say that the couldn’t fathom voting for anybody but Modi, despite their problems. It was rather injudicious of those campaigning against Modi to think that they could make inroads by hurling insults at him.
Partisan ‘experts’ continue to claim that cause of this victory was the ‘collective rise of the bigoted Hindutva fundamentalists against the minorities and enemy nations’. In a strange twist of irony, this assertion itself is replete with bigotry, in addition to being a disgraceful oversimplification.
The truth is in a country as vast as India it is impossible to comprehend the motivation behind every vote. But it is safe to assert that one of the main causes behind this landslide victory is the heartfelt gratitude from millions living in small towns and villages for giving them their dignity. In Prime Minister Modi, they see a man who hasn’t forgotten his roots despite scaling dizzying heights of accomplishments.