India’s hyperactive pollsters may appear to cover every possible angle in their election surveys. But they occasionally overlook things that influence outcomes.
At the 2009 Lok Sabha election, they missed a key issue that only surfaced in reports from a network of civil society organisations. The popularity of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 helped propel the UPA government to re-election.
That issue was a ‘sleeper’ hiding in plain sight. It generated popular approval for something that the UPA had done right. But sleepers may also emerge when governments do something wrong and inspire disapproval.
As we head towards the 2019 general elections, we need to consider several potential sleepers that may damage the BJP’s prospects.
The government’s potent publicity machine has largely succeeded in selling demonetisation. A CSDS survey in January 2018 revealed that 53% saw it as a necessary decision, and 48% thought it good for the economy. But it may still be a sleeper at the general election. Many of those who give positive replies to direct questions about demonetisation have suffered from its indirect effects – retarded economic growth and damage to many traders, small entrepreneurs and farmers.
A more likely sleeper is the deterioration in MGNREGA which affects huge numbers of poor rural voters. It faces a triple crisis according to Rajendran Narayanan and Madhubala Pothula: inadequate funds from the Centre, wages rates set below the minimum wage by state governments (most of which are headed by the BJP) and widespread delays in payments.
These problems were apparent as early as 2015-16 which was at that time the worst year for assets created under the programme. They declined by 23% compared to the previous year. Things have slipped further since then. The budget allocation for MGNREGA in 2018-19 was much lower than for 2010-11. The MIS (IT) system has sometimes been used as a device to curtail the apparent demand for employment – even during droughts when actual demand soars. Agriculture minister Birender Singh and several BJP state governments acknowledged the rising demand and requested increased funding to meet it, but the Centre’s response was disappointing.
This has created excruciating problems for members of gram panchayats who must disappoint those seeking work. The Modi government, like its predecessors, has carefully enhanced the emoluments for civil servants as elections approach. But the immense number of discontented panchayat members – 55,000 in Karnataka alone – may do the BJP greater damage.
More crucially, a vast number of poor villagers have suffered as a result. This partly explains the plummeting support for the BJP from Dalits and Adivasis – groups that benefit disproportionately from MGNREGA.
Another possible sleeper is the ‘catch 22’ faced by the Modi government since the Supreme Court judgement in April that was seen as diluting the Atrocities Act of 1989. Government actions to reassure Dalits have failed to ease their anxieties and angered other castes. Dalit discontent has also been stoked by brutal attacks on them across many states: in Una, Gujarat; Uttar Pradesh since the state election; the Bhima Koregaon episode in Maharashtra and April violence in the Gwalior region of Madhya Pradesh.
The prime minister claims that he has done more for Dalits than any predecessor. But his largely theatrical gestures – like pilgrimage sites in homage to Dr Ambedkar – are outweighed by the violence.
GST and Aadhaar
Another potential sleeper is the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Of those surveyed by CSDS in January 2018, 58% found it harsh or somewhat harsh. But as resentment grew among traders and businesses, by May 2018 that number had risen to 73%. The GST has also limited the revenues of (mostly BJP) state governments which can, therefore, do less to cultivate voters.
The most important and perhaps least noticed sleeper is Aadhaar. The main problem is not the massive leakage of data, which the government denies or downplays. That is probably invisible to most voters. But many are acutely aware that they have been denied vital services and benefits as a result of malfunctions in a system that has been aggressively imposed. Despite some ministers’ denials, the government largely ignored Supreme Court rulings in 2015 and 2016 that Aadhaar should not be mandatory. The recent 2018 judgement may suffer similar treatment.
Enormous numbers of vulnerable people have lost access to subsidised food and fuels, pensions, disability benefits, work opportunities and wage payments under the MGNREGA, school enrolments and free mid-day meals, maternity entitlements, crucial medicines, etc. These people all have votes. We may hear from them at the Lok Sabha election.
James Manor is a professor in the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is the author of numerous books including Power, Poverty and Poison: Disaster and Response in an Indian City (1993) on the 1981 hooch disaster in Bangalore.