How will Indians choose to vote?

In the absence of real data on matters such as employment, security, health and other important policy areas, electoral decisions are tough to make in the world's biggest democracy

Bharatiya Janata Party supporters wearing masks of Indian Prime minister Narendra Modi, ride on motorbikes as they campaign ahead of general elections in Borhola village in Jorhat, Assam state, India, Tuesday, April 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
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UAE residents of a certain vintage may recall the US TV comedy Sledge Hammer! Broadcast by one of the Emirati TV channels, this parody of hard-boiled American cop shows only ran for a season or two in the mid-1980s, but it developed something of a cult following. I vividly remember its intro sequence, in which – before apparently shooting out the viewer's TV screen – the slightly deranged-looking lead actor, David Rasche, toyed with a loaded gun and uttered the memorable words: "Trust me, I know what I'm doing."

Few statesmen have embraced that style of leadership quite as comprehensively as Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In his five years in office – and particularly in the months leading up to the nation's elections, which commence next week – he has launched a number of policy initiatives and taken various actions that can only be judged on the strength of his word.

For instance, did Mr Modi’s surprise scrapping of high-value bank notes in 2016 achieve his stated aim of flushing illegal “black money” out of the Indian economy? Nobody knows because there is no real way to measure it. Some experts say that the initiative was a success, because tax compliance rates have increased. But was making millions of people stand in lines for hours outside underprepared banks, filled with overworked staff, the only way to do this? And what has happened to all that black money? Who knows?

A more recent example is the air offensive carried out on Balakot, in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, in retaliation for the devastating terror strike on Indian paramilitary forces in Pulwama, Kashmir. What did these strikes achieve? How many Islamist extremists were killed by Indian jets? Did the Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman really take down a Pakistan Air Force F-16 fighter jet before he was shot out of the sky over the border, captured by the Pakistani army and then released two days later? Mr Modi has been playing his cards close to his chest.

When it comes to votes, the researchers say, issues such as religion, caste and ethnicity are playing increasingly influential roles in influencing political choice

But these matters pale in significance when compared to India’s growing employment problem. According to numerous studies and estimates, none of which are officially acknowledged, job creation across the country has slowed to a crawl. A sample survey published by the Pew Research Centre last week seems to corroborate trends in public opinion that the government continues to reject. According to Pew, 76 per cent of Indians said that a lack of employment opportunities presented the nation’s biggest challenge. Particularly scathing for the administration is the fact that 67 per cent of respondents said that job prospects had worsened over the past five years, under Mr Modi.

So, what is really happening to jobs in India? Nobody knows, because Mr Modi’s government has consistently refused to release reports. Critics – not least among them the opposition Indian National Congress party – hope that widespread dissatisfaction over this issue will be sufficient to mobilise millions of votes against the ruling National Democratic Alliance coalition, which Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party leads.

But a recent paper in the academic journal Economic and Political Weekly, titled "Growing Cleavages in India?", should give these critics pause. Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Paris School of Economics, including Thomas Piketty, combined data from surveys, election results and social expenditure to understand the nature of political divisions in India. By looking at these trends between 1962 and 2014, Piketty et al sought to understand why different sections of the Indian electorate voted for different parties. Their conclusion is that "in India, as in many Western democracies, political conflicts are increasingly focused on identity and religious-ethnic conflicts rather than on tangible material benefits and class-based redistribution".

In other words, even as many Indians seem genuinely concerned about the state of the job market, that concern does not necessarily translate into their electoral choices. When it comes to votes, the researchers say, issues such as religion, caste and ethnicity are playing increasingly influential roles in influencing political choice. Even as governments fail to provide social services, jobs, education and health care.

In the last few weeks, opposition parties, chiefly Congress, but also the Communist Party of India (Marxist), have announced several income-guarantee and basic-income policies. Critics of the government have used the constricting employment market to highlight the challenges facing Mr Modi and the BJP as they head into the polls. But do voters really care enough about any of these issues to switch allegiances?

How will Indians vote in 2019? For jobs, or for caste and creed? That’s another question we can’t know the answer to. Yet.

Sidin Vadukut is an Indian author and historian who lives in London