India elections 2019: Narendra Modi's 'chowkidar' campaign upsets some watchmen

Poorly paid guards are part of a working class unhappy with the Indian PM's policies

NEW DELHI, INDIA - MARCH 31: BJP workers wearing mask of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the main gate of Talkatora Stadium where Modi interacted with people under 'Main bhi Chowkidar' campaign, on March 31, 2019 in New Delhi, India. Two weeks after he launched Main Bhi Chowkidar (I too am watchman) campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday afternoon, will interact with people who have pledged their support to the campaign, from 500 places across the country. (Photo by Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
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Raj Narayan Jha rises before dawn on most days of the year to go to his job as a chowkidar, or watchman, at a gated community in suburban Mumbai. After 12 hours on duty, often under the scorching Indian sun or in heavy monsoon showers, he heads off to another six-hour at a local factory.

Mr Jha, 42, originally from the northern state of Bihar, has been working as watchman in India's economic capital for the past 20 years. He earns 12,000 rupees (Dh637) a month, not nearly enough to support his family of four, let alone send money to his ageing parents in Bihar.

"My daughter was to be married recently, but the groom's family called it off because we couldn't afford to pay them the dowry they asked," he told The National. Paying dowry is still widely practised in India even though it has been outlawed.

Mr Jha briefly tried his hand at running a business, selling small products imported from China. When it failed, he was left owing 100,000 rupees to money lenders. He returned to being a chowkidar to pay off the debt. “No one wants to actually work as a chowkidar. It is majboori [helplessness],” he said.

And yet thousands of Indians on social media, mainly supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), are calling themselves “chowkidar” after the party launched its “Main bhi chowkidaar” (I am also a watchman) campaign for the general election.

Prabhu Dayal, a 75-year-old watchman, opens the gate for a resident at a housing society in Mumbai, India, November 12, 2015. To match Special Report INDIA-MEDICINE/ABBOTT  REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Mr Modi is calling on Indians to join him in protecting the country from corruption, terrorism and poverty and has changed his name on Twitter to "Chowkidar Narendra Modi". His party's ministers and many supporters have followed suit.

In the 2014 election Mr Modi played up his humble beginnings as a "chaiwallah" – a tea seller – to identify with the working classes but his appropriation of the role of chowkidar this time has upset some watchmen who say their job is given no respect or dignity by society.

“It’s so fashionable to call yourself a chowkidar these days, but it is also important to see how these people treat their own chowkidars," said a security guard who works for an airline.

"Many of these minister who are calling themselves chowkidar mistreat their own security guards, and make them do menial jobs like fetching groceries, washing their car and watering the garden.”

The watchman, who has been doing this work for more than 20 of his 48 years, did not wish to be named for fear his comments could cost him his job.

He challenged politicians to work one shift as a security guard before adopting the title of chowkidar.

Most watchmen work in India's massive informal economy, which is estimated to account for 81 per cent of all employment the country, according to a report by International Labour Organisation last year. This means they are not covered under labour laws guaranteeing a minimum wage and other benefits. Many are employed through private contractors who keep a percentage of their salaries as commission, further reducing their income.

Small farmers, who make up the bulk of the informal economy, are also upset over what they say is the BJP government's failure to support the agricultural sector.

epa07504325 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (2-R) of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), along with BJP leaders and party workers during the election rally meeting in Bangalore, India, 13 April 2019. Polling for the upcoming general elections across India will be held from 11 April 2019 onwards in seven phases with counting of votes scheduled to take place on 23 May 2019.  EPA/JAGADEESH NV

The BJP's manifesto for the 2014 election, which it won by a landslide, was titled "One India, Best India - Unity and Development for All". It promised to introduce social and agricultural reforms to help the common man; curb inflation; stop corruption; flush out the vast undeclared wealth generated in the country's underground economy and use it for the public good; and to create millions of new jobs in the formal sector, partly by encouraging foreign investment in India.

Critics say few of these promises have materialised. Corruption is still cited as a concern by voters, farmers are still unhappy with agricultural policy, and recently leaked government data showed unemployment at its highest level in 45 years. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy estimates that 11 million jobs were lost in 2018 alone.

“Situation of Indian labour class has severely deteriorated in the last five years; whether it is a chowkidar, or a farmer, or a day labourer, those working in the informal sector are struggling to make ends meet,” said Anand Pagare, an official with the Rashtriya Shoshit Parishad, an NGO working with marginalised sections on society.

"BJP's policies have been detrimental to the labour reforms made in the last few decades, and many of their new programmes are made without consultation with the trade unions or labour organisations," Mr Pagare told The National.

In January an estimated 200 million workers took part in a two-day strike called by 10 national unions to protest against the government's policies on issues including minimum wages, pensions and labour laws.

“By going after the rights of the workers, BJP has shown that its true loyalties are with Adani and Ambani," Mr Pagare said, referring to prominent Indian corporate houses. "If their government returns to power again, there will surely be a workers' revolution in India.”

PATNA, INDIA - JANUARY 9: Members of Allahabad Bank Employees Union stage a demonstration on the second day of the two-day nationwide strike called by central trade unions on January 9, 2019 in Patna, India. The two-day nationwide strike called by 10 central trade unions in protest against what they describe as the anti-worker policies and unilateral labour reforms evoked a mixed response on its second day on Wednesday, as witnessed on the previous day. (Photo by AP Dube/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Economists blame some of Mr Modi's policies for a slowdown in growth, leading to job losses. His sudden withdrawal from circulation of high-denomination banknotes in November 2016 created a months-long currency shortage that affected India's cash economy, particularly small vendors and traders. Months later the government introduced a nationwide Goods and Sales Tax (GST) that, although generally seen as a necessity in the long term, was another check on economic activity as businesses struggled to implement the new rules. The new tax regime also raised the price of some essential goods.

Despite this, Mr Jha plans to travel back to his village in Bihar later this month to cast his vote for the BJP.

“BJP may not have done anything for me and I am not really happy with my state under the BJP government, but it seems to me that the country is happy with Modi, so I will vote for him again,” he said, quoting a Hindi saying that means “the good of the masses is more important than the good of the one".

The airline security guard, however, was determined to not allow the politicians to usurp his identity, saying, “I will not vote for a 'chowkidar', I will vote for a parliamentarian who is easily accessible to us chowkidars.”

I will vote for someone we can approach when we have been wronged or cheated by contractors, or when we feel our rights as labourers have been violated … someone who is willing to spend a day in our shoes, lived and eaten the way we do," he said.

“Talk is cheap. Last time he [Mr Modi] tried appeal to the chaiwallas, but we are not stupid. We know they see us and our jobs as lowly and small.”