Lok Sabha elections 2019: Bihar’s young voters root for Narendra Modi
Ground assessment: It is still early days in the campaign but voices across classes from north and south Bihar suggest that Prime Minister Narendra Modi walks into the elections with an advantage.Updated: Mar 19, 2019 07:24 IST
Srinivas Kumar, 23, is from Jehanabad. But he runs a luggage store in Maurya Lok, a thriving shopping complex in the heart of Patna. He sources suitcases and travel bags from big brands and sells it to customers.
Kumar is not happy.
“Business is down. Often, for two-three days in a row, there are no sales. I pay Rs 25,000 rent for the shop. My margins are low. We make little profit usually.” When asked what he traces the dip in business to, Kumar is clear. “Demonetisation. People have stopped spending in as carefree a manner as they used to.” Kumar is now preparing for a railways exam to be able to secure a government job. “That will give me stability. Let us see.”
As elections approach, however, Kumar is clear about his political preference: Narendra Modi.
“Aisa neta desh ne nahin dekha hai [The country has not seen such a leader]. He is strong. He can take decisions. He has worked. He needs more time.” But didn’t Modi’s policies hurt Kumar’s business?
“We cannot blame him. He is trying to clean the system. What he did was for the country. He has also taken other steps — for instance, the 10% reservation for the general castes — that will help us.”
Kumar is a Bhumihar, a member of an upper caste group, considered to be among the core support base of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But he is not alone. He represents a large segment of Bihar’s young voters, who, across castes, appear to be rooting firmly for Modi once again in the 2019 elections even if their expectations have not been fully met.
We travelled to six Lok Sabha constituencies of the state and discerned a clear pattern. Except for two social groups , Yadavs and Muslims, there is a strong momentum in favour of Modi. This is particularly true among young voters, who belong to upper castes, OBCs (other backward classes) and Dalits. Their expectations are somewhat more muted than in 2014; they recognise the governance deficits of the past five years including on employment creation. Yet, they have faith in Modi’s leadership. This stems from his oratory, perception of his honesty, decisions like the recent air strike in Balakot, and initiatives such as rural asset creation. These voters also do not think much of the alternatives at hand.
A caveat is important. When HT travelled, the exact seat distribution within the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was not finalised.
The seat-sharing between Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal is still not done. Campaigning has not begun in full swing. While there is a clear consolidation of voters of substantial social groups in favour of BJP, how it will translate into seats is not known and goes beyond the purview of this story. Bihar has a total of 40 Lok Sabha seats. In 2014, the BJP won 22, but this time it is contesting on 17 seats because of its alliance with Janata Dal-United (17) and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (6).
The jobs paradox
Punawan village is just off Wazirganj bazaar in Gaya. It is warm and a group of young men, all Dalits, are sitting under a tree. They are landless, unskilled; they shuffle between working on someone’s fields during the agricultural season and as labourers in the nearby market for contractors.
When asked about the “mahaul”, or the general mood, in the run up to the elections, they keep quiet for a moment. Tenu Manjhi, 25, speaks up. “Modi lautenge [Modi will return]. He works hard. He speaks well. He has given gas cylinders and toilets in villages. Which PM did that?” Manjhi then puts his hand on his heart. “For the first time, I trust a leader. You cannot trust the others. They have had enough chances.”
Dinesh Manjhi, 27, nods along. “See, he said that he will take revenge after the terrorist attack. And within 13 days, he attacked Pakistan. He also brought back Abhinandan.” Rajesh Kumar, 28, the only one in the group who finished his high school, is emphatic. “If India has to develop, it needs Modi. He understands what the poor want.”
But if the PM has a pulse of the needs of the poor, including young men like Tenu, Rajesh and Dinesh, what has he done about their job prospects? Kumar responds, “The government cannot give everyone jobs. And how much can he do in five years. But yes, I will say that if he comes back, he should ensure that everyone earns more. I can do what I am doing right now, but we need more income.”
Back in Patna, this desire for a better income , and the willingness to pursue somewhat unconventional paths to attain it , is visible in the experience of Avinash Kumar.
Originally from Bihar’s Sheikhpura district, Kumar, 29, studied engineering in Chhattisgarh’s Bilaspur. He worked in a private company in Raipur, and earned ₹17,000. But when his mother fell ill, he shifted to Patna to take care of her. He set up a mobile accessories shop, and also began driving an Uber. His income now ranges between ₹25,000 and 30,000 and Kumar believes that as more people in Patna begin using app-based cab services, it will only grow.
Kumar had to transition away from a formal, organised sector job. But he does not blame anyone, including the government, for it. Instead, he is a firm Modi supporter.
“He is decisive. He has the capacity to take risks. The foreign community now respects India. Rahul Gandhi is still inexperienced. He needs time. He cannot be trusted right now. I know the Modi government did become arrogant. The loss in the three states was good because it taught them a lesson. But there is no alternative.” Kumar is a Bhumihar, and a member of Bhumihar-Brahmin unity WhatsApp groups.
The concerns about formal employment are deeper in Patna University amongst the younger aspirants for government jobs. Sitting in an open field in the Patna Science College one evening, three students are preparing for competitive examinations. They have a somewhat measured assessment of the Modi years.
Santosh Kumar, 30, has picked public administration as his subject of choice for the State Services Commission examination. “In 2014, people felt there was something new. There was a lot of hope. Unemployment was a big concern. I am from a village in Madhubani and people thought there will be visible change. That expectation has dimmed considerably. Modi ji could have done more,” he said. Rajiv Ranjan, 26, is a history student from Khagariya. He concurs, and says the “lahar” (wave) has reduced.
“If there is a strong alternative, people may have considered it. But is it the case that the Opposition can really provide the jobs this government has not? We doubt it.”
And that is why even those skeptical of the government’s record, people such as Kumar and Ranjan, have decided that they will back Modi one more time. “He will return 110%,” said Kumar.
For some others though, the reasons to support Modi are different.
Bhim Kumar is 31. From the Katorwa village in Bodh Gaya, close to the Mahabodhi temple, Kumar runs a shop in the Buddha market.
Asserting the election is about electing Modi back to power, Kumar said: “Under him, roads have improved. Villages have gas cylinders. In our village, 50% of the people have filled up forms for rural housing, 90% of the homes now have toilets. Money comes straight into the hands of beneficiaries. We have close to 24-hour electricity. Why would I not vote for him?”
Kumar belongs to the Chandravanshi caste, an OBC grouping. He and his friends voted for BJP in the last election too. When asked about the performance of the local MP, Hari Manjhi, Ravi Kumar, 30, who was standing along with Bhim, said, “Local MPs do not matter, all work happens from the top.”
As young men with aspirations, what do they think of the government’s track record on jobs? “How much do you want Modi to do in five years when Congress got 60 years. Give him some more time,” said Bhim Kumar.
The mood is similar up in north Bihar.
In Birsair village, right before Madhubani town, Lallan Sahni, 24, and Jhari Sahni, 35, from the Nishad caste, an OBC group, are cycling back home. Discussing elections, both first say that they have not got anything from this government. Yet, Jhari Sahni says he supports Modi.
“I like his behaviour. He is a leader of the poor. He has given toilets and gas cylinders.” When asked why he did not apply for it, Sahni says that he was away from the village working as a migrant labourer -- but that he will now. When asked about the impact of the Balakot air strike, the younger man, Lallan Sahni, said: “We are very happy. Modi ji had the right to take revenge. They killed our people.”
A little down the village road is the Dalit basti. Like so many from Bihar, Hira Paswan works as a labourer in Delhi and is back home for a visit. He says there is no doubt Modi will return to power. When asked for reasons for his support, Paswan said, “He has made roads. He has developed the country. Look what he did with Pakistan.”
But didn’t he think the government should have done more for individuals such as him? “People cannot run their homes properly. Modi is running the whole country. And you just want to blame him for everything.”
It is clear from these young voices , across north and south Bihar, across both privileged and marginalised castes, and across classes, that Narendra Modi walks into the election in Bihar with an advantage. Whether the Opposition is able to overturn this with strong local candidates, arithmetic and caste alliances, is the big question in the state.