x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

India’s small towns favour opposition, despite Congress handouts

Handouts for farmers by India's Congress party have helped turn a once-deprived village into a thriving retail centre with an emerging middle class, but many will still vote for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

KASBA BONLI // Kasba Bonli is a newly prosperous market town in Rajasthan and it should be a perfect advertisement for the ruling Congress party’s pro-farmer policies.

Instead the buzz in the bazaar is for the opposition.

In just a few years, handouts for farmers by Congress have helped turn the once-deprived village into a thriving retail centre, selling everything from glittery bangles to satellite dishes.

The Congress party-led government pours at least 1.25 trillion rupees (Dh73.5 billion) a year into rural India in addition to free education and health care and cheap food. Cheap fertiliser, seeds and electricity, 100 days of guaranteed paid work a year and new rural roads have given farmers cash to spend.

These funds have helped create an emerging middle class, mostly in semi-urban and small towns, which one estimate has put at almost a quarter of India’s 1.2 billion people.

But many in this new middle class believe the next step up the income ladder will come when the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Narendra Modi, its candidate for prime minister and currently the chief minister of Gujarat, will be in power. That bodes ill for Congress ahead of a general election that must be held by May.

Raghuvir Meena, a farmer who voted for Congress in the last state polls, bought two new tractors over the past few years and nearly doubled his farming area, attributing the prosperity to better farming techniques and seeds. He sent three of his four children to college to train as teachers. Now he wants to get out of farming and this time Mr Modi has his vote.

“Modi’s track record in Gujarat has excited the youth. Even I would love to see BJP come back to power, for my kids, for their jobs,” he said.

Mr Modi is widely seen as a business-friendly reformer who has attracted investment and bolstered economic growth in Gujarat, providing jobs to many.

For Congress this trend in the small towns is the latest in a series of reverses. It is already battling slowing economic growth, perceptions of poor governance and several corruption scandals.

For decades, Congress relied on its pro-farmer policies giving it rural votes. Then, at the last election in 2009, it gained wide support in cities during a period of fast economic growth to win a second consecutive term in office.

However, the urban goodwill is fast eroding because of corruption and a sense of policy drift, while its base constituency of rural poor is shrinking.

“It’s a new phenomenon. It’s not something that we have been used to in the past,” said Jairam Ramesh, the rural development minister, of the demographic shift.

“Very often experience shows that beneficiaries of programmes instituted by one party end up voting for the other political party.”

Beyond the commercial bustle, Kasba Bonli has little to offer to the groups of twenty-somethings who loiter on motorcycles in the dusty market, unable to find work.

Often the first graduates in their families, these young men say they want industries and professional jobs rather than more handouts, and they look to Mr Modi for providing such opportunities, not Congress.

Mr Modi has attracted companies such as Ford Motor, Maruti Suzuki and Tata Motors to Gujarat, the state he has governed since 2001.

But he is also seen as a polarising figure. Critics of Mr Modi, a Hindu nationalist, say he did not do enough to stop religious riots on his watch in 2002 that killed at least 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, although the allegations have never been proved. Others say that despite fast growth, his state is a laggard on social and poverty indicators.

That was not the impression held by Mateem Khan, a frustrated 22-year-old Muslim resident of Kasba Bonli with a data-entry job at an office for one of the handout schemes, the only skilled work he could find.

“Look at what he has done for Gujarat, there’s hardly any unemployment in the state.”

Mr Modi has directly addressed the demographic shift, catering speeches to the new constituency and promising urban amenities such as round-the-clock electricity and broadband internet connections to communities similar to Kasba Bonli, which has a population of about 18,000 that are about half Muslim and half Hindu.

Opinion polls suggest he is making headway. In a recent Nielsen survey of two largely rural states, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, that contain a quarter of India’s population, Mr Modi was the most popular candidate for prime minister.

* Reuters