Let’s face it. Everyone in this country of 1.3 billion doesn’t speak with an equally loud voice. Whose voices matter? Whose voices will get drowned in the din? Whose concerns will be centrestaged?
The questions swirl around, as 900 million voters across the country get ready to vote in the forthcoming general election.
Campaign time in India is also the peak season of punditry.
Going by political pundits, and the chatter in the social media, the BJP will continue to harp on national security as the big issue, positioning Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the supreme leader who can take care of the country, allay Hindu fears, avenge historical wrongs, put Pakistan in its place, make India a space leader and just about everything else that one can imagine. The ruling party and its supporters will also continue to unapologetically raise the spectre of Hindu anger.
In the wake of the February 14 terrorist strike in Pulwama, and India’s retaliatory attack on Balakot in Pakistan, the conventional narrative has tended to predict a second innings for Mr Modi.
The Congress manifesto, released earlier this week, seeks to counter this narrative with promises of a kinder and gentler nation with a Right to Health Care Act, an expanded safety net and a lot more.
Then, there are the powerful regional parties who are coming together and who resonate strongly in many parts of India.
Anyone who follows current affairs will not be really surprised by any of this. We are now in the middle of the battle of the hashtags in the social media.
In this fluid and fast-changing scenario, can one definitively predict poll outcomes? Is there really any one issue that unites voters in the north, south, east and west in this vast and diverse country?
Travelling around a little in the neighbourhood past week, my sense is that for very many Indians, the big issue is the still the daily struggle to put food on the table, and the quest for basic amenities, amid agrarian distress.
On National Highway 1, near Panipat, I met two people who were studies in contrast.
Uday Vir, an agarbatti seller, was an avid supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. and thrilled that the government had taken “revenge” on Pakistan. He was also convinced that Pakistan is “now frightened” and will not dare to “hit back”.
A few feet away from Uday Vir, stood a sceptical Saroj Devi, who sold rajma-chawal and parathas on a cycle cart.
Saroj, who was listening to our conversation, waded in. “Was Pakistan pressured into submission after India’s 2016 surgical strike? I also watch news.”
Ever since her husband died, Saroj has been the sole breadwinner of her family. Every day, she stands in the blazing sun for nearly eight hours, hawking her wares to passers-by like me. Saroj, who hails from Panipat’s Siwah village, is trying her best to support her 17-year-old son who wishes to appear for the civil services examination.
Saroj said she had not yet benefited from the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, which provides free LPG connections to all poor households.
She had heard of the Congress’ proposed minimum income scheme, Nyuntam Aay Yojana (Nyay). She had a cryptic response.
“A scheme is good only if it benefits me. Otherwise, why do I need to care? I have to work for a living. Neither the Congress nor the BJP is going to feed me.”
It is not that “development” has not happened but benefits of many of the Modi government’s much-publicised welfare schemes have not percolated down to all thosein need.
Take Nuh, also in Haryana, and earlier called Mewat. Nuh has a new-look bus stand. It was inaugurated in 2016. It has a night shelter and a toilet complex run by the non-profit Sulabh Shauchalaya. The caretaker was a fan of Prime Minister Modi and said everything around was just fine; those who complained had only themselves to blame.
Nuh’s bus stand is impressive but villages in the interior are still dotted with dirt tracks and cow-dung patties; they tell another story.
Here, one of the biggest issues is the severe scarcity of drinking water.
In 2018, Nuh was identified by the Niti Aayog as the most backward district in India on many parameters. Glitzy Gurgaon is barely 60 km away. It is hard to believe that the millennial city of multinationals and multiplexes and Nuh are part of the same parliamentary constituency.
In Nuh’s Adbar village, Aaisa, a Class 10 student in a government school, was keen to talk. Her father was a labourer. Her mother, a home maker, was out collecting firewood. Aaisa said her family had not yet benefited from the government's Swacch Bharat Abhiyan and was keen to know if I could help. The family had spent their own money constructing a toilet in the house.
Aaisa’s family does not have any access to piped water like many in Adbar village. Aaisa is good in studies and is spared the chore of fetching water from wells afar. Her teenaged sister, Saina, is not so lucky. Saina walks long distances with a matka on her head to fetch water. She dropped out of school.
In Nuh town, I met two young Muslim women who worked part-time. One of them rode a scooter. Both were first-time voters; both had fought social barriers to study, and take up work. One young woman, Hanifa, a college student, told me the little money that she earned was helping to educate her two younger brothers.
Hanifa is enrolled in a correspondence course in social work at the Indira Gandhi National Open University (Ignou) in New Delhi and determined to bust stereotypes about Mewat’s Muslim women. She covers her head with a scarf and smiles insouciantly as I take a photo of her, riding her scooter.
One of India’s 15 million first-time voters, she believes that education should be the top political priority, and education alone can equip one to make informed choices.
The voices I heard were disparate, diverse. Like India itself.
Whose voices will matter eventually? The jury is out....