Jobs, inflation and religious animus sway voters as India goes to polls

Rising religious polarisation, unemployment, and inflation dominated the discourse at the polling booth on Friday as India voted in the first phase of the national elections that will determine if Narendra Modi lands a rare third term as prime minister.

As many as 969 million Indians are registered to vote across the seven phases of the election spread over a month and a half. They will elect 543 members of the lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha. The party or coalition that secures a simple majority will appoint the prime minister and form the next government.

The votes will be counted and the results declared on 4 June.

In Muzaffarnagar in western Uttar Pradesh – the country’s largest and most populous state – The Independent spoke with voters who pinned their hope on a government that can tackle rising food costs, assure jobs and keep the peace between various communities.

Muzaffarnagar is a microcosm of northern India, a largely agrarian region beset by dwindling farming incomes, lack of formal employment and communal polarisation, which seems to have deepened since over 60 people were killed, the majority of them Muslim, and several women raped in sectarian violence nearly 11 years ago.

There’s also a class divide though it’s not as pronounced. While working class voters were most worried about unemployment and the rising cost of living, the relatively better off fixated on sectarianism, development, and muscular nationalism, which happen to be the main campaign planks of Mr Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Salma, 36, had just cast her vote when The Independent found her outside a polling booth at the Jain Kanya Pathshala College, waiting for her family to join her.

“The main issue is unemployment,” said Ms Salma, who doesn’t use a second name. “We need work. What else does a poor person need?”

Her concerns were echoed by Lakshmi, 40, a daily wage worker who also goes by a single name. “Look at the price of flour, of dal. Life for the poor is tough. What can a poor person do?”

Jeele Singh, 58, a labourer from Sisona village, complained that all talk of vikas, or development, were only words”.

“What vikas are they talking about? Come visit my village and see the condition of the roads for yourself,” Mr Singh, a Dalit voter, said. Dalits are a marginalised community once regarded as “untouchable” in the Hindu social hierarchy.

“In spite of our meagre means we educate our children but where are the jobs? One of my daughters has completed her BA and she is still unemployed. Is the government thinking of the youth?”

Fellow voter, Anish Tyagi, 38, interrupted Mr Singh. “Temples are now being built in Muslim countries. When has that happened before?” Mr Tygai asked. “Wherever Modi goes, he walks the red carpet. He’s being welcomed everywhere.”

But another voter, Anuj Kumar, 34, disagreed with Mr Tyagi. “Prices are high. They closed one primary school in our village citing low attendance. The poor have no option left, they are getting poorer and poorer. The focus should be on education and schools, rather than temples and priests.”

People line up outside a polling station in Dugeli village of Dantewada in central India’s Chhattisgarh state on 19 April 2024 (AFP via Getty Images)
People line up outside a polling station in Dugeli village of Dantewada in central India’s Chhattisgarh state on 19 April 2024 (AFP via Getty Images)

At MPL Girls Inter College on Roorkee Road, Vipin Kumar, 63, and his wife Kavita Bhatla, 58, stood beaming after casting their votes. Their son and daughter-in-law were on their way from Delhi to cast their ballots in their hometown.

“I want peace and development for the country,” Ms Bhatla said. She felt proud, she said, that India was being “acknowledged as a power to reckon with” on the international stage.

“There is development, sure,” voter Mohammad Ikram said, “but only in Hindu areas of Muzaffarnagar.”

“Look at the streets and nooks in Muslim areas and you will get the idea. Look at Khalapur, Rehmat Nagar, Jaima Nagar, Mimlana Road, Shahabuddin Road. Development should be for every community. Not just one.”

Mr Ikram accused the ruling party of dividing Hindus and Muslims and worried about the bigotry he had seen rise on social media in recent years.

When you beat up Muslims for praying, when you cover up mosques and demolish homes of Muslims, what kind of development is that?” he asked.

At St Mary Public School down the Roorkee Road, Ravi Pal, 32, sat with his friends outside a polling booth. He was disgruntled. He graduated with a degree in civil engineering from Shri Venkateshwara University in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, in 2018, but didn’t find a job.

“All governments make roads and install street lights,” he said. “What about unemployment? Has the government made sure the youth find employment? All my friends are unemployed despite having degrees from government-run colleges.”

He complained that his neighbourhood didn’t even get basic services such as trash collection until three months ago. “Only when the elections came near did they start cleaning,” he said.

Sher Singh, 52, was angry about the new Agnipath scheme, under which the Indian Army now recruits men aged 17-and-a-half to 21 for four-year “tours of duty”, similar to systems in the US and UK, rather than for lifetime service. A quarter of the recruits will be retained at the end of the contracts and the rest let go with a severance package. “What will they do when the four years end?” Mr Singh asked.

A woman shows her inked finger after casting her ballot in India’s general election at a polling station in Nagaon in the northeastern state of Assam on 19 April 2024 (AFP via Getty Images)
A woman shows her inked finger after casting her ballot in India’s general election at a polling station in Nagaon in the northeastern state of Assam on 19 April 2024 (AFP via Getty Images)

On the contrary, Vinod Sharma, 58, said the incumbent government had done “good work” but wouldn’t go into detail.

Responding to fellow voters’ complaints about rising cost of living, he said: “If earlier the daily wage was 300, now it is 500. If prices have gone up, the wage has also gone up.”

What about concerns about the erosion of religious freedom under the Modi government? “These are small matters that opposition politicians try to make into big issues,” he said.

Sanjeev Kumar, a lawyer, said he wanted the ruling party to implement a population control law.

“Opposition parties say there is unemployment but the problem is that the population is huge,” he said. “So I want the government to implement this law.”

The BJP and its allies have long sought to fan demographic worry among the Hindu majority by claiming, falsely, that Indian Muslims were growing their population faster than Hindus.

Sunil Kumar, a 40-year-old farmer, said he supported calls by political and religious leaders aligned with the ruling party to demolish mosques in Uttar Pradesh’s Mathura and Kashi and build temples in their stead.

“We are from Sanatan Dharam,” he said, referring to the Hindu religion.

“Why did Muslims demolish temples?” he added, referring to claims that mediaeval Muslim rulers destroyed Hindu temples to build mosques. “We support these calls.”