Even as the election campaign for the April-May Lok Sabha polls to elect a new Central Government in India is now in full swing, the impact of emotive issues seems to be receding and more bread and butter issues, including healthcare, are gaining more traction.
The suicide bombing by a Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist in Pulwama just before the poll dates were announced, and India's subsequent air strike on the Balakot-based Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist training camp deep inside Pakistan, had created a nationalistic fervour across India. This nationalistic outpouring looked like putting all other election issues on the back burner. But, as the days and weeks have passed, other issues are once again gaining in importance and are now dominating the discourse.
For instance, the Delhi Chief Minister Mr Arvind Kejriwal has made it clear that the massive increase in the fares of the Delhi metro, the consequent decline in the numbers of metro passengers by half a million a day, and the negative impact of this on the air pollution levels in Delhi-NCR Region, will be made a poll issue. Mr Kejriwal must be given credit for opposing the whopping increase in metro fares when it was done twice in a row. Now, Kejriwal is asking BJP's seven Lok Sabha MPs from Delhi if they had written a single letter opposing the increase in Delhi Metro fares.
The impact of the high metro fares on the number of passengers using the metro and on the air pollution stands proved. What is new is that this is becoming an election issue in a Lok Sabha election, rather than emotional and identity issues. The upcoming Lok Sabha elections promise to be very closely contested. If this pollution and health issue can determine the outcome in the seven Lok Sabha seats in Delhi and a few seats in neighbouring Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, it can well have a significant impact on the final outcome.
The same is the case with the NYAY scheme announced by the Congress Party President Mr Rahul Gandhi. Under this scheme, the Congress Party has said that if voted to power the Congress Government will pay to the housewife in five crore poorest families across India a sum of Rupees 72,000/- per year. Rahul Gandhi has said that this scheme will be implemented as soon as his government is formed, as he has consulted economists including Dr Raghuram Rajan, on this subject.
Now, a sum of Rupees 6000 per month to a poor household which has no money will indeed be a game changer. As this money will go into the bank account of the housewife, one can safely say that in a bulk of the cases this money will be fruitfully employed, say, in buying food and other necessities for the household. The availability of food and nutrition in an impoverished household will certainly have an impact on the health of the household.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP are already presenting the Ayushman Bharat scheme before the electorate, saying that they are providing free inpatient care worth Rupees five lakh to some ten crore families across India. The BJP is contrasting this, and other schemes, with the NYAY scheme presented by Mr Rahul Gandhi, saying that the ruling party is giving much more to the poor.
Of course, it is for discerning readers to fathom whether direct cash transfer of Rupees 72000/- per year is of more relevance to a poor family, or a cash transfer to hospitals that will be asked to treat the poor as inpatients up to an expenditure of Rupees five lakh.
While the former has the potential of providing the much needed food and nutrition to a starving or semi-starved poor family, the latter waits for that family to first become sick enough to be an inpatient and then pays the hospital much more money to treat members of that family.
While the merits or demerits of various health, poverty, nutrition, environment related issues will be debated in the coming weeks till the results of the Lok Sabha polls are known on May 23, 2019, it is a happy sign that these issues are dominating the discourse in the the run up to the voting.
In a democracy, those seeking votes from the electorate to form a government can only ignore the views of the voters to their peril. In today's age of 24x7 television and social media, news travels instantly and the voter has a wide spectrum of data with the help of which he or she can form an opinion. These issues are dominating the discourse not because the leaders wish it to be so. They have gained in importance because they are people's issues. The stand of various parties on these issues will determine whether they win or lose.
Without doubt, strident attempts have been made to engage the voters on issues of caste and community but that does not seem to have worked. Even the attempt to seek votes on the ground of nationalism has not drawn the traction that it drew in the initial days after the strike in Balakot. One hopes that more political parties would come forward to spell out their stand on issues related to health, nutrition, poverty, environment etc. so that the voter can make an informed choice. When the voter decides to shun parties that do not spell out their solutions, the issues that concern the people will start getting addressed.