The Bharatiya Janata Party and Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 on the promise of bringing “achhe din” – prosperous days – for Indians. But the last decade has brought formidable challenges for vast sections of Indians, especially those at the bottom of the pyramid. What is on the mind of voters who are struggling with joblessness and income insecurity? Will they still vote for Narendra Modi? Or is their enchantment with the party fading? Scroll reporters find out in a new series, No achhe din, but…

At 5 every morning, the rusted tap comes to life as water gushes out with full force in Mumbai’s Rahul Nagar slum.

But only for an hour. In those 60 minutes, Kalpana Tambe and other residents have to fill their daily share of buckets, cans, and plastic containers. In summer, when the city faces several water cuts, the tap dries up even sooner.

On the day Scroll met the 46-year-old, she had not been able to fill a single bucket. “I won’t be able to wash clothes or utensils today,” she said.

Tambe only had enough water to carry to the community toilet, not far from her home.

Every morning, at 6, she heads there and waits for half an hour for her turn to come. There is no water supply so she has to carry her own can. Tambe’s home is a tiny room on a first-floor landing that is reached by climbing a rickety iron staircase.

Water, shelter and good toilets – those were her priorities as a voter in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when she voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party. They remain her concerns today. In the last half a decade, she admitted, life has been particularly harsh.

But Tambe, who is from a Scheduled Caste community, is unlikely to look beyond the BJP. “I vote for them (BJP) because my family does,” she said, and then added, “Modiji is doing development for people.”

Tambe admitted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 10-year governance has not translated into better living standards for her. “But we hear about stories of how others have benefitted from various schemes,” she said. The Congress, she points out, has done far less for the people when it was in power.

On May 20, Tambe will cast her vote in the Mumbai North West parliamentary constituency. Here, Ravindra Waikar from Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena, an ally of the BJP, is up against Amol Kirtikar, from Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena, which is part of the Opposition INDIA alliance.

Both have been under the scrutiny of the Enforcement Directorate. Waikar switched to the Shinde camp, while Kirtikar is still being probed. Tambe says she is leaning towards BJP’s ally, even though Waikar was investigated for money laundering.

Tambe at her home in Mumbai's Rahul Nagar. Credit: Tabassum Barnagarwala.

The pandemic’s toll

Not everyone in the Rahul Nagar slum agrees with Tambe’s assessment of the BJP. The memory of the Covid-19-induced lockdown of 2020 is fresh in their memories.

Shamim Akhtar, aged 55, said police would lathicharge them when they went to access public toilets in the slum or stepped out to buy medicines. Shahjahan Shaikh, aged 43, said the government ration was difficult to find and they mostly relied on free food distributed by non-governmental organisations.

"The lockdown was harsh on slum-dwellers and migrants,” said Aisha Khan, aged 36, a mother of two. Both Khan and her husband lost their jobs during the lockdown. “BJP was in power but did little to help us back then,” she said. “Why should we vote for them?”

For the Tambes, too, there was no money, no food, and no job in 2020. Her husband, 47-year-old Sandeep, lost his job as a housekeeping staff in a private company, weeks after the lockdown began in March. He spent one year at home.

But, in Tambe’s telling, the economic difficulties for the family did not begin with the pandemic – and was compounded by health crises.

A precarious balance

“The last eight years have been trying,” Tambe said, sitting cross-legged on a single bed that occupied most of the space in her dwelling.

The Tambes, originally from the Konkan belt of Maharashtra, lived in Navi Mumbai. But since 2016, when Sandeep was hit by a car from behind, the family has been struggling to meet its health expenses.

The accident displaced Sandeep’s hip bone and bound him to the bed for a year.

“We could no longer afford to pay Rs 3,500 as rent every month in Navi Mumbai,” Tambe said. In 2017, they moved in with Sandeep’s brother in Rahul Nagar. Sandeep rejoined work in 2018. The same year, their second son was born.

When he was three months old, he was diagnosed with atrial septal defect, or a hole in his heart. “The surgery cost us Rs 2 lakh. We borrowed money from relatives, took funds from NGOs to pay for the procedure,” Tambe said.

Her son’s surgery meant they had to put off Sandeep’s hip surgery. “We did not have the money,” she said.

The two decided to start saving for the procedure. Tambe, who had studied only till Class 9, took up domestic work and earned Rs 4,000 per month by sweeping and mopping houses.

In March 2020, both lost their jobs in the lockdown and eventually started to drain their savings.

Tambe recalls how her brother-in-law would go searching for free food packets that NGOs would distribute.

But while others in the slum blame the government for not doing enough, Tambe blames the pandemic and a new virus. “What could the government have done?” she wondered.

In 2022, Sandeep got employed as a security guard. The pay was low, at Rs 15,000 per month, but at least he had work. But even today, he suffers acute pain while walking.

Tambe did not get a job as a domestic worker again.

Education is something she is determined to acquire for her two sons, one aged 10 and another six, even if it means paying higher fees. “They go to a private school. Government schools don’t have enough teachers,” she said.

Every afternoon, she walks them to tuitions. Through the rest of the day, she cooks, washes clothes and utensils. “If we want to get out of here," she says looking at the dense slum, “education is the only way. Otherwise my whole life will go into worrying whether we have enough water to last the day,” she said.

Children play in the Rahul Nagar slum in Bandra. Credit: Tabassum Barnagarwala.

‘Our fate’

When asked about what impressed her about the BJP’s performance, Tambe said it is evident in daily news on television. She talks of the Swachh Bharat Mission, although admits that the scheme failed to have any impact on their slum. “Perhaps, it worked in other areas,” she suggested.

She also referred to various government schemes local BJP volunteers talk about. “They say it has helped many poor people,” she said, referring to Pradhan Mantri Aawas Yojana that provides affordable housing through government subsidy. Within the city, she points to better roads and new highways. “Atal Setu was started by Modi,” she said, referring to the trans-harbour link road that connects southern Mumbai with Navi Mumbai.

That has convinced her to continue voting for the BJP-led alliance, even if the government’s benefits have not trickled down to her one-room home.

For her husband’s surgery, Tambe has tried to create an Ayushman Bharat card but failed. Their names do not appear in the beneficiary list. Sandeep needs Rs 1.5 lakh for hip surgery. It will take years to save that amount, she admitted.

“This is our fate,” she said. “BJP is already doing so much for the nation.”