In the last week of March, barely a week after the central government enforced a nationwide lockdown to contain Covid-19, Vinita Kale (name changed) was laid off from work.
The 44-year-old was an accountant at a mid-sized biomedical company, bringing home Rs 12,000 a month. This was a small but valued supplement to her husband’s earnings as a real estate agent and the manager of a temple trust. The Kales lived a comfortable, middle-class life in a rented apartment in suburban Mumbai.
“We had enough savings and we were not stressed, but when the lockdown happened so suddenly, all our income stopped,” said Kale, who has been unemployed for five months. Her husband’s freelance work gradually restarted in July, but his income has been meagre and sporadic.
With their savings almost dried up, a stable, salaried job would have been a ray of hope for Kale – it would help pay the rent they still owe their landlord for the past month and the Rs 16,000 pending college fee for her son’s computer science course. “But I’m not likely to get my old job back, and I have not been able to find a new one so far,” she said.
In the midst of a global economic downturn triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, Kale is an almost insignificant statistic: one among 1.7 crore salaried workers who lost their jobs across India in April. According to a report by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, at least 1.89 crore salaried individuals have been out of work since the start of the lockdown – 22% of the total salaried workforce. This week, the government released data showing the Indian economy had contracted by 23.9% in the April-June quarter – worse than other major economies.
The Indian economy was in the midst of a downturn since the end of 2019, and the shock of large-scale job losses and low demand during the lockdown has exacerbated the distress. At the helm of this crisis, the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government has come under criticism for imposing a hasty lockdown, leaving millions of urban migrant workers in the lurch, and announcing an inadequate economic package to revive the economy.
India’s working classes and the rural poor have been hit most acutely by the slowdown, but it has also been a shock for people like Vinita Kale, who come from the salaried, urban middle-classes that have formed the BJP’s most reliable vote bank for the past six years.
Has the lockdown and its economic fallout altered perceptions of the BJP and Prime Minister Modi among this demographic?
For Kale and many other middle-class workers and business-owners that Scroll.in spoke to in Mumbai, the image of Modi as a strong, powerful leader remains largely unchanged, even among those who criticise his government for the management of Covid-19.
‘We will have to tolerate him’
Suryapal Singh, the co-manager of an electronics store, blames the government for slowing down the economy long before the pandemic, beginning with demonetisation in November 2016 and followed by the rollout of the new Goods and Services Tax regime in 2017.
“The economy has never really recovered after notebandi and GST, and now after this lockdown, I see no future. We are finished,” said Singh, whose shop near Andheri station has seen barely three or four customers a day since it reopened in mid-June. Before the lockdown, the shop would get more than 40 customers a day and easily sell goods worth Rs 25,000 or Rs 30,000 every day. Now, the store has lost not just its revenue but also four or its five sales staff who could not be paid through the lockdown.
Singh claims that during the 2009 swine flu pandemic, people in the city had worn masks for a few weeks but still “carried on with their work”. “So why is there so much hype about coronavirus?” he said. “I think the lockdown was not needed and was imposed too fast. It has ruined the middle class.”
Singh dismisses the Rs 20 lakh crore economic package that the Centre announced in May, claiming that the money was never meant to benefit mid-sized, old businesses like his. “But we still have to pay rent and salaries and have customers if we want to survive,” he said. “So far, we have been using our savings to keep running, but how long will that last?”
Despite is bitterness about the national economy, Singh blames the Maharashtra state government – run by a coalition of the Shiv Sena, Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party – for the disruptions. “I have heard that the Delhi government is reopening the metro, but here in Mumbai our local trains are still not opening,” said Singh, who is also upset about the early 7 pm curfew for Mumbai shops. “All this will affect the Maharashtra government in the next state election [in 2024].”
Singh is clear, however, that he would want Modi to remain in power at the Centre. “We have no other option to consider. He is the only strong leader we have, so we will have to tolerate him.”
‘We have a strong leader’
Dharmesh Tole, a 53-year-old dialogue writer and lyricist for Bhojpuri and Punjabi films, firmly backs the Modi government despite being rendered homeless by the lockdown.
Tole has been working in the Mumbai film industry for the past 30 years, and has always managed to earn a decent living for himself. Before Covid-19 spread across the country, he was making at least Rs 25,000 a month and living a comfortable bachelor’s life at a rented flat in the northern suburbs.
Just before the lockdown, one of his dreams for his career was about the come true: he had become the creative director for two Bhojpuri films scheduled to release in April. Since the projects did not fetch him money, Tole had convinced the producers to give him distribution rights to take the films to northern states like Punjab, Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir.
“But now the films are stuck – they cannot release till the theatres reopen,” said Tole, who realised soon after the lockdown that he would have to choose between rent and food in order to ration his savings. After April, he stopped paying his monthly rent of Rs 10,000, and had to eventually live on the streets.
Tole now spends most of his time near a bus stop in Andheri, using public toilets to bathe and wash his clothes every few months. He has been unable to return to his village in Punjab because of some disputes with his family, and claims he is too proud to ask for help or shelter from his friends in Mumbai.
Although he is still grappling with his new reality of homelessness, Tole believes the Prime Minister deserves praise for his timely reaction to the pandemic. “If Modi had not imposed this lockdown in this manner, five lakh people would have died by now in India,” he said. “Look at how [American President Donald] Trump has ruined America by not doing anything for Covid. We have a very strong leader.”
Tole’s trust in the Modi-led BJP regime may seem incongruent with his acute economic distress, but it is also a reflection of the personality politics that has grown stronger in India in the past six years. Political scientist Neelanjan Sircar has described this as the politics of “vishwaas” or faith, where the personal popularity of a majoritarian leader like Modi becomes more compelling for voters than the politics of “vikas” or economic development.
Like a strict mother
Another voter who has placed his faith in Modi is businessman Sanjay Gosalia. “Never in our history have we had such a good Prime Minister. He is excellent at foreign policy,” he said.
Gosalia’s real estate and interior designing business had been drying up much before the lockdown, due to the economic downturn that began last year. With virtually no major income since the lockdown began, his family has been living on their savings.
At a time like this, Gosalia claims the BJP government under Modi has done a good job of “controlling such a big population” and giving people motivation and hope to survive through group activities like clapping and lighting lamps at their windows. Modi had announced these activities on two days in March and April, and many urban middle-class households had enthusiastically participated in both events.
Vinita Kale, who lost her job due to the lockdown, describes Modi as a strict disciplinarian that India needs in order to run. “My company had trouble managing a few people, but Modi has to manage an entire country,” she said. Kale acknowledges the disruptions that Modi’s biggest policies – demonetisation and GST – had caused in people’s lives in the past four years, but believes both policies have helped make the economy more “transparent”.
“People will be upset with Modi about notebandi and Covid – children always feel like that towards strict parents,” she said. “But as a mother, I know that I am strict for my child’s own good, and that’s what Modi does too.”