Indian voters dissect Modi’s policies as they cross the country by train

ABOARD THE THIRUKKURAL EXPRESS, India (AP) — The 1,800-mile (2,900-kilometer) journey south from New Delhi to Kanyakumari is one of the longest train journeys in India, passing through towns, villages, scrub forests and deep canyons.

The 22-car Thirukkural Express is a microcosm of India, carrying passengers of various castes and religions and with wide-ranging aspirations and grievances – from migrants crammed into bulging, uncomplicated cars to well-heeled families cozying up in air-conditioned sleepers, and everyone in between.

Passengers can also be divided according to their policy, a topic that is top of mind with one follow-up election underway. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is likely to win and re-nominate Prime Minister Narendra Modi — the leader for the past decade — for another five years.

India’s economy has grown rapidly under Modi, but the strong arm tactics he has deployed to push his Hindu nationalist agenda has intensified religious divisions in the country of 1.4 billion people – about 200 million of whom are Muslim – and raised fears of a drift from secular democracy against religious autocracy.

The Associated Press recently made the 48-hour train journey to interview Indian voters about the election, the results of which will be announced on June 4. Below are some highlights:


Many passengers who bought the cheapest available tickets are domestic migrants. Sitting on steel benches, standing in doorways or lying on the floor, they traveled between the thriving capital and rural villages or to other cities in search of work.

Pardeep Kumar, a bespectacled man who runs a food stall in New Delhi, said the ruling Modi government is not doing enough for the poor.

Like millions of Indians scraping by in the informal economy, Kumar has felt the sting of rising food prices.

He appreciates the 5 kg (11 pounds) of free grain he receives every month from the government, part of a program to alleviate poverty and help large numbers of unemployed. But he would prefer the government to focus more on improving education and providing better healthcare.

“We don’t want free food,” said Kumar, who traveled with his family to their village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. With better education, he said, “we can then earn on our own and feed our families.”

Kumar is rooting for the opposition party, the Indian National Congress, which he knows faces an uphill battle against the ruling BJP.

“For ten years, all the (BJP) did was talk about Hindus and Muslims, temples and mosques,” Kumar said. “And if you raise your voice against this, you will be arrested.”

A few berths down, Rishipal Chaudhary, stiff and goatee, disagreed.

Chaudhary, a train driver who travels to the southern city of Madurai for work, believes Modi has improved the country. For example, he said, crime against women has fallen and schools are getting better teachers and facilities, changes that have benefited his daughter.

“I love him from the beginning,” said Chaudhary, an opinion shared by many passengers crowded around him.


As the train crossed through India’s heartland and passed through Agra, a city famous for the 17th-century Taj Mahal mausoleum, a man moved through the aisles shouting, “Tea! Tea! Get your tea!”

A notch up from basic service were the more comfortable – and only slightly less affordable – sleeping cars filled with passengers sitting in its lower bunks. Some sat on top of the folding bunks. They discussed politics to pass the time.

“Times have changed. Ten, twenty years ago we were one, but now we are divided,” said Haji Abdul Subhan, his flowing beard buried in the newspaper he was reading.

Subhan, a 74-year-old former railway employee who is a Muslim, traveled to the city of Bhopal.

Many Muslims have experienced discomfort since Modi took office, and Subhan listed some of the insults the government has carried out: the razing of Muslim activists’ homes and shops such as a form of punishment; banning of Islamic schools in some states; and limiting the volume of loudspeakers at mosques.

“There is an effort to create problems for us. We cannot even speak freely,” he said.

His voice is cut off by Santosh Kumar Aggarwal, a man in a cotton waistcoat who sat cross-legged on the top bunk listening to Subhan’s concerns.

“He speaks the language of Pakistan,” Aggarwal said, taking a swipe at Muslims, who make up 14% of the population. The stinging suggestion: If you’re unhappy with the government, move to Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Aggarwal is a Hindu and has voted for the BJP for decades. Under Modi, he said, India is reaching new heights.

What about Subhan’s concerns?

“You see, (Muslims) can face problems,” Aggarwal said. “We have no problems at all.”

And the razing of Muslim properties?

“They (Muslims) grabbed public land under previous governments. That’s why they are crying now,” he said.


As the train chugged south, the terrain was greener, the farms larger. The homes of the wealthy stood out as the countryside whizzed by.

On board for a few more hours, the highest paying passengers pulled freshly starched white sheets from brown paper bags delivered to their berths.

Nikunj Garg, a doctor, is worried about rising unemployment and problems in the education system. She believes that the quality of life should be improved for all Indians. “It’s the little things that matter the most,” she said.

A berth ahead, Samodhra Meena questioned the government’s supposed women-friendly policies, such as access to clean drinking water and cooking gas, a hallmark of the Modi administration, saying they did not benefit her family. “I want a change in government,” she said.

In the same carriage was Mahadev Prasad. Along with his family, Prasad was going to Madurai, one of the oldest cities in India known for its Hindu temples. He carried holy water with him from the Ganges River as an offering to one of the temples.

Prasad is confident that Modi will return to power for a rare third term. He hailed the government’s decision to revoke the semi-autonomy of Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region. And he supports Modi’s increased spending on infrastructure and the decision to build one Hindu temple on top of a razed mosque.

Has his life as a businessman improved?

“All industries have slowed down. Some are even being closed in my area,” he said. Still, Modi has achieved something important for Prasad.

He draws on a widely accepted theory among Modi supporters to make his pitch: “In the past, Indians did not get much respect while traveling abroad. But now we are respected.”

Vinoth Kumar, sitting next to Prasad, did not seem very impressed.

Kumar, a 32-year-old telecommunications engineer from the southern Indian city of Tiruchirappalli, is tough on the Modi government. He said divisions based on language, ethnicity and religion are increasing because of Modi’s Hindu-first agenda.

Kumar predicts that if Modi wins another term, “the country will not be secular.”

At the end of another day, the sound of the train gave way to quiet whispers. Several passengers disembarked before the train made its final stop at Kanyakumari’s sprawling beaches, which were crowded with hundreds of men and women stepping into the water’s edge.

They looked to the east with their hands pressed together as the sun rose from the horizon.


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