India’s poorly paid watchmen, or security guards, are questioning the PM’s “I am also a watchman” campaign which valorizes their job but doesn’t seem to improve their lives.
Over the past week, the watchmen, people generally going unnoticed in everyday life, have dominated India's headlines.
That's because the latest campaign to be launched this week by Prime Minister Narendra Modi just before a general election beginning on April 11 is the "Main bhi chowkidar" or "I am also a watchman" campaign.
He tied an appeal to tens of millions of often poorly paid watchmen to the priorities of his own job, following a suicide bomb attack that killed 40 members of Indian Security forces in Indian Occupied Kashmir last month.
"We both work day and night. You guard homes and I guard the nation," Modi said in an audio speech addressed to watchmen Wednesday.
"The watchman has become a symbol of the country’s nationalism,” he said, equating everyone from teachers and doctors to watchmen guarding the country in their own way.
The campaign came in response to the opposition Congress party’s slogan "chowkidar chor hai", or the nation's "watchman is a thief", which it began using late last year to refer to Modi in connection with allegations of irregularities in the awarding of a defense contract.
In recent days, leaders and supporters of Modi’s far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have launched a coordinated effort to popularize his watchman campaign, with many changing their social media names to add the prefix ‘chowkidar’.
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But for many watchmen, who are among the millions in India’s vast informal economy where workers are often poorly paid and barely protected by labor laws, Modi’s campaign is a political gimmick that is unlikely to improve their lives.
"I don’t know why they started it," said Rakesh Yadav, a 37-year-old watchman from India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh.
"In the last four years they have done nothing for us,” he said, looking up from a newspaper while on duty outside a residential complex in New Delhi.
“If PM was a chowkidar, would Nirav Modi run away?” said another watchman, Mohammed Nayyar, referring to a billionaire jeweler who fled to Britain last year before an alleged US$2 billion loan fraud he is accused of being involved in came to light. He was also part of a CEO-meeting with the Indian PM on Jan. 23 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, despite being charged with fraud.
The cash-based economy suffered a serious hit from the Modi government’s shock move to ban high-value currency notes in 2016 in an alleged bid to fight corruption.
Arvind Singh, a watchman in Delhi, remembers being unable to feed his children for some days and standing in long queues at the banks to exchange the voided currency for new notes.
“What has changed in our lives? We are doing the same duty we were doing some years ago,” he said, adding that his salary had not increased from about US$130 a month in three years.
Yet, he said he believes in Modi, and praised him for air strikes on neighboring Pakistan in response to last month’s bomb attack.