If the prime minister is not galvanised to act by the growing disaffection among India’s youth, it could spell doom for the country’s vast population – and its leaders.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi rose to power in 2014 to lead India by harnessing the support of the country’s sizeable youth population. With half the population under the age of 21, Modi’s campaign invoked the transformative power of the country’s youth and criticised the incumbent Congress government for ignoring their aspirations.
A poll among 18-22 year olds at that time found that 47% of respondents preferred Modi as the prime minister, putting him 13 points ahead of the nearest rival. With around 150 million first-time voters, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) reaped the youth vote dividend in the 2014 general election, winning more votes in the states with more first-time voters. In constituencies across the country, a 5% increase in the share of first-time voters corresponded to a 2.25% increase in the BJP’s electoral fortunes, giving the party a sweeping victory.
However, the BJP’s support among the youth has slipped since then. In six state elections held since Modi assumed office – Assam, Bihar, Delhi, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal – the party fared poorly in constituencies that had more first-time voters. On average, constituencies with 5% more first-time voters recorded a 4% drop in the BJP’s vote share. The positive relation between first-time voters and the BJP’s electoral gains in 2014 has now unmistakably turned negative.
A reversal of electoral fortunes
What explains the BJP’s reversal of fortunes among the youth? A simple response would be to divorce the party from the leader and the state contests from the national election. The state election results are not verdicts on the Modi government in New Delhi. Instead, they are complex products of state-level party alliances, the clout of regional parties, local ethnic mixes and the appeal of individual candidates.
There’s an element of truth in this line of reasoning. But, two facts sap its persuasiveness. First, Modi is the BJP, willy nilly. Every state leader and candidate now seeks votes against the backdrop of larger-than-life cutouts of Modi. The prime minister campaigns directly in the state elections and, thereby, converts them into fragments of personal approval ratings. Second, if the results in the state elections were products of local factors, then there wouldn’t be a common thread running through them. In constituencies across these states, a broad trend unfolds – the BJP’s vote-share drops as the share of first-time voters increase. The youth now are manifestly less supportive of the BJP across these states.
A more fundamental reason for the youth alienation with the BJP lies in the Modi government’s unfulfilled promises and in the dashed hopes of the country’s youth.
A gulf between campaign promises and performance in office is all too common in politics, especially so in India, where electoral accountability is weakened by robust ethnic and patronage attachments that tether the voters to their leaders. But few gulfs are as immense or consequential as that of Modi’s that they may sever the customary bonds of ethnicity and patronage.
So, how wide is the current gulf? Disparaging the Congress government for its inability to create jobs, Modi had campaigned in 2014 with a promise to create 10 million jobs annually to eliminate youth unemployment if elected to power. With some 12 million youths entering the job market every year in a decelerating economy, that promise was bound to strike a chord. To the youth, Modi was the purposeful leader who could turn things around. Modi promised them ‘ache din’ (good times ahead).
Two years into his term, Modi is yet to deliver on that promise. In fact, according to the official data from the labour bureau, the Modi government has fallen far short of the promised 10 million new jobs: a mere 500,000 new jobs were created in 2014-15 and an even lower 91,000 in the first half of 2015-16. During this period, labour-intensive industries in the country – automobiles, looms and jewellery manufacturing – reported job losses, amounting to 43,000.
That leaves several millions of India’s youth without steady employment, seeking whatever temporary jobs they could find in the informal sector. This year’s economic survey suggests that most people (65%) live thus, with negligible job security or benefits and on salaries 20 times lower than those in the formal sector.
It may be true that the Modi administration’s policies – the Make-in-India campaign, skill development programmes and incentives for startups – need more time to bear fruit to enable more people to secure steady jobs, given the inevitable lag between policy implementation and actual outcomes. To gauge how these may pan out, consider this: in China, with sustained high growth between 1991 and 2005, the economy created about seven million jobs annually. In a rambunctious democracy such as India, where opposition parties, state governments and interest groups exhaust even well-meaning federal policies, the job numbers will likely be lower.
However few or many jobs really materialise in the future, they’re already past due for very many young Indians. This necessarily means that a large number of young people across the country who supported Modi in 2014 have had their hopes dashed. It’s difficult not to recognise the dashed hopes in the electoral reversals, the BJP suffered among the young voters, in the mid-term state elections. And the youth resentment is not limited to the electoral arena. The spate of mass street protests for job quotas in BJP-ruled states of Gujarat and Haryana resoundingly reverberate with youth angst.
Meanwhile, another 125 million young Indians are expected to come of voting and working age in another three years, when Modi seeks re-election. If anything, the political disaffection among this vital voting group then should galvanise the reform-minded prime minister to promptly deliver on his promises. Any other way would be catastrophic for both the country with its massive youth population and for its leaders.
Millions of young people with dashed hopes and unmet aspirations spell doom for any incumbent, especially for a leader who had promised them ache din.
Anoop Sadanandan is a social scientist and an assistant professor in the Maxwell School of Public Affairs in Syracuse University, New York.