Members of the National Students Union of India, a wing of the opposition Congress party, take part in a rally against the rise in lawlessness and unemployment under the Modi government in New Delhi last August. Photo: Sajjad Hussain / AFP

India’s 900 million voters will choose a new prime minister and a new government at one million polling stations across the country in the April-May 2019 national elections.

With the unemployment crisis at its peak, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bid for another term in office looks uncertain. Interestingly, 85 million new voters (most of them job-seeking graduates) will exercise their democratic rights for the first time in this election. But young India feels betrayed as Modi’s promise before the 2014 election to create jobs for young people has not been fulfilled – the unemployment rate is at a 45-year high.

About 24 million first-time voters who participated in the 2014 election feel betrayed by the federal government because it failed to deliver jobs. Almost 11 million Indians lost their jobs during 2018, according to a report from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). According to the CMIE, the number of employed recorded in December 2018 was 397 million, which is 10.9 million less than the 407.9 million seen at the end of December 2017. There were an estimated 9.1 million jobs lost in rural India while 1.8 million were lost in urban India. Rural India accounts for two-thirds of the country’s population, but it incurred 84% of the job losses.

The most difficult challenge for Modi will be securing the support of the rural youth population and women. About 6.5 million rural women lost their jobs in 2018 alone. This situation happened because of the prime minister’s demonetization policy, which was a failure of epic proportions.

The most difficult challenge for Modi will be securing the support of the rural youth population and women

Around 3.5 million jobs could have been lost in that period, but the labor force was reduced by 15 million. This implies that young people who were unemployed just before demonetization was implemented stopped searching for jobs and the labor force shrank. India’s unemployment rate shot up to 7.4% in December 2018. This is the highest youth unemployment rate in the last 15 months. The rate has increased sharply from 6.6% in November last year with no net job creation during 2018 in the formal sector.

During 2017, only 1.8 million jobs were created but that is only 12% of the net addition to the pool of job seekers, and a mere 7% of the annual job creation figure of 25 million promised by Modi, and for 2016 the corresponding figure was 1.4 million. The CMIE’s dataset reflects an average job growth rate of 1.9% between 2014 and 2018, which is lower than the average for the decade before 2014.

According to an article in The India Forum, nearly one in five young people are unemployed and approximately 15 million young people are entering the job market every year. At an average of 2.51% for 2014–17, agricultural growth has been much lower under the Modi government compared to the previous decade (2004-17) when growth averaged 3.7%, or the decade before (1994-2004) when the average was 2.88%. The unemployment problem was amplified by the agrarian crisis in rural areas, creating serious hardship for millions of families. Many of those people may want a new prime minister who can address the unemployment problem.

The main issue for young people is jobs. Although Modi successfully uses nationalistic slogans to generate support among young people, he may find this his failure to create jobs turns them against him.

It seems unlikely that parents of unemployed young people, first-time voters, students and women will vote for Modi. These people are feeling the effects of the 7.2% unemployment rate, the highest in the last 45 years, and they want change.

The country’s 85 million first-time voters are going to play a crucial role in the formation of the next government of India in May.

Sachi Satapathy

Sachi Satapathy is an international development practitioner who has worked on large-scale projects. His interests are in public policy, poverty alleviation and public-private partnerships for development in middle-income and developing countries.

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