Aakar Patel | Why are voters not bothered about economy, absence of jobs?

The curious thing is that the economy does not appear to be a relevant subject in India’s political debate

Another Union Budget has come and gone and for a couple of days we have seen and read what people have to say about the economy. Much of this is limited to two things. The first is about the government’s taxing and spending and its deficits. And the second on what sops and subsidies have been given. This is of course what the Budget is for and it is what is expected. The curious thing is that the economy does not appear to be a relevant subject in India’s political debate. It is not a part of the electoral debate.

We can go a step further and say that a lack of economic performance and inability to deliver growth does not seem to harm the ruling party. This is not a new phenomenon and we can observe that for decades we had low economic growth, what used to be called the “Hindu rate of growth” under Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, of about three per cent. Despite this, they and their parties remained popular and remained in office.

A related phenomenon is about jobs. India has, according to the government’s own data, the lowest labour participation rate in South Asia and one of the lowest in the world. This refers to those people over 15 who are working or are looking for work. In the United States, this rate is 60 per cent, in Thailand around 70 per cent and in China and Vietnam around 75 per cent. In India it is 40 per cent, lower than Pakistan and even Afghanistan. The theory is that people have stopped looking for jobs because they are impossible to find. MNREGA is today four times the size that it was in 2004 and yet demand for it is unmet because the government has no money.

Though fewer people are in the labour market, the number of the unemployed (those who are looking for work but cannot find it) had reached a record of six per cent in 2018 according to the government, and has not fallen below this rate since.

This problem of jobs has gone along with the softening of the economy. Once again, we only need to see the government’s own data here too. GDP growth began to decline from January 2018 and fell sequentially for two years and three months before the Covid-19 pandemic. And then the pandemic produced a recession. This year’s high growth rate will only take us back to where we were two years ago.

Taken together, we can see that India’s economy and its capacity to give its people work has been in trouble for a long time. But this is not a part of our political debate and there is no pressure on the ruling party to defend its record on this front. It also appears that it is not easy for the Opposition to mobilise people around these two issues of economic failure and mass unemployment.

The mobilisation that has happened on this was spontaneous, such as the Patidar andolan for jobs a few years ago and what is currently happening with railway recruitment in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

The Opposition parties want to take the debate away from the Hindu-Muslim and communal polarisation issues and other such things towards the economy and jobs, but it is not able to. The question is why. One answer could be, as Ravish Kumar the news anchor has suggested, that the media chooses not to cover all these issues. He has said that if the media would focus on jobs for two weeks in a row, the government would give in to the demands of those on the street.

Perhaps this is so. But in today’s era, with the social media, one does not really require the mainstream media to the extent that one did 15 years ago and so it is unlikely that this is being kept suppressed by a lack of attention from the media.

The answer to the question appears to lie in something deeper. It seems that broad issues such as the economy’s health and competent management and the ability of the government to create an environment where jobs are available are not of particular concern to us as voters. If these are important, they are less so than other things, like more temples and stopping young women wearing hijab from entering college as we are doing of late in Karnataka, and more statues.

When some of us who are directly affected by this economic crisis are mobilised, as happened under Hardik Patel in Gujarat or as is now happening for the railway recruitment, then there is some activity on the ground. But for the most part our popular politics appears to exclude issues that are crucial in many other democracies, especially those of the West. Things that make or break leaders and political parties and which are the constant subject of daily debate and concern do not seem to be of importance in our India.

We can reflect on what that means about us as voters and us as a nation, and also, if this continues, where we will find ourselves as we enter the “Amrit Kaal” of our democracy.

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