Chandrashekhar Panchal, a 21-year-old graduate in humanities, is among the hundreds of young jobseekers waiting in the cold outside a brick-and-glass building in Meerut, an industrial city in India’s largest state Uttar Pradesh.
There they will sit a four-hour exam for mid-level civil service jobs such as clerks in the tax department. At the end of a lengthy nationwide recruitment process, about 7,000 applicants will be hired from the more than 2mn who applied — odds that one jobseeker compared to “winning the lottery”.
Panchal is a longtime supporter of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party, which is up for re-election this month in Uttar Pradesh. But Panchal is so frustrated by his predicament that he is leaning towards the BJP’s main local rival, the socialist Samajwadi party, which says it will create millions of jobs in the area.
“Unemployment is my main concern. Giving us jobs is not a priority for this government,” he said.
Panchal’s mixed loyalties expose the economic challenges facing the BJP as it prepares for a series of five vital state elections from coastal Goa to Himalayan Uttarakhand. Most important is Uttar Pradesh, a state of 200mn that is both the heartland of the BJP’s Hindu nationalist ideology and among India’s poorest.
Political analysts said the elections, which will take place in the shadow of the devastating impact of the pandemic on job creation for low- and middle-income Indians, could define the remainder of Modi’s term as prime minister. Defending its hold on India’s largest state would put the party in a strong position ahead of general elections in 2024, they said, while disappointment would make it look vulnerable.
“If the BJP wins UP, efforts for opposition unity will fizzle out” ahead of 2024, said Sanjay Kumar, political analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi. But a poor showing will “add to the narrative that the BJP can be defeated”.
The BJP under Modi’s charismatic leadership is a potent electoral force, combining a pro-development message with divisive Hindu majoritarian policies. It is led in Uttar Pradesh by Yogi Adityanath, a hardline Hindu monk who touts flagship infrastructure investment and a tough law-and-order stance while using sectarian rhetoric to target the state’s 19 per cent Muslim minority.
Hundreds of millions of voters will cast their ballots over several weeks starting on Thursday. While analysts said factors from religion to caste would drive voting, the economic strain and scars after the severe Covid wave posed one of the biggest threats to the BJP.
India suffered a 7.3 per cent economic contraction in the first year of the pandemic, with tens of millions of people falling out of the middle class and into poverty. The economy has rebounded since, with India expected to become the world’s fastest-growing large country this year.
But economists warned that the enormous informal sector, on which most low-income Indians depend, risked being left behind. India’s unemployment rate has hovered around 7 per cent in recent months, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, rising to more than 25 per cent among young people.
“When a youth is unemployed it affects the entire family,” said Vikas Kumar Veer, a jobless 22-year-old waiting outside the exam centre in Meerut. “In every family, there are some people who are unemployed. They will all think before casting their ballot.”
Last month, frustration at the lack of jobs erupted into days of protests in Uttar Pradesh and neighbouring Bihar, where students unhappy at the selection process for jobs in government-run railways set fire to trains.
“If you see the sheer number of people that applied for a small number of jobs, that just shows the scale of the unemployment problem,” said Ashwini Deshpande, an economist at Ashoka University.
“There’s a great deal of economic distress. How much of that will translate into a grievance against the ruling party, that’s harder to comment on,” she said, adding that religious polarisation had increased with economic hardship.
In Modi’s annual budget unveiled this month, the government said it would boost investment by a third to fund large-scale infrastructure projects as it tries to stimulate job creation. But it surprised many analysts by cutting back welfare spending despite the upcoming elections.
The BJP recently faced a setback after several pro-market agricultural reforms sparked more than a year of protests from farmers, including many in UP, forcing the government to retract them.
But in its pitch to voters, the BJP has highlighted how it has built highways as well as temples and other projects of religious significance. It has used polarising rhetoric to mobilise voters, with Adityanath portraying the polls as a contest between patriotic Hindus and people who “love Pakistan”.
Rohit Tanwar, a 26-year-old BJP worker in the Uttar Pradesh village of Jewar Khadar, argued that essentials such as electricity supply, affordable housing and food subsidies had all become more widely available under Adityanath. “Yogi and Modi saved us during the pandemic,” he said.
But Veer, the jobless graduate in Meerut, was less optimistic: “No country can progress if its youth are disaffected and have no jobs.”