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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion | All said, eventually it will still be the economy, stupid

If even half the youth entering the workforce are disgruntled five years on, BJP’s fortunes could turn

All the post-election commentary seems to suggest that Narendra Modi is some political unicorn, who defies the standard link between economic and political success. With the economy growing at a sluggish 6.6%, joblessness at an all-time high, and declining farm incomes, it was unimaginable to the pundits that an incumbent could maintain his popularity. Yet the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the National Democratic Alliance have not just won, but bettered their 2014 performance. Political analysts are scratching their heads and economists are nervous; with this electoral mandate Narendra Modi will not bother with economic development.

But that would be a mistake for three reasons.

The first, is the youth vote. Two-thirds of India is below the age of 35 and, in this election, there were 15-16 million first-time eligible voters (18-19 years of age). About 84 million young people became eligible to vote in a general election for the first time since the 2014 polls. States where the share of younger voters is greater than the national average also saw an increase in voter turnout. And, surveys seem to suggest that Modi is particularly popular among the youth.

These young voters are not yet disillusioned with politics or cynical because they have not yet experienced serious political disappointment—a privilege of the middle-aged and the elderly in India. They are entering the work force full of hope, looking for strong leadership to fulfil their aspirations. But one in five young urban men and one in four young urban women cannot find a job. With declining agricultural incomes, about 6-7 million leave the farm sector in search of employment in other areas each year. Add to this the 12-13 million young Indians joining the work force annually, and India needs to create 20 million jobs every year for the next five years. Without that, the next election will have 80-100 million young and unemployed voters, mostly disgruntled and angry.

This election seems to have been entirely about Modi’s leadership, which means, that when young voters are disillusioned, they will squarely blame the Prime Minister. A 5-7 year job struggle could disenchant anyone, especially today’s youth who are not patient like their grandparents’ generation, which was used to low growth.

Second, the “liberal" wing of the punditry has all but declared the end of Indian secularism and economic reform. They are convinced that the situation is hopeless, and India is full of hateful bigots who are so unidimensional that they don’t care for their economic circumstances. But the numbers don’t seem to show a country full of bigots. Of the 900 million eligible voters, 67.11% turned up to vote, the highest in recent times. Of these 600 million voters, BJP’s vote share was 37.4%, or approximately 225 million voters, (this is the vote share across the country and includes constituencies the BJP chose not to contest). This is not to take away from Modi’s landslide win; the electoral math of voter turnouts and vote shares always makes “majorities" seem weaker, no matter which party wins. The point here is, the number of individuals actually voting will matter if jobs become a major issue.

In a country of 1.35 billion, only 225 million voted for Modi’s party, either because they were not yet eligible to vote, or apathetic, or explicitly voted for someone other than Modi. And it is unlikely that all 225 million voted for BJP’s hindutva agenda. Some were impressed by Modi’s leadership, while others have benefitted from the various targeted schemes on electricity, LPG, toilets, etc. In five years, if even half the youth entering the workforce (40-50 million) are disgruntled, the electoral math for the ruling party could change dramatically.

So, it would be very naïve to assume that economic circumstances do not matter to Indians. The “Hindu wave" is strictly limited to a fraction of Indians, who voted loyally for BJP despite their economic circumstances getting weaker. For all others, economic circumstances matter a lot. Today’s apathetic Indians may become tomorrow’s disgruntled voters. And the 375 million who didn’t vote for Modi this election need a lot more persuasion through economic development and social tolerance. Even “Hindu wave" loyalists may not remain too loyal if their lot does not improve.

The third reason, unlike the first two, is a carrot and not a stick. Modi is poised to make a mark in the history books and he is aware of it. But, history is not kind to leaders who bring economic doom. Seventy-five million Indians still live in extreme poverty (earning less than $1.90 a day) and about a third of all citizens—450 million—live under the $3.20-a-day poverty threshold used for “lower middle income" countries like India. With reforms and sustained economic growth, this group is poised to enter the middle class. But without it, they are vulnerable to economic stress that could push them back into poverty. P.V. Narasimha Rao, hardly a beloved leader of the masses, is a hero in the history books for ushering in economic growth through the 1991 reforms, which has since lifted 170 million out of poverty. Modi has an even greater opportunity to affect the lives of hundreds of millions more; and he will be deified if he pushes Indians into prosperity.

In the long run, it is always economic circumstances that determine individual and collective destiny. Our Prime Minister would do well to remember this and ignore the current commentary on his leadership being bulletproof to economics.

Shruti Rajagopalan is assistant professor of economics at Purchase College, State University of New York

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