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Home / Columns / Chanakya: Do jobs matter in Indian elections?

Chanakya: Do jobs matter in Indian elections?

Parties and voters had an uneasy arrangement where job creation was not the key basis of political choices. Is Bihar changing that?

columns Updated: Oct 31, 2020, 22:03 IST
Hindustan Times
Voters are sending a message that it is time to go beyond the basic welfare kitty or the business-as-usual identity battles now. Whether this marks a temporary shift or a deeper rupture in the relationship between political and economic performance will have to be seen.
Voters are sending a message that it is time to go beyond the basic welfare kitty or the business-as-usual identity battles now. Whether this marks a temporary shift or a deeper rupture in the relationship between political and economic performance will have to be seen. (ANI)

There is a puzzle that has stayed unresolved in Indian political analysis, especially electoral studies. To put it simply, here is the question — what is the correlation between a political party’s track record and promise on economic management, particularly employment generation, and its electoral performance?

This question has got even more urgent in recent years, for the disjunct between the two indicators is quite apparent, especially at the national level. Remember the 2019 elections. It was clear, even then, almost a year before the pandemic struck, that the economy was slowing down. Demonetisation and the rollout of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) had hurt smaller firms and the informal sector severely; private investment was down; hopes that manufacturing would increase under Make in India, leading to more jobs, hadn’t really materialised; and demand had dipped. Politically, however, the dispensation that presided over the period which saw this dip in economic indicators returned to power — with an even bigger majority, underlining that at the polling booth, there are a range of complex motivations and variables that come into play.

And that is why Tejashwi Yadav’s promise of a million jobs — notably government jobs, which remain the most attractive option for a majority of the working force because of the security of tenure and social status — if elected to power in Bihar, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s promise of 1.9 million jobs, is an interesting moment in Indian politics. Does this mean that we are, finally, seeing the beginning of an overlap between the political discourse and economic realities? Or is that too premature a conclusion?

The answer to that question actually lies in examining why parties struggle to articulate the jobs question and how they have articulated economic issues in elections, and what really motivates voters.

Think about parties first. Across the political spectrum, there is a recognition that finding jobs — and good jobs with respectable wages and a degree of security of employment — is India’s biggest challenge. But this is almost always accompanied by a fatalistic recognition that finding those jobs is going to be very hard, even if no party admits it publicly.

The limits of India’s services-led growth have been clear to policymakers for close to two decades. While the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government banked substantially on infrastructure to create jobs, both the Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi governments recognised that manufacturing was the only way to generate mass employment. But this is difficult to achieve, for a range of factors — a challenging regulatory environment, unpredictable policies, absence of land and labour reforms, local networks of corruption, global economic chains, among others. And therefore, while the rhetoric is centred around manufacturing-led employment, there is a realisation that this won’t happen soon.

Politically, therefore, parties adopt a range of techniques to neutralise the criticism over the inability to generate jobs. The United Progressive Alliance government banked on welfare schemes — particularly the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme — to provide a safety valve. The Modi government banked on its own boutique of welfare schemes — rural housing, toilet construction, distribution of gas cylinders, opening of bank accounts, direct income transfer to farmers — to offset the criticism on its economic record. In states such as Bihar, Nitish Kumar banked on the improvement in law and order and infrastructure — and rightly claimed these were prerequisites to industrialise — to win polls in the past, except that the promised industrialisation never happened.

The other strategy used by parties is a return to classic Indian-style emphasis on group identities. In the task of democratic mobilisation, it is tempting to rally voters based on identities which are a lived reality for them, such as religion or caste; it is also easier to do so when these identities are either deeply entrenched and ranged against other identities (for instance, the Hindu-Muslim fault line) or are the basis of political marginalisation and upward mobility (for instance, the case of Dalit and Other Backward Classes upsurge) or of new resentments (for instance, the upper caste angst over reservations). Even progressive parties then don’t invest in forging solidarities on economic questions on class lines. The fear that not delivering on jobs can cost elections dissipates. And the calculation that the voter will not only vote on the basis of material conditions but on other emotive factors enables this strategy to succeed.

Is this calculation correct or misplaced? For this, turn to voters.

The most remarkable insight Chanakya got into voter psychology in the 2019 elections was during encounters with a Dalit family with Unnao and a group of young men playing cards in the middle of the day in Mirzapur — both in Uttar Pradesh. In both cases, despite growing distress, and lack of opportunities, voters were unwilling to blame the government. Instead, they attributed it to their own shortcomings, or in some cases, to the whims of private sector employers. This is not to suggest that unemployment has not been a big issue for voters, but to suggest that there hasn’t been a neat causal link in the minds of voters between a government’s record and their individual economic prospects.

This can either be read as a rationalisation to support a leader who strikes an emotional chord, or a willingness to see the complex challenge at hand for any regime, or the ability to go beyond one’s immediate economic interest in shaping political choices, or the lack of belief that any other dispensation can really resolve the crisis of joblessness either, or all of these factors.

There is also both a more parochial as well as a deeper, idealistic calling that appears to motivate voters. At the more insular level, tribal passions — driven by caste solidarity or antagonism, religious faith or conflict, local alliances and resentments — play a part. This gets intensified because access to state services is often easier when public representatives from your community enjoy power. At the deeper level, ideas such as nationalism drive choices — and irrespective of one’s view on the dominant idea of nationalism at the moment, for many, this is a higher ideal even beyond self-interest.

This, then, brings us back to the jobs question and what has changed. It is not just the absence of employment generation, but the fact that job losses have intensified to an unprecedented degree that is shifting the discourse. The link between government policies and economic harm is becoming clear. In Bihar, in particular, migrants and their families have felt the pain of dislocation. Voters appear to be sending a message that it is time to go beyond the basic welfare kitty or the business-as-usual identity battles now. Whether this marks a temporary shift or a deeper rupture in the relationship between political and economic performance will have to be seen.

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