‘Country is doing well’: Why jobless young Indians are still backing Modi

Polling shows inflation and a lack of jobs worry most young Indians. It also shows that support for Modi stays intact.

Supporters of National Democratic Alliance walk in a road show holding cutout photos of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as their candidates arrive to file nomination papers ahead of national elections in Mumbai, India, Monday, April 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
Supporters of Indian PM Narendra Modi during a road show in Mumbai on April 29, 2024 [Rafiq Maqbool/AP]

Patna, Bihar – Sanjeev Kumar is 27 and jobless – a desperate situation compounded by his car salesman father’s imminent retirement in a few years.

The business studies graduate from Patna, the capital of the eastern Indian state of Bihar, voted for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2019, hoping to land one of the millions of new jobs promised by the country’s governing party and its leader.

Kumar took two exams for jobs in so-called Group D positions in the Indian Railways. This job category is the lowest in the hierarchy of public sector employment in India, yet it comes with benefits and job security, both of which are attractive.

He did not pass either test and complains that far fewer jobs are advertised as up for grabs than the number actually available.

“Things are getting a little difficult now. My father will retire soon and there’s pressure on me to get a job. We are a middle-class family,” Kumar told Al Jazeera.

But none of that, Kumar added, will deter him from voting for Modi again in the ongoing Indian national election. Bihar, India’s third-most populous state with more than 100 million people, votes across the seven phases of the mammoth electoral process – the next phase is on May 7.

“We are not getting jobs, that’s true. But at least the country is doing well,” Kumar told Al Jazeera.

Unemployment in India
Patna resident Sanjeev Kumar has been unable to land a job for four years despite a degree in business management [Courtesy: Sanjeev Kumar]

Kumar’s political choice underscores a broader pattern that, on its surface can appear contradictory but that analysts say is critical to Modi’s success: The prime minister’s cult-like popularity appears untouched by many voters’ dissatisfaction over their economic situation.

A recent survey of 10,000 voters published by the New Delhi-based think tank, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and its subsidiary, Lokniti, found that inflation and a lack of jobs are the top concerns for Indian voters. Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of the respondents said that getting a job was harder than it was five years ago. Just 12 percent of those surveyed said getting a job was easier. The opinion on inflation was similar, with 71 percent of respondents saying there had been an increase in the price of essential commodities in the last five years.

Yet, the same survey also found that voter faith in Modi remained largely unshaken, with nearly two-thirds of those polled saying that they would vote for the BJP in the current election.

The reasons, say voters and analysts, are many – from perceptions of India’s rising global status under Modi and a belief among many that the current government is less corrupt than previous ones, to careful image management and a cocktail of religion-based politics.

‘Bettered India’s status’

Among the many promises that brought Modi to power in 2014, creating 20 million jobs every year was among the most prominent – and it resonated in a country where more than half of its 1.4 billion people are under the age of 30.

However, unemployment has touched new highs under his rule, even though India is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. The International Labour Organization and Institute for Human Development in a report this year said the country’s youth accounted for 83 percent of the country’s unemployed population – two-thirds of them having a secondary education degree or higher.

The government rejected the report, alleging an “inconsistency in data”.

However, Modi’s government last year itself acknowledged that nearly a million positions lay vacant in various government departments, with the highest – 290,000 – of those jobs in railways alone.

Still, as India votes, unemployment woes are not a powerful enough reason for  many young people in Bihar – the poorest among India’s large states – to vote against Modi.

“Modi has bettered India’s status at the international stage which will, in fact, help us get more jobs,” said Kumar. “I have heard that Tesla wants to invest in India because of the ease of doing business that Modi has facilitated in the country.”

In fact, Tesla chief Elon Musk put off a visit to India last week, even though he travelled to China.

What appeals to Kumar most, he said, are two things that Modi did in his second term – the construction of a temple for the Hindu god Ram in the city of Ayodhya and the abolition of the Muslim practice of “triple talaq” or divorce. Both issues figured prominently in the BJP’s election manifesto.

In January, Modi inaugurated the grand Ram temple, which was built at the site where the 16th-century Babri Mosque stood until a Hindu mob demolished it in 1992, claiming it to be the birthplace of Ram. A popular – and polarising – movement for the temple that started in the 1980s essentially catapulted the BJP into India’s political mainstream.

Similarly, Modi’s government passed a law in 2019 banning the “triple talaq” – a practice under which a Muslim man could divorce his wife by simply uttering “talaq” – the Arabic word for divorce – three times in one go, as opposed to the recommended utterance over a period of three months. Though the practice is rare among Indian Muslims, many in the community saw the ban as yet another assault on their fundamental rights to practice their religion freely.

Kumar views the ban differently. “People say that this government is against Muslims and the minorities, but he has helped Muslim women by ending the draconian practice of triple talaq,” Kumar told Al Jazeera.

What about the destruction of the Babri Mosque? “No one is stopping Muslims in the country from practising their faith. But, for example, if Muslim rulers in the past have demolished temples to build a mosque in its place, that needs to be corrected,” Kumar said. “He [Modi] has corrected a 500-year-old wrong committed against the Hindus.”

‘Modi’s guarantees’

Other unemployed youth in Bihar, whom Al Jazeera spoke to, cited the Modi government’s clean image compared with that of previous governments, its emphasis on a so-called “digital revolution” and India’s international status as reasons behind their support for Modi.

Like Kumar, Aman Gupta, also 27, is preparing for a government job but has not been able to secure one in five years. Still, he too believes only Modi can turn India into a global power.

“Internationally, the world is seeing India as an emerging superpower. As the largest democracy, we are pushing hard for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council in spite of China trying to block us. I heard that the UN even asked Modi to act as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia,” he said.

While there have been suggestions that India, with its close historical ties to Russia, could help negotiate an end to Moscow’s war on its neighbour, which it invaded in February 2022, New Delhi has largely preferred to stay on the sidelines of the conflict.

Unemployment in India
Aman Gupta outside a library in Patna where he prepares for a government job [Ishadrita Lahiri/Al Jazeera]

Within India too, Gupta said, Modi has earned his trust.

Gupta referred to the direct benefit transfers that the government provides through a slew of schemes to some of the most vulnerable in Indian society. “The people are getting cash in their bank accounts,” he said. “The government is also providing low-interest loans for the youth to start their own businesses.”

Neelanjan Sircar, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, said that while surveys such as the one conducted by the CSDS-Lokniti point to concerns over economic distress, the BJP’s branding of Modi has helped it skirt any major consequences.

“A large part of what the BJP does is thinking about how to centralise all political attribution on Modi,” he said. Its campaign promises are pitched as “Modi’s guarantees”.

“This is the strategy of a party where the leader is a cult figure and the party is the vehicle for the leader,” Sircar told Al Jazeera.

“Whether it’s economic distress or even issues like violence in [the northeastern state of] Manipur, Modi is not directly sullied. People may blame [the] other leaders of the BJP. In regional elections, as a consequence, [the] BJP might be voted out. But it is not anger against Modi,” he said.

More than 200 people have been killed in ethnic clashes in Manipur over the past year. Although the BJP governs Manipur, Modi has yet to visit the state since the violence broke out.

Chandrachur Singh, a professor of political science at Delhi University, said the opposition – a consortium of nearly two dozen parties – has not been able to rally people around economic distress despite raising it as a prominent election issue.

“The problem with the opposition is that it is a coming together of parties with divergent views whose only agenda seems to be to dislodge Modi. To the people, that doesn’t seem to be a good enough agenda,” he told Al Jazeera.

Singh said the fact that the opposition has not projected a “face” against Modi is also an issue. “[Congress Party leader] Rahul Gandhi is slowly emerging as that leader, but in terms of perception, he is still far behind Modi,” he said.

Back in Patna, Kumar and Gupta agree.

“It’s also about who else we can vote for,” said Kumar. “Rahul Gandhi is OK as a leader of a political party, but I don’t see him leading the nation. He does not possess the same leadership skills as Modi.”

Gupta said he did not believe the opposition had the capacity to fulfil their promises on employment and economy. “The opposition’s only agenda is to destroy the BJP. Everything else seems secondary.”

Source: Al Jazeera