Here’s an astonishingly large number. Around 900 million Indians are heading to the polls to decide if they want to reelect the current government of Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
India Tomorrow is a seven-part podcast series by The Anthill (produced by The Conversation UK), exploring some of the major issues facing India – identity politics, the rise of Hindu nationalism, Kashmir, the role of caste and gender in shaping Indian society, and how women and young people experience these phenomena.
Part one, an episode on India’s information wars and how fake news fuels violence, launched on April 9. You can sign up to The Anthill newsletter to stay up to date and send questions via email@example.com or via Twitter @AnthillPod. The producers will be putting your questions to academics.
Today on Trust Me, I’m An Expert, we’re hearing from an academic featured on India Tomorrow. Craig Jeffrey is the director and CEO of the Australia India Institute and Professor of Development Geography at the University of Melbourne.
He explains what issues are front of mind for India’s millions of first-time voters delivering their verdict on the performance of the BJP government, led by Narendra Modi.
“Two things are really crucial. One is jobs. Young people across India and particularly in parts of India where the economy’s been less successful at creating jobs - so some of the northern states, for example, are going to be really concerned with the capacity of the government to provide better employment opportunities,” Professor Jeffrey told The Conversation’s editorial intern Bageshri Savyasachi.
“The second issue, I think, that they’ll be very concerned about is education. So they’ll be looking to see which political parties and politicians are promising to improve higher education […] Because for a lot of young people who aren’t part of the elite in India, there is a mismatch, often, between the educational opportunities they obtain in school or university and then the employment markets and the demands of key private sector firms.”
“A third area that’s perhaps less obvious is the issue of health care and public health. And my own observations, as an anthropologist and human geographer working in mainly Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand over the past 25 years on social change, is that young people are often demanding access to health services that are poorly provisioned in provincial India, particularly in relation to issues like sexual health, mental health, reproductive health and that’s an area where I think young people are looking to government for more action.”
Join us as Professor Jeffrey explains what implications this enormous election will have for the world’s second most populous nation, and for the rest of the globe as well.
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Craig Jeffrey: Those numbers are astonishing, aren’t they? And it’s very difficult, I think, for pundits to predict what precisely they’ll do in terms of the elections. What’s slightly easier to say, though, I think, is what’s in the minds of those voters. And I think two things are really crucial, one is jobs. So young people across India and particularly in parts of India where the economy’s been less successful at creating jobs - so some of the northern states, for example - are going to be really concerned with the capacity of the government to provide better employment opportunities. The second issue, I think, that they’ll be very concerned about is education. So they’ll be looking to see which political parties and politicians are promising to improve higher education, tertiary education more generally, the skills environment and school education. Because for a lot of young people who aren’t part of the elite in India, there is a mismatch, often, between the educational opportunities they obtain in school or university and then the employment market and the demands of key private sector firms.
So I think jobs and education are going to be at the top of young people’s minds as they go into the polling booths. What are parties and politicians promising in those areas?
A third area that’s perhaps less obvious is the issue of health care and public health. And my own observations, as an anthropologist and human geographer working in mainly Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand over the past 25 years on social change, is that young people are often demanding access to health services that are poorly provisioned in provincial India particularly in relation to issues like sexual health, mental health, reproductive health and that’s an area where I think young people are looking to government for more action. And I think that will also be in young people’s minds in the lead up to the elections.
Bageshri Savyasachi: What jobs are available to young people and do they want to do those jobs?
Craig Jeffrey: Well, I think one of the stories of Indian economic growth since 1990 is its failure to create a large number of what might be regarded as white collar or middle class jobs for the increasing numbers of young people who are getting high school matriculation certificates or degrees in India. Now, India’s not especially unusual in that regard. Particularly since the global financial crisis in the late 2000s, economies around the world have often found it difficult to create secure employment opportunities for people. Of course, automation, mechanisation is changing the nature of work throughout the world. So this isn’t specific to India but India is an almost very condensed or intense example of the failure of economic growth to create lots of good quality jobs, that long predates 2014 and the coming to power of the BJP. It’s a structural feature of the Indian economy since 1990 and especially since the mid-2000s period.
So to get to your question of what jobs actually exist, in many cases what we’re seeing in India is people having to realign their expectations of what work they’re going to do in that five to 10 year period after they graduate from high school or university. This is not new. Ronald Dore wrote in his book The Diploma Disease in 1970 that India was the country of the BA bus conductor. So that sense of having to downplay your expectations in light of circumstances is quite old in India. But now, I would argue, that a lot of people with bachelors degrees in India would be very keen to have a job on state roadways as a bus conductor, so intense and cut-throat has the employment market become. So you’re seeing people with masters degrees, with PhDs having to do very small scale entrepreneurial business work, you’re seeing them especially having to go back into agriculture – not as large-scale agricultural innovators making large amounts of money and employing other people but rather working on quite small plots of land in an environment where they didn’t imagine that they would go back into farming. So one of the alarming statistics, I think, is that while in most of the period between 2000 and 2010 the number of young people in agriculture was declining, as you would expect in a country that’s undergoing a structural transformation from agriculture into manufacturing and services, in the 2010s and particularly since 2014 there has been an increase in young people in agriculture. Now that is quite worrying for India and reflects the point that jobs in the modern economy are not becoming available quickly enough, young people are not finding the infrastructural and institutional environment conducive to moving into successful medium-scale entrepreneurship where they employ other people and find an outlet for their talents.
Bageshri Savyasachi: How crucial has mobilising young people been to the electoral successes of the ruling party, the BJP?
Craig Jeffrey: That’s an easy question to answer because of the demographic structure of India and the figures for voting in 2014 in particular show that of course the BJP has been very successful at mobilising people generally in India to vote for them and that includes young people. It’s done so through making a series of important statements about its approach to social and economic change. And it has done so also through tapping into, I think, a sense of national identity that’s important to young people. So the BJP has been pretty successful. Not just the BJP but also various organisations connected to the party at the grassroots level.
Bageshri Savyasachi: Is young people’s support for Modi on the wane? A lot of young people supported him when he was first running for prime minister but now a lot of young people are feeling disappointed. What do you think?
Craig Jeffrey: I should do that classic academic thing of saying that I’m not an expert on the contemporary views of young people in India. Where I’ve done most of my research has been in particular pockets of India, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand and the bulk of that research was done in the period between 1995 and 2010. Since 2010, my work has been mainly in a village in quite a remote part of Uttarakhand, in Chamoli district, and I’ve written quite a lot about the social and political attitudes of young people in that village. Now, those are quite particular to one part of India. Like you and like lots of people, I read the newspapers, I talk to friends in different parts of India, I try to pick up on the streets a sense of the mood. But in that regard, I’m an armchair or amateur interpreter of young people’s political views at the moment.
With those caveats in mind, my sense is that young people may not support Modi as much as they did five years ago but that doesn’t mean that they won’t vote for him. So one needs to maybe distinguish between support and how people will actually behave in the ballot booth. I think lots of people that I speak to recognise that given the high pitch to which Modi raised people’s aspirations in 2014 there was always going to be a sense of disappointment, that skilling hundreds of millions of people quickly was going to be a very tough ask. And that the vision of New India, while attractive in certain respects, is not borne out in social reality for those outside of the elite and particularly in provincial parts of India, in small town and rural India. So people see on the social and economic side a kind of mismatch between promise and actuality. And I think that’s undermined a certain enthusiasm for the ruling BJP government. I’m really not in a position to be able to adjudicate on the extent to which people have sort of fallen out of love with a particular vision of the nation as primarily Hindu or driven by a Hindu civilisational push. That’s, I think, more difficult to ascertain. It’s tricky. The question, I suppose, is: is 2019 to be like 2004, where there was a bit of a surprise that actually the Indian population, including the young population, did move away from the BJP? And it was partly because they didn’t feel that they were sharing in the social gains associated with economic growth. And it was partly, as you just observed, that some of the aspects of the sort of rhetoric of Hindu nationalism were not anymore particularly attractive. So it is possible that the same kind of cocktail will still exist in 2019, of sort of a sense of social and economic exclusion and a sense of being a little bit tired of the same message coming out from the government. But it’s very very difficult to tell. As I said, one has to distinguish between support and enthusiasm on the one hand and the actual decision to vote on the other. Because one thing you see again and again in elections in India is people putting their votes in for politicians or parties that they don’t actually very much like but they feel like they ought to. Ultimately, it’s the least bad choice that they want to make, which is of course it’s not distinctly Indian, it’s an aspect of how people vote across the world.
Bageshri Savyasachi: We’ll just have to wait and watch. What is the state of youth unemployment in India? My impression is that for young people, it’s hard to get a job if you don’t have a masters or a bachelor’s degree. And even then you may not get a job in your chosen field.
Craig Jeffrey: Oh, that’s absolutely right. The recent NSSO figures show that youth unemployment in India is something around 16 or 17%. Now those figures are contested but my view is that they are fairly robust. And, of course, beyond that problem of outright unemployment, there’s a very large problem of underemployment where people are working in part-time insecure work that doesn’t reflect their skills, ambitions and credentials. So both outright unemployment and underemployment are becoming increasing problems in India. In 2010, I wrote a book called Timepass which drew attention to this problem based on fieldwork work in Western Uttar Pradesh. I talked about the emergence of a generation of young people who described themselves as people with nothing to do. Who were doing nothing but also in some sense saw themselves as being nothing. A very intense form of social suffering associated with a prolonged period of unemployment or underemployment.
When I talk to young people in the same area now they say that actually that book is more relevant in 2019 than it was in 2010. Someone told me when I visited India two weeks ago “I felt like it had been written yesterday” and this reflects the way this problem of unemployment and underemployment to young people has intensified over the past nine years rather than dissipated.
Bageshri Savyasachi: In her recent book, Dreamers: how young Indians are changing the world, the prominent Indian journalist Snigdha Poonam writes, “the world’s future depends on young Indians meeting their aspirations but it’s a pipe dream at this point”. How big of a problem is this disconnect between young Indians’ aspirations and their reality?
Craig Jeffrey: Well, I think it’s a huge problem and I think that the book Dreamers is very successful in setting that out. It’s worth again going back to the point about demographics. One in eight people in the world is an Indian under the age of 30. It’s worth repeating that: one in eight people in the world is an Indian young person, someone under the age of 30. Now, that’s an extraordinary statistic and it gives a sense of the importance of that demographic for the future of Asia and of the world. Now unlike the same generation 25 years ago, that set of young people are very well aware of events in other parts of the world which are streamed to them via their mobile phones or on the internet. They are increasingly in secondary school, including young women, and in school they’re learning to obviously dream big. And the government is also encouraging those young people to see themselves as part of a new India that’s modern, in which people are based often in urban areas doing what historically has been described as sort of middle class work, service work. And now where you’ve got that situation of both demographic growth and the rapid sort of revolution of rising aspirations, you need an outlet for young people so that they feel as they move into their 20s and 30s that they’re achieving the goals that they desire. And that’s not happening. And the question then is, how much of a problem is that? Well, obviously for the young people concerned it’s a big problem for their families. Young people are not passive in that situation, they actively and creatively seek ways to make do. That may be entering into fallback work in agriculture. It may be finding jobs that perhaps they weren’t aspiring to originally but which provide a means for establishing a family and getting by, in areas like sales and marketing. But there is also a lot of just disappointment, I think, and a sense of stuckedness and limbo that, again, I wrote about in detail in my book Timepass. What’s surprising, perhaps, is that that sense of social suffering hasn’t led to more unrest in India and I think there are several reasons for that. I think partly because India is a democracy people have an outlet for frustration through the political system, through voting, through demonstrating on the streets. I think a second reason why there hasn’t been more political mobilisation is that people often perceive this as a personal failure rather than a failure of government or of society or as a structural failure, as social scientists would put it. They see it as “Well, I didn’t try hard enough” or “I wasn’t successful enough in that examination”. So it’s quite a lot of this failure I think often is personalised rather than seen as a reflection of the structural features of the Indian economy and the wider institutional environment in which people may be trying to start businesses. There’s a whole history of commentators on India talking about the country as being poised to sort of fall into unrest. I’m not going to do that. I think India, it holds together and as I said people are, young people are actively finding ways to make do. But I do think it’s a major social issue at the moment, the lack of capacity for young people to realise their aspirations and it should be and will remain an absolutely critical issue for government in India.
Bageshri Savyasachi: How has national politics played out in Indian universities under Modi?
Craig Jeffrey: Well, the information that leaks out on this issue tends to come from a small number of the very well-known universities in India. So universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University, Hyderabad University, Delhi University and that there has been, over the past few years as you’ll be well aware, a series of controversies over the government’s treatment of student protesters in those universities and of the ideological, the role of government in shaping how universities operate ideologically through, for example, the appointment of particular vice-chancellors with particular views on politics that then shape those institutions. Now, that’s a very important debate and it’s one that people can follow through a whole series of articles in magazines and newspapers in India. What interests me more is what’s happening outside of those well known central universities. What is happening actually in universities like the one that I worked in quite a bit 15 years ago. Chaudhary Charan Singh University which is the sixth largest university in the world if one excludes universities that provide distance education. And is actually, according to some sources, the second largest university in India after Indira Gandhi National Open University, which of course is largely a distance university, distance education university. So what’s happening in those big state universities that are affiliating other colleges. And that’s an area which desperately requires consideration. I think it would repay close social research. You’re seeing the emergence of different types of student politics to that which existed 15 years ago and some of those forms of student politics are linked to a Hindu nationalist agenda. Some are not. There’s a great deal of foment in those sort of more provincial universities that operates under the radar on which commentators and social scientists know very little about but which is really important in terms of shaping the environment in which the vast majority of students in India study, which is in colleges, not actually in universities. It’s in colleges affiliated to universities like Chaudhary Charan Singh University. I’d be really interested in hearing from anyone who’s listening to this podcast about their views or experiences of the curricular, of student action in India’s colleges where most people study.
Bageshri Savyasachi: Do you think there is a growing shift towards illiberalism among India’s youth?
Craig Jeffrey: Well, I think that’s a really interesting question. First, one has to think about, well, what is liberalism? And if we define that relatively narrowly in terms of a commitment to formal equality and individual freedoms then I think there’s evidence both ways. There’s evidence of young people contesting those visions of formal equality and individual freedom, for example through their views on areas like sexuality. So there was a recent Centre for the Study of Developing Societies survey that showed that the majority of young Indians didn’t approve of homosexuality. So there’s some evidence there of a certain kind of “illiberalism”. There’s evidence of young people’s involvement in societies or organisations that are policing people’s right to eat certain foods, again which would suggest the rise of a certain form of illiberalism. But there’s also of course a great deal of evidence the other way, that young people are very active in nongovernmental organisations that are seeking to protect people’s formal equality, protect people’s freedoms. The number of youth NGOs in India is growing very, very quickly. There’s also, I think, a very interesting debate about the relationship between the individual and liberalism in India. So an argument that’s been made by several people is that actually liberalism in India is organised around a sense of group rights rather than around individual rights. So it’s perfectly possible to be part of a caste organisation or a religious organisation that’s about equality and freedom but nevertheless is articulating those notions of equality and freedom through reference to caste and religion. So that would be an argument that I think lots of Hindu nationalists would make, is that even though Hindus are the majority and even though that they’re making an argument in Hindu terms, it’s an argument about tolerance and about liberalism rather than about violence or exclusion or limiting people’s freedoms. So it’s a very complicated question. There’s evidence both ways. There’s also a tangled set of debates about whether you could have a kind of liberalism based on a sense of group rights and whether so-called Western visions of liberalism can really be applied to a place like India, where notions of religion and caste and family are so strong. That might be a more detailed answer than you wanted but it’s one that really interests, this is a question that really interests me.
Bageshri Savyasachi: What do young people think now in 2019 that their parents or grandparents may not have thought at the same age?
Craig Jeffrey: Well, I think one of the effects of more young people studying in secondary school is that they’ve often absorbed notions of citizenship and good government that are communicated in school textbooks. So in one of the villages where I work, I was sitting working with a young person who was doing an English lesson recently and one of the English exercises was to write a letter to the local district magistrate in English complaining about the state of the drains in their neighbourhood. And this was obviously an attempt not only to learn English but to inculcate a particular vision of the citizen and of the state. And I think the effect of having large numbers of young people in school, being exposed to these narratives is actually that many more people have accepted and appreciate that kind of vision of rights and citizenship than in the 1990s when I started doing fieldwork in north India. So you see that’s reflected, for example, in young people’s support for anti-corruption movements. You see it in terms of young people’s questioning of forms of malpractice that exist in certain bureaucracies in India. Another point I’d really like to stress is the revolution that’s been happening in India with reference to women’s and especially young women’s rights and capacities. And that’s, I think, really a major success story in the last 20 years in India or 30 years, is that women and young women have achieved a much greater degree of autonomy and voice at all levels of society and in cities as well as in villages. Now, that comes, of course with all sorts of caveats about the continued problems of gender violence, of disparities in terms of pay and access to schooling and social goods. Nevertheless, I think that is a really important point to stress about the achievements of India in the period since 2000.
Kindergarten by Unkle Ho, from Elefant Traks