In an interview with Firstpost in December last year, former Union finance minister Yashwant Sinha had a word of caution for the Congress-led grouping of Opposition parties. “The BJP is hoping to convert the 2019 General Election into a presidential-style poll making Narendra Modi the central issue but Opposition parties need to be careful not to fall prey to this plan,” warned Sinha. Towards the end of the campaign, it turns out that this is precisely the trap into which the Opposition, particularly, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, has walked.
By the time the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign entered its final lap, most of the real issues — economic reform, farm crisis and unemployment — had clearly taken a backseat, promptly replaced by a promise of populist doles, personal accusations and corruption allegations against one another. This quite clearly showed that Indian political parties are yet to wake up from a deep slumber to talk about real problems in the economy that actually mattered to the poor.
More than anyone else, the real opportunity loss was for Rahul who is in desperate need of a victory. For the BJP, economy was never the key issue in this election, but national security and later, a high dose of the Hindutva narrative. This presented a window of opportunity to Rahul to focus on more important economic issues and cash in on the anger among the middle class and informal sector after the massively disruptive demonetisation exercise.
Right now, unemployment is the central issue in the economy. Going by the indicators available so far, the situation is likely to worsen going forward with no serious attention, except for freebies and attention-diverting tactics, to address the problem. Instead, atop the Congress president’s priority list sat a campaign centred on Rafale allegations against Modi.
On the ground, Rahul’s allegations against Modi in connection with Rafale allegations won’t find many takers. Modi still enjoys the image of a corruption-free politician and a prime minister who led a government for five years with no major proven corruption cases. Diverting attention from the job crisis, or pretending that the problem doesn’t exist at all, will be a mistake.
Rahul’s main poll plank presented in the Congress manifesto — the NYAY scheme — wasn’t a weapon worth using in a crucial battle. Had freebies worked for Rahul, the many farm loan waivers he promised would have done the job already. The simple reason for this is that India’s poor are no longer tempted by free money, because they already have it in many forms. The low-income group, already, is the beneficiary of around 950 schemes sponsored both by the Centre and states.
What Rahul promises by way of NYAY will only be incremental assistance. Also, the idea lacked conviction for a few reasons. It is next to impossible for any government to identify the actual beneficiaries on account of lack of proper income data. Also, it instantly disincentivises skill-development and the quest for jobs among the youth in the poorest layer of the society because a minimum income is assured by the State. Further, the resultant fiscal burden will be significant. And finally, chances of corruption and fudging of documents will be rampant to avail of free money.
In this context, what could have worked well for Rahul was to centre his campaign solely on the problem of unemployment, presenting it as a failure of the Modi government and then, to lay out a roadmap as to what his government could do to address the problem if it comes to power. Filling vacant government jobs alone won’t solve the problem of a lack of jobs.
A recent report by Azim Premji University’s Centre for Sustainable Employment — State of Working India Report 2019 — conclusively states that India’s unemployment problem is no work of fiction. Notably, the report revealed that almost 50 lakh people lost jobs between 2016 and 2018 — this, most notably, is the period after demonetisation. The rate of participation of the labour force participation in 2018 was 42.9 percent and 52.8 percent in 2016-17.
Even more worryingly, the low labour force participation of women was recorded at 11 percent compared to a participation by males at 71.8 percent in 2018. Female work participation rate was 26.9 percent in 2016-17 compared to males at 76.8 percent. The trend of rising unemployment continues. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) found through its surveys that unemployment in the first three weeks of April averaged 8.1 percent.
In February this year, CMIE had said that at 7.2 percent, unemployment was the worst in at least 29 months when the labour force dwindled by 25.7 million since September 2016. Another study conducted by S&P said that around 83 percent women in India and 87 percent of men are worried about their financial future, presumably because of the lack of employment.
Obviously, there is no quick solution for India’s unemployment crisis especially when the only element that has been pushing overall growth presently is government spending. For well-known reasons, private sector investors remain on the sidelines. But, unemployment is an issue that connected with all segments of the population more directly than any other poll issue.
Rahul could have presented an alternative economic agenda detailing to the voters on his employment-generation plan. Instead, he chose to stick to the anti-Modi narrative that could cost him dearly in this elections.