File image of Narendra Modi addressing a rally in Bengaluru.

Unemployment Biggest Issue For Voters, But Can It Harm PM Modi?

The lack of jobs is emerging as a major headache for the Narendra Modi government in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections. According to a survey conducted by C-Voter in December 2018, voters chose unemployment as the biggest problem that India faces. Among all the people surveyed, 23 percent picked "unemployment" as the biggest problem, followed by "poverty/family income" at 11 percent and price rise and corruption at 10 percent each.

With barely a few months to go before the elections begin, the job situation is unlikely to improve in the country. But the question is, what will be the electoral outcome of the lack of jobs? Can it potentially lead to the NDA's defeat the way the combined effect of price rise and alleged corruption brought down the UPA in 2014?

This is will be shaped three factors:

  • Where will unemployment as a factor have the maximum electoral impact?
  • Do voters blame PM Modi for the lack of jobs?
  • Is the Congress in a position to capitalise on the anger around unemployment?

Let's see if survey data can help us answer some of these questions.

Where Does Unemployment Matter Most?

According to the Mood of the Nation survey by Lokniti-Centre for Study of Developing Societies in May 2018, voters in North India are most concerned about lack of jobs. In North India, 37 percent respondents said that unemployment is the biggest problem in India as opposed to 16 percent in the South.

This could be bad news for the NDA as it has the most to lose in the Northern states, where it won 131 out of 151 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Do Voters Blame PM Modi?

While agrarian distress has led to farmers' movements in different parts of the country such as Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, there hasn't been such large-scale mobilisation purely on the issue of jobs.

Much of the job-related disaffection has been expressed in the form of agitations by different caste groups demanding reservation – Patidars in Gujarat, Marathas in Maharashtra, Jats in Haryana and Rajasthan and Kapus in Andhra Pradesh. Since all these are also agrarian communities, the agitations were a product of both unemployment and agrarian distress.

Therefore some would say that in the absence of mobilisation against the Modi government, there is a possibility that the political impact of unemployment may be restricted.

However, according to the Lokniti-CSDS survey, 57 percent people feel that over the last 3-4 years, that is during Modi's tenure, it has become more difficult to find a job. Among these, 27% percent said that they would vote for the BJP. This is five percent less than the party's projected national vote share as per the survey. According to the India Today-Karvy survey in August, 60 percent people said that no jobs have been created or that little has been done to address unemployment by the Modi government.

So those who say that it has been difficult to find a job in the past 3-4 years are less likely to vote for the BJP.

One thing that has changed in the past 18 months is that the BJP is no longer considered a party with the solutions to India's biggest problems, to the extent that it used to be. According to C-Voter, in July 2017 when people were asked "Which party has the solution to (what you consider) the biggest issue in the country?" 48 percent said BJP, way ahead of the Congress at eight percent and others at seven percent.

When the same question was placed before voters in December 2018, 25 percent replied "BJP" – about half the percentage from July 2017. The gap between the BJP and Congress had reduced from 40 percent to 10 percent, as 15 percent respondents said that the Congress can solve India's biggest problems; 16 percent put their faith in others.

However, the BJP being ahead is still significant. On the eve of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, BJP had a 14 percent lead over the Congress on this question. At that time, the BJP campaign had a very clear narrative that focussed on price rise and corruption as two of India's biggest problems and Narendra Modi as a man with the solutions. It remains to be seen if the Congress can weave a similar narrative around lack of jobs.

Can Congress Benefit From Anger Around Unemployment?

It seems that so far issues like farmers' woes, women's safety, Goods and Services Tax and demonetisation have worked better for the Congress than unemployment.

According to the May 2018 Lokniti-CSDS survey, 41 percent of those who said unemployment is the country's biggest problem said they intend to vote for BJP while 29 percent said they will vote for the Congress.

On the other hand, 38 percent of those who said “farmers' woes” is the biggest problem in the country said they intend to vote for the Congress as opposed to 23 percent who said they will vote for the BJP. The voting preference for those who chose GST and demonetisation as India's biggest problem was also identical: 38 percent for the Congress, 23 percent for the BJP.

This indicates that the Congress has been more effective in gaining support by raising farmers' issues or speaking about GST and demonetisation than it has by talking about unemployment.

However, there might be state-wise variations here. The Congress managed to win four of the states with the highest proportion of voters choosing unemployment as the biggest election issue in the respective Assembly polls: Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh.

What is significant in these states is that the Congress had made specific promises aimed at the unemployed. For instance during the election campaign in Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh had promised to provide one job per family to youth between 18-35 years of age with the slogan "Har Ghar Ton Ikk Captain" or "One Captain In Every Household". He also promised an unemployment allowance of Rs 2500 per month. Congress replicated the Rs 2500 unemployment allowance promise in its campaign in the recent elections in Chhattisgarh.

Similarly in Madhya Pradesh, the Congress promised a "salary grant" for companies offering jobs to the youth.

Therefore the Congress has been able to cash in on the lack of jobs as an issue only when it has offered concrete solutions aimed at the unemployed.

The bad news for PM Modi in this graph is that incumbent governments have been defeated in all the states where over 15 percent people chose unemployment as the biggest election issue.

Whichever survey you go by, the proportion of people who say unemployment is India’s biggest problem is already more than that. It is 23 percent according to the December 2018 C-Voter survey, 34 percent according to the August 2018 India Today-Karvy survey and 26 percent according to the May 2018 Lokniti-CSDS survey.

However it may not shape the outcome on its own. The Congress would have to intensify its mobilisation on agrarian issues besides offering specific solutions to address the lack of jobs.