Under fire over Agnipath, BJP’s youth, unemployment headache

While the protests forced the government on Thursday to announce a two-year relaxation in the upper age limit This year, a section within the party admitted that the government has only been too of this simmering anger of the youth over its “failure in addressing joblessness”.

The Agnipath move came alongside the Prime Minister’s announcement of the government recruiting 10 lakh people in mission mode over the next 18 months. The announcement, which is expected to cost the exchequer Rs 54,000 crore a year, was made with an eye on the 2024 elections and was a bid to neutralize the Opposition’s criticism on the issue of unemployment.

The disquiet among the youth over unemployment was palpable in the run-up to the recent Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. However, by using a deft mix of religious polarization and welfare politics, the BJP has managed to ensure that the discontent over unemployment doesn’t translate into votes against the party – in UP and elsewhere. It also helped that there was no credible opposition that could win over the youth or offer them an employment plan.

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It’s no wonder then that while the BJP’s cultural and political agenda had a smooth run among the youth (abrogation of Article 370 and construction of the Ram Temple), the Center’s attempts to push major economic reforms have always been met with resistance from the ground, with the youth playing a key role in this pushback.

A senior party leader pointed to the pan-India student uprising against the changes to the Citizenship Act to say, “We still have not been able to capture the imagination of the youth, especially young women. It is a worry for the BJP even when we focus on consolidating our support base among women.”

A party MP pointed out, “Since coming to power, we have been challenged on all economic issues — be it the land acquisition law, GST implementation, demonetisation or the farm laws. While the government and the party managed to emerged unscathed through some of these, primarily due to Prime Minister Modi’s popularity and image, we had to roll back certain decisions. But it’s true that the youth are disappointed with some of the economic initiatives.”

What’s pertinent is that the challenge to these reforms have come from the ground, and not the Opposition. “It’s not an Opposition-led protest, but a resistance among the youth. There is an increasing anger against the privatisation moves of the government too,” said a party leader.

Policemen try to douse a fire in a train, set by people protesting against Center’s ‘Agnipath’ scheme, in Ballia. (PTI)

A senior party leader pointed out that of the two challenges facing the government — inflation and joblessness — its initiatives on tackling the former were largely welcomed by experts as well as the public. After terming the inflationary pressure as an outcome of global situations such as the increase in prices of crude oil and the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the government had announced a series of measures which included reduction in excise duty on petrol and diesel and curbs on wheat and sugar export. But on the latter, the government may have faltered by projecting the Agnipath scheme as Prime Minister Modi’s attempts to address the issue of joblessness.

“It was a mistake to project the scheme as an answer to the job crisis. It’s a scheme to make the armed forces a young, combat-ready fighting force. The communication from us could have been more adequate,” the leader said.

Now on the backfoot, some in the party have been accusing the Opposition of “sponsoring” the unrest. “In Bihar, the protests are mostly sponsored by the RJD, while in other states, there are others managing it. It will die down soon,” said a party MP.

A minister in the Modi Cabinet said the reaction to the scheme is an indication of the “impatience and aspiration” among the youth.

Pointing out that the youth are never a consolidated votebank and have always been inconsistent about their ideologies, and preferences for parties and policies, a minister said, “But it’s a fact — something that is getting reflected in electoral outcomes — that they realise that it is the BJP that is trying to bring them opportunities and doing its best. For sure, there are not enough jobs. Then, the global fuel price increase, post-Covid issues and the Russia-Ukraine conflict have created economic disruptions and are affecting people. But there are two sections (among the youth) – one is impatient while the other has realised that the efforts that this government has taken will yield results.”

Vehicles lie on a street after violent protests against the Centre’s Agpath scheme outside Danapur Railway Station, near Patna. (PTI)

However, leaders such as Varun Gandhi have been vocal about the growing resentment among the youth.

The BJP MP, who had backed the farmers’ protest and raised his concerns about the “radical changes in the soldiers’ recruitment process”, maintained that his recent intervention on the subject of employment “stems from a deep concern about the economic and social legacy we are leaving for our next generation.”

Speaking to The Indian Express, Gandhi said: “Much of the new jobs being created, take for instance, the Agnipath scheme, are contractual or temporary in nature, engendering a lack of agency and limited stability for our youth. There is a push for gradually reducing people employed in government — through privatisation, asset monetization, consolidating railway staff, reduction in a number of posts, etc. With job creation already limited, policymakers seem to have not negotiated the gravity of the situation.”

Saying youth unemployment is “the seminal issue of our times”, Gandhi said, “Pointing fingers will not help. We all need to work together to solve this urgently. Else, let alone elections, this challenge will lead to regular expressions of disaffection in the form of agitations on our streets.”

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