Under fire from Agnipath, BJP youth, unemployment migraine

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As protests forced the government on Thursday to announce a two-year relaxation of the upper age limit this year, a section of the party admitted that the government was only too aware of this latent anger among young people at its “failure to tackle unemployment”.

The Agnipath Movement 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 Treasury Rs 54,000 crore a year, was made ahead of the 2024 elections and was aimed at neutralizing opposition criticism on the unemployment issue.

Young people’s concern over unemployment was palpable ahead of the recent assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. However, using a deft mix of religious polarization and social policy, the BJP managed to ensure that discontent over unemployment did not translate into votes against the party – in the UP and elsewhere. It also helped that there was no credible opposition that could convince young people or offer them a job plan.

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It is therefore not surprising that while the BJP’s cultural and political agenda has gone down well among the youth (repeal of Article 370 and construction of the Temple of Ram), the Centre’s attempts to push forward economic reforms major forces have always met with resistance from below, with young people playing a key role in this backsliding.

A senior party official pointed to the pan-India student uprising against the citizenship law changes to say, “We have still failed to capture the imagination of young people, especially young women. This is a concern for the BJP even as we focus on consolidating our support base among women.

A party MP pointed out: “Since we came to power, we have been challenged on all economic issues – be it the law on land acquisition, the implementation of the GST, demonetization or agricultural laws. . While the government and the party managed to emerge unscathed from some of them, mainly due to Prime Minister Modi’s popularity and image, we had to reverse some decisions. But it is true that young people are increasingly disappointed with certain economic initiatives.

What is relevant is that the challenge to these reforms came from the field, not from the opposition. “This is not a demonstration led by the opposition, but a resistance among young people. There is also growing anger against government privatization moves,” a party leader said.

Police try to put out a fire on a train set by protesters against the Centre’s ‘Agnipath’ program in Ballia. (PTI)

A senior party official pointed out that of the two challenges facing the government – inflation and unemployment – its moves to tackle the former have been widely welcomed by experts as well as the public. After labeling inflationary pressure as a result of global situations such as rising crude oil prices and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the government announced a series of measures including the reduction of excise duties on gasoline and diesel and restrictions on wheat and sugar export. But on the latter, the government may have wavered in projecting the Agnipath program as Prime Minister Modi’s attempts to tackle the unemployment problem.

“It was a mistake to project the program as a response to the jobs crisis. It is a ploy to make the armed forces a young and combat-ready fighting force. Communication on our part could have been more adequate,” the chef said.

Now on the back, some party members accuse the opposition of “sponsoring” the unrest. “In Bihar, the protests are mainly sponsored by the RJD, while in other states there are others running them. It will soon die out,” said a party MP.

A Modi cabinet minister said the reaction to the project was an indication of the “impatience and aspiration” of young people.

Stressing that young people are never a consolidated vote bank and have always been inconsistent about their ideologies and preferences for parties and policies, a minister said: “But that is a fact – something that is reflected in the election results – that they realize that it is the BJP trying to bring them opportunities and doing their best. True, there are not enough jobs. Then the global rise in the price of fuel, post-Covid issues and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict have created economic disruption and affect people.But there are two sections (among the youth) – one is impatient while the other has realized that the efforts that this government has deployed will yield results.

Vehicles lie in a street after violent protests against the Centre’s Agnipath program outside Danapur railway station near Patna. (PTI)

However, leaders such as Varun Gandhi expressed growing resentment among young people.

The BJP MP, who had backed the farmers’ protest and voiced concern over “drastic changes in the process of recruiting soldiers”, argued that his recent intervention on the subject of employment “emanated from a deep concern about the economic and social legacy we leave for our next generation.

Speaking to The Indian Express, Gandhi said, “Most of the new jobs being created, for example the Agnipath scheme, are of a contractual or temporary nature which creates a lack of agency and limited stability for our youths. There is pressure to gradually downsize government – through privatization, monetization of assets, consolidation of railway staff, reduction of a number of positions, etc. With job creation already limited, policy makers seem not to have negotiated the seriousness of the situation.

To say that youth unemployment is “the fundamental issue of our time”, said Gandhi, “Pointing fingers will not help. We all need to work together to solve this problem urgently. Otherwise, let alone elections, this challenge will lead to regular displays of disaffection in the form of unrest in our streets.

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