The aspirational classes who drove Narendra Modi to his 2014 victory may be turning against him. The Jat agitation in Haryana that took 19 lives last week was the latest movement of once-powerful rural elites lagging in the race of aspirations. With land ownership no longer guaranteeing high income or status, they seek job and educational reservations.
Modi can assuage them by accepting their demands at a political level, letting the courts strike down their absurd claim to “backward caste” status. But their frustrations will remain. They may turn against a leader who first stoked and then failed to meet their aspirations.
The Jat agitation follows that of Patidars in Gujarat, Kapus in Andhra Pradesh, Marathas in Maharashtra, Gujjars in Rajasthan, and Ahoms in Assam. These dominant rural landowners constitute a powerful elite that long used the political system for private gains. In the name of the rural poor, governments abolished land revenue and agricultural income tax; provided free or highly subsidized electricity, canal water and fertilizers: and offered remunerative procurement prices. Yet the biggest beneficiaries were not the poor but the dominant landowning castes, and this was no accident. During a Punjab visit, I was told of one Jat farmer with 150 tubewells, paying zero electricity charges.
Some members of these castes diversified and prospered. The Patidars of Gujarat went into commerce and motels. Punjabi Jats entered transport and hotel businesses. Education was not their strong suit. But they prospered anyway, with many using political influence for lucrative deals.
Now, economic growth and reform for 25 years has created a new middle class that has eroded the dominance of the landowning castes. Millions of Patidars, Kapus and others have grasped the opportunities of the new economy and flourished. But millions more have been left behind, nursing bruised egos as they are overtaken by a new middle class that includes lower castes enjoying job and educational reservations.
So, the landowners are using their clout to demand re-definition as “backward castes”, qualifying for reservations. The Ahoms, once the rulers of Assam, want to be classified as scheduled tribes, on par with hunter-gatherers.
Once, caste stigma prevented Jats or Patels from demanding co-listing with lower castes or Dalits. But today caste stigma has eroded, since even government sweepers make more money than some rural Patels or Jats.
When Amroha municipality in Uttar Pradesh recently advertised 114 posts of sweepers, it got 19,000 applications! The media highlighted the fact that many applicants were college graduates. But equally worth highlighting would have been their caste composition. The local Dalits were so alarmed that they demanded reservation of sweeper jobs for themselves.
Optimists may hail this as a fabulous social revolution. Imagine, the upper castes are now clamouring for work once meant only for untouchables. That’s socially heartening. But it also reflects the desperation of millions who cannot find a place in the sun in rising India.
The organized sector, where the prize jobs lie, accounts for only 5% of all jobs: 95% lie in informal occupations like casual labour and street hawking. India has witnessed record GDP growth in the last 25 years. But the organized sector’s size has barely risen, from 26.7 million in 1991 to 29 million today, a period when the total workforce has increased by over 200 million.
Fast economic growth has created much prosperity for salaried folk and businesses, including millions of small ones. But it has left behind millions with only school degrees, or useless college degrees. These millions are part of the aspirational class that Modi tapped into in the 2014 general election. They hoped Modi would give them jobs. That is not happening.
The pace of economic growth is much too slow to provide good jobs for even a tiny fraction of the unhappy millions. Modi is unwilling to contemplate hire-and-fire labour policies that might create millions of jobs eventually, but will initially lead to industrial strife.
Hardik Patel’s rise in Gujarat is the greatest warning signal. Coming out of nowhere, a 22-year-old with no political background has seized the imagination of Patidars so strongly that he draws audiences as large as Modi’s. His agitation for Patidar reservations paralysed the state for months. The government jailed him for sedition, but that only increased his mass appeal.
If Hardik ties up with the Congress party in the next state election in 2018, the combination might just beat Modi in his own home state. Such a humiliation would upend his strongman image, and leave him vulnerable to defeat in the 2019 general election. Modi should forget about Afzal Guru and the Ram Mandir and focus entirely on economic growth and job creation. That’s the road to re-election.