ONE of the questions that has foxed political pundits is why Indians do not protest nor vote over unemployment. Even when surveys say that the lack of jobs is the biggest issue, it doesn’t make any difference to voting patterns. Then, why did so many young people come out on the streets — in most cases spontaneously — to express their extreme anger over the Agnipath scheme? The answer lies in what a soldier’s job means to young people in India’s smaller towns and villages.
If earlier, the government was seen as a benefactor, today, it is seen as an embodiment of national identity. This is what makes joining the Army such a potent act.
The now-banned TikTok platform provides some unlikely insights. Amongst the many genres and themes that were popular on TikTok, two are relevant for us here. The first were videos that celebrated men in uniform for their willingness to lay down their lives for the nation. Another was videos of young men training to become soldiers, running on the road dragging heavy tires behind them, or performing feats of extreme physical exercise. These videos would be edited to popular songs about the army and of the ‘supreme sacrifice’.
Another genre of TikTok videos relates to sarkari naukri. These are usually comic videos, about how young women are attracted to young men with government jobs, even if they are otherwise unattractive. A typical viral TikTok video of this kind, with several variations, was that depicting a traditionally ‘pretty’ woman standing with a traditionally ‘ugly’ man, and a passerby doubting whether they are actually seeing each other. The man replies ‘sarkari naukri ka kamaal hai (it is the magic of a government job).’ Another video template, performed by multiple users, was that of a man telling a young woman that she will stop spurning his advances once he throws a sarkari naukri at her family.
These genres might be different, in terms of their content, mood and mode of performance — one inspirational, the other comic — they have several thematic ties. Both emerge from a context of extreme patriarchal ‘machismo’. The discursive motifs are connected: Young men aspire to be tough as well as strong and are ready to sacrifice themselves. Even if the man is unattractive, in some cases, it does not matter, because even beautiful women (‘suno sundar ladkiyo’) only want money, status and stability (‘ek sarkari naukri fenke maaronga’). This is where jingoism, patriarchy, financial stability and the urge to be connected to power — through a government job — all coalesce to form the notion of an ‘ideal job’.
This might not be a new development, but it has accelerated over the past 10 years, as the Right has established its overwhelming dominance in mainstream media and in public culture. What would be seen as ‘toxic masculinity’ in liberal spaces, is an ideal in the ideologies of the Right. There is a paradoxical identification with the state, simultaneously with the deification of private enterprise. This is closely connected with the victory of the mercantile castes and classes over the bureaucratic-managerial groups within the field of elite politics. For historical reasons, the mercantile elite has resisted the conversion to western enlightenment discourse and its material practices. This allows it to appeal to the people in the name of a common culture and language, however manufactured and imagined these customs might be.
The rise of this ‘new’ elite has given the lower middle-class groups a chimerical sense of participation in the process of power. If earlier, they saw the government as a benefactor, today, they see the government as an embodiment of national identity. This is what makes joining the Army such a potent act. It combines machismo, honour, power and authority and it fructifies a young man’s nascent urge to embody the nation within himself.
Underlying this is the financial stability and status, and multiple perks and connections that a government job brings. It has become even more valuable since the economic slowdown that India has faced since 2011-12, after the post-crisis economic stimulus was quickly phased out. Even though the private sector is venerated and celebrated in public discourse, there has been a growing sense amongst the majority of India’s youth that a private sector job or entrepreneurship is out of their reach. This can be seen in the two surveys by CSDS-KAS on youth attitudes, in 2007 and 2016. During these nine years, there was a sharp rise in youth preference for government jobs, and their preference for private sector jobs or entrepreneurship fell sharply.
This has always been a potentially explosive situation, where, on the one hand, government jobs are reducing, vacancies are not being filled, and on the other, there are millions of young people who are desperate to get a job in any arm of the government. This has been exacerbated by the lack of jobs in general, since 2018-19. If one takes the latest four-monthly sweep by CMIE, one finds that 38% of young people, male and female, within the age bracket of 20-24 want to work. This proportion is likely to be almost double when it comes to young men in their early twenties. Out of the 54 million young people who want to work, 26 million are unemployed.
This unemployment level doesn’t cause any real political rumblings. Things change when it comes to government jobs (just like medical and engineering tests), because there is a long preparation period before one can apply for these jobs. That is why, you will often see television visuals of young people agitating over some government entrance exam, or delay in getting appointment letters after being selected. Similarly, young men who have physical potential train for years to fulfil their dream of joining the Army. It is only natural that when they are told that they will only be in uniform for four years, the violence bottled up inside them will explode and set fire to the streets.
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