By Jai Prakash Ojha for Youth Ki Awaaz:
What a cliffhanger of a contest this Bihar Elections 2015 is turning out to be as ground reports from various constituencies and surveys carried out by some media channels indicate. Whether it is the Grand alliance or the NDA, no one is leaving any stone unturned in attempting to mobilize and consolidate its respective vote bank. There seems to be a clamour for youth votes as both the contesting alliances have announced a slew of measures like distribution of computers, laptops, free Wi-Fi services and two-wheelers to students, not to forget flagship NDA programmes like Digital India Campaign and Make in India Campaign with special emphasis on skill imparting to the youth to increase their chances of employability in an increasingly getting globalized world.
Out of the total electorate strength of 67 million, a little over 20 million is between the age group of 18-29 years. Approximately 3.1 million voters will be exercising their franchise for the first time. Considering the fact that the youth constitute 30 percent of the total electorate in Bihar, no party can dare ignore them. But then, what are the expectations of the youth from the parties in Bihar? What factors will determine their voting preferences? In the 2014 LS elections, cutting across caste lines and income levels, the youth voted for NDA as the Modi wave built upon hopes and aspirations swept through the entire country. Come 2015 Assembly Elections in the state and the venues of Modi rallies continue to be thronged by a large number of young people. It remains to be seen whether this enthusiasm gets translated into votes for NDA. The honeymoon period of the Modi government is over, the halo built around the persona of the PM has dimmed and unfulfilled promises of the NDA government at the centre have led to frustration among the youth who are feeling let down. The so-called acche din have not yet arrived.
Time and again, policymakers talk of converting our demographic advantage in the form of a young population into increased productivity levels of economy, but that still remains a pipe dream. Lack of educational and health facilities have resulted in the lack of genuine empowerment of the youth. Substandard college education in the state is churning out graduates who simply can’t match the expectations of the job market. The unemployment rate remains high. Nitish appointed teachers and ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) workers, but those appointments were contractual with low wages. 29-year-old Sanjay Singh of Nalanda expresses his disappointment at the lack of opportunities for youth. Despite more than two decades of economic reforms, very few industries have been set up in the state. The state continues to lack investment that can absorb the youth gainfully. State jobs remain the only available option for thousands of Bihari youths. Huddled up in his dingy lodge in the Mahendru locality of Patna, Suresh Mahto is preparing for civil service examination. He does not rule out the possibility of adverse outcome for BJP in the aftermath of the reservation imbroglio as that still remains a combustible issue in this Mandal land that can split youth votes. The charm of public employment is still there in every nook and corner of Bihar.
The ambitious project of the Modi government to convert India into a manufacturing hub and increase job opportunities is welcome but the youths don’t seem to be convinced about it. “How will the students operate computers if there is no electricity? How can the state create jobs and widen the manufacturing base when there are no roads and infrastructure? Who will invest in a state where rule of law does not matter much?” fumes Ranjit, an unemployed youth of Madhepura district. He is livid at the attempts of political parties to skip people-centric issues and concentrate on divisive issues like cow, beef, religion and caste. Majority of the students with whom I interacted at some urban centres like Patna and Bhagalpur feel that the society has changed but the politicians are still busy raking up issues that have no relevance in contemporary times.
Rural distress and decline of agriculture has led to widespread migration from the rural hinterlands. Even today, trains moving from Bihar towards west continue to be overcrowded with desperate people in search of livelihood options. Things have not changed in the past two decades despite the politics of social justice and entitlements. The migrant youth who are back in the state for the festive season lament over the lack of opportunities that compel them to be uprooted from their cultures and native places, leaving their elderly parents vulnerable. Since most of these migrants are not properly educated, they take up low paid menial jobs but their aspirations are not low as they keep recounting tales of prosperity and development in the western part of the country.
All said and done, the youth of today are better connected and have all information at their disposal thanks to the Internet and mobile telephony. Though caste is still a concern, issues like development, governance and empowerment matter on which there seems to be a broad consensus among all sections of the youth population. Their aspirations have gone up and they are not merely content with politics of dole outs, patronage and identity. On their shoulders rests the future of the state and they are well aware of this. The youth have created history in Bihar in the past with the JP movement and they may not disappoint this time as well. Since the grand alliance is found wanting in vision, BJP may attract votes propelled by Modi factor and his repeated references to job creation and empowerment for the youth. However, Modi’s impact will be more profound in the urban parts of the state. As far as rural youth are concerned, it will be interesting to see if they are ready to step out of their caste cocoons to vote judiciously for development.