Election in Pincodes: Employment dreams take centre stage in poll season | Latest News India

She doesn’t want to be named – the costs are too high. The costs of everything are too high. For most of the last 45 years, her husband worked as a mason, earning around 15,000 a month. In a narrow, open-drained bylane of Dobh village on the outskirts of Rohtak, parts of her home have no ceiling, the rusting asbestos roof struggling to keep out the searing sun. She has three children – a son in his mid-twenties who leaves home early every day to do odd jobs, and two teenage daughters, who like their mother, struggle with the heat inside the one-room house. There is no money for even a second- hand refrigerator — the costs are too high.

Thousands of people in Haryana took part in the Ja 1716578509553
Thousands of people in Haryana took part in the January recruitment drive held for menial jobs in Israel. (HT file)

So in December 2023, when news swept through Dobh of job openings in another country with salaries upwards of a lakh a month, her husband applied enthusiastically. “Israel kehte hai na (It’s called Israel, isn’t it)?” she said haltingly, adjusting her sweat stained pallu across her forehead.

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At first, she was excited. “He told me lots of people in Haryana were applying. How did it matter if he goes to another state or a country?” the 40-year-old said.

But then she heard why the other country wanted Indian workers. There was war and Israel was losing its menial workforce. Instantly, she was afraid. The thought of losing him was too much to bear. “But he told me taking care of our daughters, getting them educated and married is too expensive. No matter the risk, we need the money. He warned me not to talk about Israel because nothing should go wrong,” she said. “He had to get on that plane. The costs are too high.”

They aren’t the only ones. In December 2023, two months after fighting broke out in west Asia, the National Skill Development Corporation advertised close to 10,000 jobs to make up for a labour shortage in Israel. The demand was for plastering workers, ceramic tile workers, iron bending, and frame workers, to be filled by men who have passed Class 10.

By January 2024, the green lawns of Maharshi Dayanand University in Rohtak were teeming with people in a six-day recruitment drive. District officials said 8,199 people applied, and 530 were selected in the first tranche.

In many ways, those six days in Rohtak told a story of aspiration; of people risking the unpredictability of war to better the lives of their families. But under that veneer lurked another reason that drove this migration, a factor that is now at the centre of the campaign in Haryana, and indeed across India – jobs.

Unemployment and the youth

One Monday morning, five friends are sitting on a bench under a tree at the MDU campus in Rohtak. Four already have MA degrees, graduating between 2019 and 2021, and one of them, Anil Kathurwal, is now pursuing a PhD in politics. What drove his decision was academic interest, he said. But a sheepish smile betrays another factor. This group of five always wanted to be teachers. That opportunity hasn’t arisen in five years, and Kathurwal couldn’t wait any longer.

Deepti Kumari, in her early twenties, is the angriest. She completed a Master’s degree in English in 2019, and has been waiting for the entrance test for assistant professorship, or other teaching roles. “In every home in Haryana, there is pride when someone has a government job. But for the past five years, there have been no state government vacancies. There are private colleges, but the salaries are so low, and the quality so poor, that they are barely an option,” she said.

Retired professor Anant Ram says the Haryana government has only conducted a common entrance test (CET) to recruit Class 3 and 4 employees once in five years. “The recruitment of Class 3 posts were challenged in the high court and is pending still. Trained graduate and post graduate teacher tests are either delayed or challenged in courts, and there is widespread frustration,” he said.

Haryana’s headline unemployment rate in the 2022-23 Periodic Labour Force Survey(PLFS) was 6.1%, nearly double the all-India unemployment rate of 3.2%. But this alone does not adequately capture the problem. One of the trends in post-pandemic India, data shows, has been of the unemployed turning to unpaid work in family enterprises, considered self-employment by PLFS. But in Haryana, this has been relatively steady: 14% in 2018-19 and 14.3% in 2022-23, essentially suggesting that the jobless in the state are not turning to unpaid work.

Kathurwal, his fingers fidgeting with the keys of a motorcycle, nods in agreement, but wants to broaden the argument. Across the state, he says, there is this powerful voice of joblessness that has reared its head ahead of elections, but it is rooted not just in exam delays but the “attitude” of the government.

“If you wake up early in our villages or cities, you will find thousands of young men running, training to join the police or the Army. But now, people only have the stability of four years under the Agniveer scheme. Look at all the campaign speeches of the BJP. They don’t talk about employment or jobs at all,” Kathurwal said.

For all five people — a mix of Scheduled Caste, Gujjar and Jat youngsters — unemployment is the primary issue in the Lok Sabha campaign. But Anant Ram has a word of caution for any political analysis that predicts a wave of anger hurting the incumbent. “The key question is how many of these people will put unemployment over caste when they go to vote on June 25,” he said.

The Politics

It’s 4.30 pm, and in the village of Dighal, 25km from Rohtak, Deepender Hooda has no time to get out of the car. He has 18 small meetings scheduled, and this is only the tenth. His frame juts out from within the sunroof of a white Toyota Land Cruiser, his hands either clasped together or accepting gifts. Some bring a framed picture, some a turban; there is even an impressively large ox. When he begins speaking, his voice carries more than a hint of urgency. A parliamentarian is known by only two things, he says, kaam aur acharan (work and behaviour), and Rohtak has known the Hoodas for decades. He speaks of the BJP ignoring farmers, and of insulting women wrestlers in Delhi. He lingers on the question of unemployment, promising government jobs. He says that the Congress victory in the assembly elections in late 2024, will begin from Rohtak. But most importantly, when he asks the crowd to raise their hands in support, he calls them his brothers “from all 36 communities”.

In many ways, Rohtak is a microcosm of Haryana’s politics. There have been 18 Lok Sabha elections in the constituency, barely a two-hour drive from Delhi, and the Congress has won 11. It is from here that Ranbir Singh Hooda won twice, and then his son Bhupinder Singh Hooda — who went on to become chief minister — beat former deputy PM Devi Lal in three consecutive polls in 1991, 1996 and 1998.

Deepender Hooda has also been MP of Rohtak three times, and is currently a Rajya Sabha member. Crucially, Jats dominate both the social and political landscape; there are 660,000 voters from that community alone. But there are also 155,000 Brahmins, 135,000 Punjabis , 305,000 scheduled castes and 500,000 backward voters.

And these non-Jat communities are key, both to Rohtak, and Haryana.

The dynamics

In 2014, the BJP won the assembly elections, riding on both its Lok Sabha triumph and a clever caste calculus. For decades, the Jats controlled politics, resources and society, causing resentment among others. The BJP posited the elections as Jat versus non-Jat, and appointed Manohar Lal Khattar as CM, the first Punjabi to rise to the position. When it sought to replace him earlier this year, fire-proofing themselves from ostensible anti-incumbency, it picked Nayab Singh Saini, another non-Jat. In Haryana’s villages, they call the strategy, “paitees bata ek”. (35 communities versus one).

This division permeated strongholds that the Congress once thought impenetrable. In 2019, Deepender Hooda lost Rohtak to the BJP’s Arvind Sharma, a surgeon by profession, and Brahmin by caste. Congress said Hooda’s biggest loss came from Kosli assembly segment, which has an abundance of Ahirs, an OBC community.

It is this cleavage that is still central to the BJP’s campaign, even when responding to questions on unemployment.

“Hooda always says that he was defeated by malpractice. This time, he will suffer a defeat with an even bigger margin. I don’t believe Agnipath is an issue as youngsters will get even better jobs after their four year experience. In our time, the people selected are poor and deprived, while during the Hooda regime, Congress leaders picked people. The youth of Haryana knows that if the Congress returns to power, their tactics of giving jobs to their loved ones will return,” said Arvind Sharma.

Among the young men struggling to get a glimpse of Deepender Hooda, 23-year-old Amit Kumar, a Valmiki, raised his hand when the Congress scion talked of unemployment. But once the convoy left, he said the choice wasn’t so simple.

“I may still vote for the Congress because I have no job. But my friends in the community will not. When the Jats come to power, they take over everything, talk like they own everything. We have no work, but under the BJP, the police or the administration treats us with some respect,” he said.

But Congress’s Jhajjhar lawmaker Geeta Bhukkal said that unemployment is so pervasive that it will single-handedly help the Congress regain Lok Sabha seats. “Everywhere you look, deserving candidates have not made it to government jobs, also because of paper leaks. Officers have been held taking bribes,” she said.

Rohtak-based political commentator Satish Tyagi said the results in Rohtak could be defining for both the Lok Sabha and assembly polls later in the year. “This is a litmus test for Modi’s popularity. If Deepender wins, Hooda’s stature in the party rises further. But if he loses, it will become clear that the BJP’s caste-based strategy will be used in the assembly polls too,” he said.

Back in Dobh, in the peeling home of the traveller to Israel, his wife waves away any questions around caste, or the elections. Her mind has not stopped swirling, her voice has become hoarse.

When India and Pakistan go to war, it’s not as if there is fighting here in Haryana, she had thought. But her younger daughter, a notebook in her hand, has just explained the geography of Israel to her.

“When he comes home, I’ll fight with him again. I’ll get my mother to call him and forbid him,” she said firmly. But immediately, there is doubt. He will ask her that one question. To which, she has no answer. “Yaha naukri hai? (Are there jobs here?)”

(This is the 30th in a series of election reports from the field that look at national and local issues through an electoral lens.)

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