One of the questions that has plagued political pundits is why Indians aren’t protesting and voting against unemployment. Even when polls indicate that the lack of jobs is the biggest problem, it makes no difference to voting habits. So why have so many young people taken to the streets – in most cases spontaneously – to express their extreme anger at the Agnipath scheme? The answer lies in what soldiering means to young people in small Indian towns and villages.
If before the government was seen as a benefactor, today it is seen as an embodiment of national identity. This is what makes joining the military such a powerful act.
The now-banned TikTok platform provides improbable information. Of the many popular genres and themes on TikTok, two are of interest to 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 down the road dragging heavy tires behind them or performing feats of extreme physical exercise. These videos would be set to popular songs about the military and the “supreme sacrifice”.
Another genre of TikTok videos is about sarkari naukri. These are usually comedic videos, about how young women are attracted to young men in government jobs, even though they are otherwise unattractive. A typical TikTok viral video of this type, with several variations, was one depicting a traditionally “pretty” woman standing with a traditionally “ugly” man, and a passerby wondering if they were actually seeing each other. The man replies ‘sarkari naukri ka kamaal hai (that’s the magic of a government job).’ Another video template, made by several users, was of a man telling a young woman that she would stop rejecting his advances once he cast a sarkari naukri on her family.
These genres can be different, in terms of content, mood and mode of performance – one inspiring, the other comical – they have several thematic links. Both emerge from a context of extreme patriarchal “machismo”. The discursive motives are linked: young men aspire to be as tough as they are strong and are ready to sacrifice themselves. Even if the man is unattractive, in some cases it doesn’t 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 government work – come together to form the notion of an “ideal job”.
This may 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 public culture. What would be considered “toxic masculinity” in liberal spaces is an ideal in right-wing ideologies. There is a paradoxical identification with the state, at the same time as the deification of private enterprise. This is closely related to the victory of castes and mercantile classes over bureaucratic and managerial groups in the field of elite politics. For historical reasons, the mercantile elite resisted conversion to Western Enlightenment discourse and material practices. This allows him to seduce the people in the name of a common culture and language, however fabricated and imagined those customs may be.
The rise of this “new” elite gave the lower middle classes a chimerical sense of participation in the process of power. If before they saw the government as a benefactor, today they see the government as an embodiment of national identity. This is what makes joining the military such a powerful act. He combines machismo, honour, power and authority and brings to fruition the budding desire of a young man to embody the nation in himself.
This underpins financial stability and status, as well as the multiple benefits and relationships that a government job brings. It has become even more valuable since the economic downturn that India has been facing since 2011-2012, after the rapid removal of post-crisis economic stimulus measures. Even though the private sector is revered and celebrated in public discourse, there has been a growing sense among the majority of young Indians that a job or entrepreneurship in the private sector is beyond their reach. This can be seen in the two CSDS-KAS youth attitude surveys, in 2007 and 2016. Over these nine years, there has been a sharp increase in young people’s preference for government jobs, and their preference for private sector jobs or entrepreneurship has fallen sharply.
It has always been a potentially volatile situation, where on the one hand government jobs are shrinking, vacancies are not being filled and on the other hand there are millions of young people desperately looking for jobs in n any arm of government. This has been exacerbated by the lack of jobs in general, since 2018-19. If we take the last four-monthly scan of the CMIE, we see that 38% of young people, men and women, in the age group of 20-24 years want to work. This proportion is likely to be almost double when it comes to young men in their early twenties. Of the 54 million young people who want to work, 26 million are unemployed.
This level of unemployment does not provoke real political rumblings. Things change when it comes to government jobs (just like medical and engineering testing), as there is a long period of preparation before you can apply for these jobs. That’s why you’ll often see television images of young people fussing over government entrance exams or delaying getting appointment letters after being selected. Likewise, young men who have physical potential train for years to fulfill their dream of joining the army. It’s only natural that when they’re told they’ll only be in uniform for four years, the pent-up violence within them explodes and sets the streets ablaze.