Despite widespread joblessness, this Indian state’s voters were obsessed with a temple

Not voting for jobs?
Not voting for jobs?
Image: REUTERS/Sivaram V
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India is in the throes of jobless growth with unemployment reportedly touching a 45-year high in the financial year 2018. The situation is particularly distressing in Kerala, a state in southern India, which is otherwise known for its high literacy rates.

In 2017, Kerala had registered the third-highest levels of unemployment across the country, which is alarming. Despite this, as the state went to polls on April 23, this subject was missing from election debates and campaigns.

The ruling Left alliance in the state, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the national opposition party Congress have all been focusing on different issues. These included the Sabarimala temple, the floods in 2018 that ravaged the state, and the usual criticism of opposition parties that is an important ingredient of every election campaign.

“We agree that no one is talking about jobs as much,” a member of the Congress party told Quartz, requesting anonymity. “But the point is that these points do not really attract the voters. It is mainly things like law and order situation or such that seems important for them.”

A member of the BJP said that the party has been raising the development issues as well and jobs are included in it, even though he agreed that they have not been specifically focusing on it.

The puzzle

Interestingly, it is not just the political parties but even for voters, jobs don’t seem to be an important agenda.

“Even though I had been supporting the Left party for many years now, I am not happy with the way they dealt with the Sabarimala issue and so that will decide my vote,” said Manjunath S, a 23-year old youth who helps his father run a grocery store in Wayanad district.

Last year, the supreme court allowed women of menstruating age to enter the Sabarimala temple which was earlier forbidden. The ruling Left party vowed to follow the order from the top court, a move that has not been appreciated by many voters.

One of the important reasons why jobs don’t rank high up in priority for many voters is because a lot of people migrate from Kerala to the neighbouring state or other countries and therefore the need for jobs within the state hasn’t been a huge concern.

The oil boom in West Asia allowed many natives from the state to find jobs in these regions. In 2013, there were 2.4 million migrants from Kerala living outside the country. However, after the slump of crude oil prices in 2014 the glittering gulf dream has begun to fade.

This also comes at a time when the demographic dividend in the state has been raising concerns. Thanks to migration,  Kerala already has a significantly higher proportion of old people, a situation that can also give rise to economic problems.

This can only be corrected by improving employment opportunities in the state. Earlier the government had tried to build information technology parks and increase startups in the state but it has failed to take off in a manner that can shift the migration needle in any significant way.

“Kerala hasn’t been seen as a state where many companies decide to look at setting up industries. This may possibly be because of the labour unrest situation due to the presence of trade unions,” said Suresh Babu, a member of the UDF. “The other deterrent is also the fact that the average daily wage rate in Kerala is nearly double that of in other parts in India and therefore the total cost of setting up an industry increases.”

Unemployed youth and the shifting demographic divide is something that can prove to be a ticking time-bomb for the state in the years to come and requires urgent action.

Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.