One of the more interesting things about WhatsApp forwards is how old jokes are adapted. I recently received a riff on a joke that (probably) originated in the mid-1970s Soviet Union. In the original, a train carrying three Soviet leaders suddenly stops in the middle of nowhere. Joseph Stalin wants to shoot the driver, Nikita Khrushchev wants to set up a committee to enquire into the causes of the stoppage. Leonid Brezhnev says, “There is food and drink. It is warm and comfortable. Let’s just pretend the train is chugging along.”

In the desi version, one ruling party politician says, “I shall now give a thundering speech blaming Nehru for the stoppage.” Another wants a Central Bureau of Investigation enquiry and a tax raid directed against the “anti-national train driver”. A third says, “Yaar, we have chai and pakodas. Let’s just pretend the train is chugging along.”

In both versions, of course, the train represents the economy. And the “let’s pretend” factor is high in both regimes. Statisticians of the Soviet Union spent much of their time cooking up fantasies about high growth economy, while concealing telltale signs of stagnation. The Bharatiya Janata Party seems to have spent the last five years doing much the same.

Some of India’s statisticians have started to baulk at being asked to cook up fantasies. The last two independent members of the National Statistical Commission have resigned, citing problems with the government’s attitude to statistical data. The new “back series” of GDP data was released without the commission signing off on it (the version prepared by the commission was rejected). The government’s refusal to release the National Sample Survey Organisation’s Periodic Labour Force Survey, or PLFS, for 2017-’18 was apparently the last straw for these two statisticians. According to them, the report was readied in December.

The unreleased PLFS has now leaked. It shows that unemployment hit a 45-year high of 6.1% in 2017-’18, with joblessness among the “youth” being far higher. The unemployment rate among rural men in the 15-29 age group jumped over three times to 17.4% in 2017-’18 from 5% in 2011-’12. Similarly, joblessness among women aged 15 to 29 in rural areas stood at 13.6% in 2017-’18 compared to 4.8% in 2011-’12. The unemployment rate for the urban youth was even higher, 18.7% for men and 27.2% for women. The Labour Force Participation Rate declined as well.

The PLFS was conducted between July 2017 and June 2018. That puts both demonetisation (declared in November 2016) and the Goods and Services Tax (launched in July 2017) squarely in the dock since it is hard to see what else could have been responsible.

The PLFS results tally with other evidence that the Modi government has tried to sweep under the carpet. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy’s employment surveys, which gain in importance in the absence of government data, suggest a terrifying situation, with job losses amounting to 11 million. As Mahesh Vyas, managing director of the centre, writes, “In December 2018, an estimated 397 million people were employed. This is nearly 11 million less than the employment estimate for December 2017.”

By the centre’s estimate, unemployment was running at close to 8% in December 2018.

‘Contradictory nonsense’

Meanwhile, the report of the parliamentary panel on GDP growth, led by the BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi, has also been delayed, apparently because of dissent by three BJP members. The report is believed to conclude that there is no reliable government data on jobs. Apart from delaying the PLFS, the government has stopped the Labour Bureau’s Quarterly Employment Surveys, removing another useful data source.

Conclusions of the suppressed PLFS can be backed up by anecdotal evidence. Low-level jobs have attracted insanely huge numbers of overqualified applicants in the past two years. Around 1,90,00,000 candidates, including some with PhDs, applied when the Railways advertised 63,000 low-level and mid-level jobs last year. There have been agitations and riots by the Jats, Marathas and Patels – land-owning upper castes – demanding reservation in jobs. This is a sign that traditional employment opportunities are declining across vast swathes of India.

Government-speak about unemployment has essentially consisted of contradictory nonsense. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said people selling pakodas are employed, which is true. But pakoda-sellers are out of the formal economy and not taxpayers. Nor do they accept digital payments. Does that not run counter to highfalutin claims of formalising employment, and going cashless?

Piyush Goyal has said traditional data-collection methods do not pick up on new employment opportunities such as driving of Ola and Uber cabs. Perhaps not. But formal financials do pick up on the fact that these ride-sharing companies are burning cash. Also, any survey of cabbies will alert you to the fact that they are struggling to repay their car loans. There is formal data indicating a slowdown in the automobile market as well. This shouldn’t be the case if ride-sharing is a rapidly growing industry.

Statistical data about jobs is important for policymakers. Suppressing the data won’t really do much to change the hearts and minds of voters even if it makes it easier for politicians to lie and obfuscate on the campaign trail.

What would be the possible electoral impact of joblessness? Here’s a simple explanation.

There were 150 million first-time voters in 2014. Many of them were job-seekers who bought the BJP’s rhetoric about creating 20 million jobs every year. Their votes contributed a substantial chunk of the BJP’s 31% vote share in 2014. There are nearly 130 million first-time voters now. Many of their older siblings voted for the BJP in 2014.

The BJP needs to retain the support of those among the 150-million cohort who voted for it in 2014. They are now five years older – and many are unemployed. The party also needs the votes of the 130 million newbies. Some of them have watched their older siblings go through the heartbreak of unemployment.

Will the 2014 cohort keep faith with the messiah who promised them Achhe Din, but gave them demonetisation and pakodanomics instead?

What about the 130 million new voters? Will they believe new promises from a government that failed to take advantage of four benign years of global growth to create employment? Or will they draw their own conclusions after observing the economic condition of their older siblings?

Also read:

India’s employment data is fuzzy but one thing is certain – Modi has failed to deliver promised jobs

By delaying the release of GDP back series, Modi government is harming India’s economic ecosystem