Aashique Ahmed Iqbal had no reason to think he wouldn’t find a job. Although from a modest background, he’d studied at one of India’s top schools, attended one of its best universities, and completed a doctorate in history at Oxford University after being awarded a highly competitive scholarship.
When he returned to India, in 2017, he was optimistic that he could find work as an academic. Over the past decade, India’s education sector has opened up. Well-regarded private universities have joined some of the country’s elite, state-run institutions to offer a quality education for not only India’s top students, but also its wealthiest. These schools actively sought out people like Iqbal—those educated abroad—and paid them relatively well.
But Iqbal’s return was anything but easy. He struggled to find consistent, full-time work, telling me that when he initially came home, “it didn’t seem necessarily unreasonable that I would get a job—maybe not necessarily the first one I applied for, but I certainly didn’t expect to be unemployed for as long as I was unemployed.”
His travails embody the experiences of tens of millions of young Indians—and that could have consequences for Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he prepares his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for parliamentary elections, which begin this month. Stories like Iqbal’s are found all over the country. Last year, for instance, 19 million people applied for 63,000 vacancies in India’s national railway authority. This year, there were more than 20,000 applicants, at least one of whom held an M.B.A., for five jobs with the literal title of “peons”; duties included making tea and photocopying. Similarly, 200,000 people, including those with advanced degrees, vied for 1,137 open slots for police constables in Mumbai, a job that officially only requires a high-school diploma.