Jul 5, 2008

India - Listen to the youth

LONDON: Last year a report by Goldman Sachs attracted considerable attention with its prediction that by 2050, India's GDP would surpass that of the US, making it the world's second largest economy. In a similar vein, a study by the McKinsey Global Institute on India's future prospects also echoed a hopeful optimism. Both reports paid rich tributes to the enormous role that the country's youthful middle class has played in reshaping India's clout. Huge socio-economic changes are taking shape as a consequence of this generation, liberalisation's children as they may be termed. But the rise of this young middle class will also have political ramifications which parties — particularly the Congress — ignore at their own risk. A potent dichotomy is at play here. The reforms process which began in the 1990s along with the process of globalisation has gradually influenced attitudes of the youth and the nation's global image. But this momentum is not without its tension. Liberalisation has brought a certain mobility to Indian society. Yet it has also irretrievably altered an old way of life. Liberalisation's children have metamorphosed from adolescence into staunch card-carrying members of the middle class — of the credit and debit variety. They belong to a socially fluid group, which has begun to admire self-made men over an old world patronage. Not for nothing do they view Infosys co-founders Narayana Murthy and Nandan Nilekani as icons. Members of this generation also tend to exercise a greater autonomy in choosing their life partners than ever before. Yet in the inimitable Indian way, traditions aren't abandoned — they are merely adapted with a modern twist. As the plethora of specialist matrimonial websites attest, a conventional non-discretionary 'arranged marriage' has given way to a virtual dawn where pragmatists are freely 'arranging' their own fates. Interestingly too, a global youth survey in 2007 covering 22,000 respondents in 17 countries — in the developed and developing world — by the Swedish strategy group Kairos Future revealed that alongside the Danes, young Indians were the ones most optimistic about their future and also about the future of their society. This is a generation which oozes an admirable self-confidence. It's also heartening that gender equity is ineluctably acquiring a steady momentum among this generation. As the 2001 census revealed, the female literacy rate during the period 1991-2001 increased by 14.87 per cent whereas male literacy rate rose by 11.72 per cent. Yet, as research by organisations such as the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) makes clear, there is a long way to go. On the flip side, this generation is working longer hours than their parents did. Maxims like a 'work-life balance' have acquired a sanctity once reserved for deities. Divorce rates are higher too. But in overall terms, this is still a blessed generation. Not even for a minute do liberalisation's children wish for the closed-minded official dogma that impeded their predecessors.Yet, despite such progress, political parties continue to misread this generation. In a country where majority of the population is under the age of 35, the political establishment is unquestionably geriatric. Youth is consigned to the back benches and denied substantive opportunities. Contrast that with the US, where a 46-year-old Barack Obama is running for president. Across the Atlantic, a revitalised Tory party has a 41-year-old leader in David Cameron and a 37-year-old Shadow Chancellor in George Osborne. It takes no flight of fancy to conclude that this simply would not have happened in contemporary India. An ossified political fraternity in the country would have cheerfully stymied their imagination and ascent by at least another few decades. But, the disconnect between the political parties and a youthful generation is not just about adequate representation. Importantly, it is also about values. And sadly, this disjunction is nowhere more glaringly apparent than in the Congress. Some weeks ago, a party spokes-person felt necessary to declare that the Congress does not tolerate sycophancy. It was soon followed by senior Congressmen pledging undivided loyalty to no higher cause than the Family. Such baroque eruptions only heighten the feeling among liberalisation's children that at the core, the Congress adheres to a code antithetical to their own. This younger generation does not like the BJP much but it is beginning to dislike the Congress a lot. When it looks at the Congress today, a party of aspiration is hardly the attribute that comes to mind. And in the next general elections, the city-dwelling swing voters of this youthful middle class may just prove to be decisive. After a spate of electoral reversals culminating with the latest one in Karnataka, the Congress is again seized by an epidemic of introspection. But no one ought to be fooled by the platitudinous humbug on offer. How a party can claim to be either modern or democratic while reposing ample faith in the hereditary principle is quite a mystery. At a philosophical level then, the Congress's condition isn't a cause for mourning. In large part, it indicates that a youthful generation is unwilling to support a project devoted to sacrificing a meritocratic vision for a flawed expediency. This stance may upset dynasts and sycophants alike. But it is the only way the party will ever contemplate genuine reforms. The writer is a London-based lawyer.

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