National Catharsis and Youthful Anger: India’s 2014 election

Avinash Gavai

“The mistake you make, don’t you see, is in thinking one can live in a corrupt society without being corrupt oneself,” wrote the great British social critic and dystopian author George Orwell in his 1936 novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

He added “After all, what do you achieve by refusing to make money? You’re trying to behave as though one could stand right outside our economic system. But one can’t. One’s got to change the system, or one changes nothing. One can’t put things right in a hole-and-corner way, if you take my meaning.”

This month, as hundreds of millions of Indians mobilize to elect their next government, most will be itching for a major change in a system largely regarded as corrupt and redundant. This political process, known commonly as the “world’s largest democratic event” will stand out for one thing: an incredible anti-incumbent fury amongst both the bourgeoisie and the working class that will seek to not only repudiate, but eviscerate what they consider a corrupt and morally-repugnant ruling class.

So does this herald the beginning of a new Indian Spring—like the ‘Arab Spring’ type we’ve seen explode and implode in the Middle East?

There is clear evidence that these parliamentary elections will have one salient and critical anchor: 10 per cent of eligible voters will be exercising their franchise for the first time. More than 378 million of India’s 814 million eligible voters are between the ages of 18 and 35, according to census records.

The principal actors of this contest, the cuddly but awkward and inexperienced heir to India’s fabled Nehru-Gandhi socialist political dynasty Rahul Gandhi, his arch-nemesis Narendra Modi, a charismatic right-wing brawler with a chequered past, and Arvind Kejriwal, the technocrat anarchist  are all cognizant of this demographic change. In speech after speech, India’s politicians are courting millennials by launching glitzy social media campaigns, introducing young, new candidates that don’t belong to traditional political circles, and most importantly, promising jobs.

India’s once red-hot economic growth has seriously faltered in the last 5 years or so, after a decade under a coalition led by Mr. Gandhi’s Congress party. With many worried about getting gainful employment, Mr. Modi’s opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has capitalized on this dire situation, presenting itself as a pro-business party that will re-spark the flames of capitalist fire. Congress — led primarily by the Nehru-Gandhi family since the country’s socialist beginnings in 1947 — is more of a welfare behemoth, mixing cautious capitalist reforms with significant handouts for the poor. Mr. Kerjiwal’s  insurrectionary upstart Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)— or Common Man’s Party — has drawn in millions of students and other young voters attracted to his populist anti-corruption platform.

Eager to pursue their dreams, young Indians are frustrated with their country’s inability to add jobs. The country added fewer than 3 million jobs between 2005 and 2010. Far below the 1 million needed each month to keep up with student graduation and Indians’ growing ambitions.

When it comes to comparative talk to the “Arab Spring”, the situation in Cairo and Tunis was dramatically different from their Indian counterparts — except in one, critical respect.

Year after year, scores of young people in the Middle East came to the great urban metropolises to find a better tomorrow, but received only crushing disappointment. Youth unemployment ranged, across the region, between a staggering 20 and 40 per cent.

That picture of reality would be instantly familiar to Indians.  One noted scholar Ajai Sahni has stressed that virtually no rate of growth would generate sufficient economic opportunity for the youth category—thus assuring that a long, pot-holed road of struggle and hardship lies ahead. It’s clearly evident that not too many here are shakin’ to the Pharrell Williams “Happy” dance.

Leading analysts have no more sacrosanct numerical rule than this: too many frustrated young men lead to terrible times for peace. In a brilliantly thorough 2006 review of the evidence, Norwegian political scientist Henrik Urdal concluded that “large youth cohorts are associated with a significantly increased risk of domestic armed conflict, terrorism and riots [or] violent demonstrations.”

So is this where is India is headed? It is tempting, witnessing the rise of Mr. Modi — indisputably the favorite to win India’s crown, that some kind of fascist emergence will be the new normal. His fast rise to power has undoubtedly come on the back of religious strife, and a quite pronounced ‘action man’ alpha-male quality that seemingly encourages the cult of personality.

The truth is however as usual, far more complex. The last 20 years have transformed India in ways that the older generation cannot fathom. Indians then typically grew up in large extended families; this is no longer the case. Traditional matrixes of caste and regional affiliation have mutated in all kinds of strange and revolutionary ways, making questions of self-identity more uncertain and complex than ever before. Capitalism has made the situation even more chaotic. Previous powerful economic gains were unbalanced, creating a very noticeable wealth gap that has stoked anger by putting opulent lifestyles side-by-side with some 400 million poverty stricken Indians living on less than $1.25 a day. The old ruling order , especially the Congress party, has been unable to find an answer to these potent socio-economic challenges—thus ensuring it is seen as impotent and useless by the Generation X and Y’s.

In the last 3 years, there has been what one can call a ‘Great Indian Introspection’, a kind of mass-meditation on how and where the country should be directed.  The toxic twins of religious and ethnic chauvinism have undoubtedly risen from this soul-searching.  But progressivism, ranging from fierce civil society activism that has drawn in record numbers of youth; to the rise of new parties like the AAP are also the fruits of this churning of the national psyche.

Idealists with rose colored glasses no doubt believe that the centrifugal forces of democracy will eventually solve all the problems of young people. This obviously sounds pretty awesome, but it is a fallacy. Democracy is merely a process, not an end in and of itself. Electoral processes don’t guarantee idealistic outcomes—just look at the fairly recent examples of Gaza and Ukraine. Many angry voters are cognizant of this and have told pollsters they don’t like any of the candidates but still plan on casting their ballots, voting for a new and innovative choice (seriously): “none of the above.”

One thing is definite though: this election will be a baptism of fire for India, one that will sear the fabric of the old, and forge a destiny of the new.