winsight 15 India foresight 2013

India has the largest youth population in the world 800 million below the age of 35—fully 66% of its population—and about half its population below 25. India is fast urbanising and is close to an urban majority if the 3,894 census townsi are included. This translates into an easily organised demographic dividend that is betrayed by low skill levels due to systemic failure. This results in demographic dynamiteii that, together with the growing middle class aspirations—makes for a potent mix, ready for revolution. The first wave was captured by the Hindutva forces in 1992 to demolish the Babri Mosque. However, as the middle class matured and mass media came to their aid, the increasingly confident middle class began to slowly hold the state accountable, rather than become part of the lunatic fringe led by self-deluded demagogues. Exposed to 24x7 news and entertainment channels, they have come to expect world class service even from the state. Starting in trickles such as the Nitish Katara case and the Jessica Lal case in the 1990s, an increasingly combative middle class came out in large numbers in the anti-corruption movement of Hazare, Ramdev and Kejriwal in 2012 with the media actively fanning the flames.

Increasing aspirations, desire fanning, and closing opportunities (just one million jobs in 2013 against the required 12 million, and virtually jobless economic growth from 2004-05 to 2009-10) amongst growing income inequality and fed on a diet of caste superiority and entitlement has led to a veritable army of angst ridden middle class youth. This angst was quickly channelized by the techno-savvy but few understood the depth of disenchantment and the deep-rooted multifaceted systemic failure that has not spared a single institution—from patronage driven civil administration, dysfunctional police, regressive judiciary, dynastic, identity based politics to crony capitalists, not sparing even the army and the judiciary—that is at the root of this tremendous upsurge, only vague contours of which are still visible.

The late December 2012 protests in New Delhi are an indication of the times to come, and are eerily similar to Nepal before the revolution there. Though there were thousands of rapes of women (especially Dalit and Adivasi women) it took the rape of a middle class student in the national capital for the anger to again find focus against the state. The protest was without a leader and the oligarchy was clueless as to a response, let alone a coherent one. Offering ‘fast-track courts’ showed how out of touch the kleptocracy is—when the aspiration is for a system that works all the time as a matter of course, not ‘special’ instruments that would work as an exception. It is a tragic commentary on who makes a difference India and the ‘plus’ syndrome—the monopoly of India’s anger and grief is reserved for people like us within Delhi. Lumpenisation of polity and impunity continues to gather pace in federal India.

The combination of youth (idealism, sense of justice, quick solutions), growing middle class aspirations, and a feudal political and administrative system that works on patronage rather than rule of law makes for an India that is on the cusp of a revolution. This leaderless middle class youth frustration is there for the taking for any task—positive or negative—that can be framed in a simple, idealistic, achievable narrative within a short timeframe. Historically the demographic has led to the youth choosing a leader who would lead them into war. Since external war is no longer possible, it remains to be seen if India will see a civil war or a war on corruption... or nation building (including institutions of state such as a rule of law based society) on a war footing. Channelizing the middle class youth energy and idealism is a national imperative.
The gathering storm has been under the radar. An analogy from disasters is worth recalling: a disaster takes a long time to come, for they need many small but crucial elements to be just right. But when they come they hit harder and faster than we expect. Interesting times lie ahead in 2013 that will see a fundamental shift in Indian polity and normative values in the short-term itself as we move towards a critical mass of organised, enlightened, active citizens to become an inexorable, grinding march towards ‘that heaven of freedom’.

For our previous writing on the demographics of change see (India: A Revolution from below, 2006)