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Modi And The Paradox Of The Middle-Class Millennials

20/03/2015 8:11 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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NEW DELHI, INDIA - JANUARY 26: A street child selling Indian flag at India Gate after the ceremony of 66th Republic Day of India, on January 26, 2015 in New Delhi, India. President of United States of America (USA) Barack Obama is the chief guest for this Republic Day. Rain failed to dampen spirits at India's Republic Day parade January 26 as US President Barack Obama became the first US president to attend the spectacular military and cultural display in a mark of the nations' growing closeness. Colourful images of India's cultural heritage, manoeuvres by fighter aircraft, military prowess and march past by armed forces were on majestic display. The main attractions of the parade were scintillating show of air power, fascinating tableaus depicting the diverse culture and dance performances by colourfully dressed schoolchildren. Around 25,000 security personnel were deployed across the city while the commandos of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and Delhi Police kept vigil at important locations. (Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The big buzz that seemed to be overriding the general elections of 2014 was the much trumpeted demographic dividend factor: the 140 million first-time young voters who would exercise their adult franchise for the first time. The snowballing growth of social media users - at the time on Facebook (112 million), Twitter (22 million), YouTube (60 million) and 70 million on WhatsApp, the world's largest already - tells its own story.

Many of the first-time voters for elections 2014 were not just Gen Y, but those who were " post-1991 children" , the designated year that changed India forever. I remember the trepidation with which we reacted to then-Finance Minister Manmohan Singh's intrepid step on partial convertibility of the capital account. The Gulf War had created a gigantic crisis even as NRI remittances into our country in NRE/FCNR deposits grew manifold as panicky Indians from the Gulf moved their savings and personal assets into India. Economic liberalisation was stoutly protested against by deeply entrenched desi industrialists famously christened as the Bombay Club who wanted enhanced protection for domestic industry; there was xenophobia prevalent about anything remotely foreign. Local companies clamoured for a "level-playing field." It is true that our foreign exchange reserves could only finance two weeks' import bills, and a severe crisis loomed. In a sense, there is a pre-1991 India and a new order post that period. With the license raj dismantled, curbs and quotas being abolished and a market-related economy created, India found the entrepreneurial adrenaline that it was looking for. Everything changed and how!

" The upper class resents the food subsidy that will provide foodgrains to about 800 million people as a right. It is a peculiar social dichotomy as the upper middle-class is in fact the biggest beneficiary of government subsidy on LPG, diesel, electricity et al. "

India's Gen Y is a product of that economic free-spirit unleashed in 1991 -- and subsequently further liberated -- and a global technology revolution that has altered the world. Considering we had only landline connections being rationed by government departments earlier (our telephone penetration was 1% in the mid-1990s), today we have 1000 million mobile connections and growing. And with over 170 million TV households, India is one of the world's most hyper-connected countries. It has changed attitudes, aspirations and argumentation in India. We are one big chattering, muttering country, talking incessantly. Prof Amartya Sen hit the right buttons in his fabled The Argumentative Indian; we are in a chronic state of agitation.

Strange as it may seem, Valentine's Day is passé. Urban Indian kids from the upper strata celebrate Halloween while their counterparts in many rural pockets and city ghettos labour for hours under a sweltering sun, carrying brick-loads on their head. It is an incongruous duality, a dichotomy that is disturbing. Mumbai has amongst the tallest sky-scrapers yet 55% of the city's population lives in slums. We measure 0.38 on the Gini-coefficient scale, which measures inequality, as in the Y 2012. In 1990, India had a Gini score of 0.33, of course, on a substantially lower economic base, but it is relevant to understand that mere GDP growth, while it alleviates populations from poverty and increases the size of the middle-class, does not necessarily bridge the rising income divides. A higher Gini coefficient indicates greater inequality. But in a gold rush syndrome, stock market capitalisation matters more than MNREGA allocations. Young urban India is being made to believe in just the mall, multiplex, mobile phenomenon as middle-class mobility.

"Ghar Wapsi, Love Jihad, the ban on the BBC documentary on rape, zero net job accretion, disrespecting Mother Teresa, targeting comedy shows like AIB roast, the beef ban, the inane outrage from RSS ideologues at intermittent intervals, are all combining to create huge disillusionment for the essentially easy-going, happy millennial."

This Gen Y is visibly impatient, easily ruffled and does not hesitate to create a kerfuffle if it does not get its way. All political parties are trying to grapple with this demanding, confounding creature -- the middle-class millennial. It is this new aspirational class that hogs television debate time, is the hollering anchor's target audience, and who instantly tweets his approbation or repugnance online. When PM Narendra Modi mocks MNREGA allocations on live TV in Parliament, he is essentially talking to them. Modi wants young urban India to believe that budgetary allocations for the poor, contemptuously dismissed as doles, is a classic case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. He has succeeded in selling this distorted economic philosophy. But for how long?

For the UPA, the growth of the middle-class millennial posed an intriguing challenge; like middle-class populations all over the world, there is a me-first attitude that rules (notice the huge backlash amongst the urban class on the Food Security Bill). The upper class resents the food subsidy that will provide foodgrains to about 800 million people as a right, an entitlement that a few decades ago would have been considered a pipe dream. It is a peculiar social dichotomy as the upper middle-class is in fact the biggest beneficiary of government subsidy on LPG, diesel, electricity et al. Now FM Arun Jaitley has even removed the wealth tax on the super-rich. It is a paradox of a society under a stressful transition, where the need for instant gratification is high. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the middle-class has a nebulous definition; it includes both the junior-level office worker travelling by a local train from Borivali to Bandra, the UP-bhaiyya working as a driver for a Malabar Hill resident and a resident of a three-bedroom apartment in Lower Parel cruising in a German sedan towards Nariman Point. Whichever definition one ascribes, India's middle-class would be equal to the size of the American population of 300 million.

Ghar Wapsi, Love Jihad, the ban on the BBC documentary on rape, zero net job accretion, disrespecting Mother Teresa, targeting comedy shows like AIB roast, the beef ban, the inane outrage from RSS ideologues at intermittent intervals, are all combining to create huge disillusionment for the essentially easy-going, happy millennial. Modi's counter is "development". It is preposterous. Social tranquility and economic well-being are not cross-substitutes; in fact, they are complementary. The Delhi election result is a manifestation of the middle-class millennial's angst. And it is growing.

The young "Hi bro!" generation getting out of their computer screens and selfies to vote will be a booster for democracy. Social media fury, candle-light marches and public criticism of our political system is the zeitgeist of our times. Propaganda works, but when it is created on frangible foundations, it cracks. The backlash is strong. For Modi, the chickens are coming home to roost.

(The author is National Spokesperson of the Indian National Congress party. The views are personal).

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