India has one of the world’s youngest populations, with millennials – those born between 1981 and 1996 – making up over 400 million of its people. Author Vivan Marwaha takes a look at what India’s youth want from their politicians.
In April and May 2019, I camped out in small towns and cities across northern and southern India, talking to young Indians about the country’s ongoing general elections as I researched my book on the economic aspirations, social views, and political attitudes of Indian millennials.
Every town square I encountered young men and women who appeared to be unemployed and disengaged from economic activity.
Conventional wisdom held that incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in trouble: the country was experiencing 45-year high unemployment, which was disproportionately affecting India’s youth, the world’s single-largest labour force.
The economy had slowed to a halt, and a general sense of gloom pervaded everywhere I went. Many of the millennials I interviewed, including those in their thirties, were living at home with their parents and relying on their families for basic necessities.
Most of these people had voted for Mr Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) five years earlier, in 2014, believing in their promises of widespread development and hundreds of millions of new jobs for India’s burgeoning youth population.
However, conventional wisdom was turned on its head when the prime minister and the BJP were re-elected with an even larger majority than in 2014, upending decades-old political dynasties in their family fiefdoms.
The writing was on the wall: young Indians had solidified their support for Mr Modi. Post-election results confirmed this, with nearly 40% of those aged 18-35 voting for the BJP.
In many other countries, this might not make sense: why would young voters, who hadn’t made much progress, had their trust broken, and had arguably been set back by years under this regime, vote to re-elect the incumbent?
The answer also defied conventional wisdom about Indian elections, given India’s long history of voting out incumbent politicians.
However, with millennials at the helm, Indian politics has undergone a fundamental reorganisation: young voters want leaders who speak, pray, and look like them.
For decades, India was ruled by English-speaking, Western-educated technocrats who had little in common with the country’s predominantly agrarian and vernacular-speaking populace.
Despite the fact that many members of parliament and state assemblies came from the grassroots, those with cultural and political power in Delhi did not.
Aspiring young Indians today seek role models who they believe will protect them, and they are drawn to politicians with whom they can share their stories and experiences. Language is a particularly sensitive subject.
English has long been a reserve of the Indian elite, as well as a goal of middle-class Indians seeking social mobility.
However, in the 2019 elections, Hindi-speaking politicians were rewarded by voters, shattering the last vestiges of these elites, while the opposition Indian National Congress, led by English-speaking dynasts from the Nehru-Gandhi family, was nearly wiped clean from the country’s “Hindi belt” – states primarily populated by Hindi-speaking people.
When I spoke with Indian millennials, they told me how proud they were that Mr Modi delivered speeches in Hindi to audiences in New York, London, and Sydney. “If he can get there, so can we,” they reasoned.
In an unstable and volatile economy, Indian millennials seek leaders who promise stability and security, and Mr Modi and his party’s messaging captured this sentiment to impressive results.
Shortly after the 2019 Pulwama bombings in Kashmir – and the subsequent air strike in Balakot in Pakistan – every BJP leader added the designation of “chowkidar” (watchman) to their Twitter handle, signalling their promise to Indians to protect them from all enemies – foreign and domestic.
It reassures India’s Hindu majority that the BJP is on their side, promising them benefits, public services, and welfare schemes.
It comes as no surprise that, shortly before the election dates were announced, the party promised to reserve an additional 10% of seats in public universities and government jobs for economically backward sections of society belonging to general caste groups, bringing the country’s total reservations to 60%.
The move was an appeasement ploy aimed at upper-caste Hindus, but not economically disadvantaged voters. Because the country was not creating enough jobs for its youth, securing government jobs for these voters became critical. A government job provides lifetime employment, which is critical for those who have been left behind as a result of years of “jobless growth” – an economy that grows but does not create new jobs.
As hundreds of millions of Indians were lifted out of poverty in the decades after the country’s 1991 economic reforms, India’s next generation – its millennials – want to more than just survive; they want to thrive in a world where smartphones and the instant availability of information has made them aware of glittering cities beyond their stunted neighbourhoods.
And, despite his government’s failure to deliver on employment growth or keep economic promises, Mr Modi speaks the language and aspirations of these millennials, promising them bullet trains, world-class cities, and a country that shines on the global stage.
Mr Modi’s own attire is aspirational: by abandoning the traditional white kurta (tunic) and pyjama that had become the standard uniform for male politicians, the prime minister’s wardrobe of expensive, well-made, colourful garments highlights not only his own, but the country’s, upward mobility (if you believe in his vision).
Contrary to popular belief, young Indians continue to support Mr Modi as he dominates the country’s cultural and political narrative.
Any national-level politician hoping to counter his massive popularity will have to come from the grassroots, speaking in the language of the people against a government that is failing to deliver on its promises.
Vivan Marwaha is the author of ‘What Millennials Want’ (Penguin Viking)