“The difference between the country then [and now],” wrote the American journalist George Wilkes late in the 19th century, at the end of a great career as a radical agitator, “is as startling as that between a quiet New England village and Pompeii, with her cruelties and luxuries and wanton luxuries written in fire upon her face. The rapidity with which our political condition has become corrupt is appalling.” “The great, corrupt Money-Power,” he warned, had turned politics into a “dark poison-flower, into which these things have now ripened”.
Later this summer, when millions of Indians vote to elect their next government, similar sentiments will likely be shaping the choices of many. The 2014 elections, poll after poll suggests, will be a great moment of rage, where citizens hope to cast out what is seen as a morally-dysfunctional old order; to level to rubble a system that reduced a republic built on great dreams to a sleaze-infused dystopia.
This election will mark the beginning of an Indian revolution — and underpinning that lies a rapidly-changing nation.
From Election Commission data, we know that the 2014 Lok Sabha elections will have one exceptional feature: 10 per cent of eligible voters, more than enough to swing the outcome in an overwhelming majority of constituencies, will be exercising their franchise for the first time. “This youth bulge,” The Hindu ’s Rukmini S. wrote earlier this year, “might reflect the peak of India’s ‘demographic dividend’, as fertility declines and India’s population begins to age.”
Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal all understand this: in speech after speech, India’s leadership are invoking the culture, and concerns, of young people. Their efforts range from promises of the choice of media — mobile phones and the Internet figure in the campaign as never before.
In 2012, as Anna Hazare’s fast in New Delhi transfixed Indian living rooms, broadcast and amplified by television, more than one commentator compared the events on the streets with the so-called Arab Spring. The comparison wasn’t accurate. The Arab Spring — which metamorphosed only too quickly into a remorseless and violent summer — was born of specific political conditions. Large numbers of West Asian states were grim autocracies, built around unsustainable petro-economies, religious chauvinism and the torturer’s tools-in-trade. Few similarities existed between the course of political life in India and these states.
Yet, the streets of Tunis or Cairo aren’t that different from Indian cities — especially in one, critical respect.
Each year, millions of young people in West Asia came out seeking to build lives, but found only frustration. Youth unemployment ranged, across the region, between 20 and 40 per cent. In a thoughtful report on Egypt, Ragui Assaad and Gadha Barsoun pointed out that while the numbers of “young workers entering the workforce with higher educational levels have increased drastically since 1980, the quality of jobs available to them has not; by 2005, 72 per cent of labour market entrants were employed in the informal and low-wage sectors.”
That picture of reality would be instantly familiar to Indians. The scholar Ajai Sahni has noted that almost no rate of growth would generate adequate economic opportunity for the emerging youth cohort — meaning a long period of transition and struggle lie ahead, before the population again begins to age.
Demographers have no more ironclad demographic rule than this: surpluses of frustrated young men lead to catastrophic deficits of peace. In an exhaustive 2006 review of the evidence, Henrik Urdal concluded that “large youth cohorts are associated with a significantly increased risk of domestic armed conflict, terrorism and riots [or] violent demonstrations.”
Historian Jack Goldstone has demonstrated that youth bulges underpinned crises from the English civil wars of 1642-1651 to the European revolutions of 1848. Mary K. Mattossian and William Schafer also linked political violence in Europe between 1700 and 1900 with an “increase in the number of young adult males in proportion to the total male population.”
Demographer Herbert Moller has shown that the high proportion of young adults in Germany helped lay the foundations for the rise of fascism. Even as the Great Depression crippled Germany in 1933, 41.5 per cent of its residents were aged between 20 and 45. Moller observed that the Great Depression “hit Germany at the worst possible time: employment was shrinking precisely at a time when the employable population reached its post-war peak.”
Is this the fate of India? It is tempting, witnessing the rise of Modi — indisputably the front-runner, if not yet clear winner— to conclude some kind of fascist dystopia lies ahead. Modi’s rise to power on the back of religious hatred, the holographic clones of his image that dot rallies, his quite literal deification in temples in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat: all these have been read as evidence of an authoritarian anti-politics in which the person of the leader replaces god.
Emilio Gentile, a great historian of fascism, famously argued that the Italian fascists used festivals and rituals to create a kind of lay religion — a cult of the Duce. The cultural critic Walter Benjamin argued that Fascism’s great success was to give the masses a means to express themselves, using politics for “the production of ritual values”.
Prophecies of a coming fascism are idle warnings, though. Though Modi’s politics do indeed bear the marks of extremism and authoritarianism, it is hardly original in its conception or practice. Personality cults have lain at the core of Indian politics for decades, from the making of M.K. Gandhi as Mahatma, to the casting of Indira Gandhi as Durga, or the more tawdry cases of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa and Uttar Pradesh’s Kumari Mayawati.
Indeed, all successful politics involves spectacle. “Politics,” writes the scholar Dianne Ghirardo, “proceeds according to images of reality, as Mussolini well knew, therefore the perception of that reality is all important and dependent on its staging, for events needed to be choreographed so as to offer clear, if mediated, messages.”
The truth is more complex. The last two decades have transformed India in ways incomprehensible to a generation that reached adulthood before then. Indians then typically grew up in joint families; they no longer do so. Ties of kinship and caste have been transformed in all kinds of complex ways, making questions of identity more uncertain and complex than ever before. The deepening of capitalism, too, has re-ordered classes, and fundamentally altered our relationships to wealth and to one another. The old political order simply does not address the challenges that emerged, and exploded, in the last decade.
In recent years, we have seen a great search for salvation. The deepening of chauvinism and millenarian religiosity — as well as the rise of toxic identity politics — are part of this search. But so, too, the flourishing of many new forms of democratic politics, ranging from civil society activism that has drawn in record numbers of young people to the rise of new parties.
The received wisdom in democracy will somehow solve the problem. This sounds good, but isn’t true. Democracy is a process, not an outcome in itself. Processes don’t guarantee outcomes. Fascism — or some variant thereof — is just one of many options which lie ahead for India.
It is impossible to predict just where the pieces might fall: radicals like the great Wilkes, after all, were tempered, even corrupted, by power and age. This much, though, is certain: this election is a moment of truth for India, through which its destiny will be shaped.