Forecast 2018: Politics

Modi and the Millennials

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
Page 1 of 1

The Prime Minister serenades India’s most powerful demographic group with 2019 on his mind

IN HIS LAST Mann ki Baat address of the year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “Tomorrow, January 1st, is special. We welcome those born in the 21st Century to the democratic system as they will become eligible voters.” They, the millennials of India, would lay the foundation of a new nation, Modi said. Last year, he had referred to his concept of a ‘New India’ as a nation without casteism, communalism, terrorism and corruption. By directly addressing Generation Y of India, Modi was determined to engage with their worldview and concerns in the run-up to the General Election of 2019 and beyond.

Not only would those born at the end of the 90s have the right to exercise their electoral franchise in January 2018, Modi said, but they should empower themselves to chart the progress of his vision of New India. Offering them a direct stake in nation-building, a partnership in its socio-political and economic growth, Modi urged the youth to help the country transition from a VIP culture to an EPI (Every Person is Important) culture. It was a bold attempt at enlisting Indian millennials and their dream of putting India on the world map in every sphere for his political, economic and ideological cause.

There was a powerful reason behind Modi’s decision to connect with Generation Y. India’s ‘Millennial Plus’ population is some 700 million, according to United Nations data, since nearly 60 per cent of the country’s citizens—estimated at 1.2 billion in the 2011 census—are under 30 years of age. This is also the best educated generation in Independent India and most likely to lead India to long-term prosperity. Modi’s Mann ki Baat sought to build on that. In his calculus, investing in their political and economic awareness would pay rich demographic dividends for New India.

Modi was basing his pitch on the experience trajectory of the Indian millennial-plus (Generation Y) population, as distinct from the Strauss-Howe categorisation meant for the US Millennial. The Strauss-Howe analytical framework operates on the premise that every generation has a ‘formative era’, with a common set of events—economic, political and socio-cultural—that act as the influencing factors of that generation (about 20 years). The generation that came of age in 1980-2000, for instance, would be influenced by the assassination of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, Mandir- Mandal politics, economic liberalisation and coalition governments. Among the most significant political factors for the Indian Generation Y (born around the late 90s and early 2000) could be economic comfort levels experienced in the Manmohan Singh era, the subsequent anti-corruption movement which burst that bubble and ousted the UPA Government, and the BJP’s rise to power with a towering Narendra Modi at its helm, ringing in a new socio-political and economic ethos alongside muscular government policies.

Nandan Nilekani’s Imagining India speaks of post-liberalisation Indians, at least the upper and middle class youth of this generation, as more likely to break free of the legacy of the past and more willing to push the envelope in the economic sphere and the workspace as innovators. For a government in power, it would make eminent sense to espouse their economic concerns even while shaping their political awareness.

Human Resources professional Subramanian S Kalpathi, in his book, The Millennials: Exploring the World of the Largest Living Generation , observes that while millennials can be obsessed with themselves and their selfies, their social consciousness involves them in larger organisational pursuits. The key, therefore, is to identify a higher purpose for the organisation with which millennials can identify. “Since many of them are from nuclear families that moved to urban India for work, unlike the previous generation, Gen Y looks for strong models in the workplace to emulate, models who can create ethical values and principles to follow. Transpose this essentially organisational and HR rationale to politics and Prime Minister Modi will come through as that muscular and strong model who has created the ethical framework of nationalism, traditionalism, religious values and ideological principles, a higher purpose for them to follow,” contends an HR expert.

This is the management rationale that Modi has sought to integrate into his political vision for the youth. And it is the millennial worldview that Modi has sought to harness by holding out a promise of redesigning the nation to suit their aspirations. Their drive, energy and enthusiasm will craft a new reality for the country, Modi said in his radio address, one that would offer equal opportunity and showcase peace, unity and goodwill as the guiding force of society. With that, he reinforced his claim to being the chief guardian of youth concerns. He also addressed their expectations of higher education and skilling, and sought to tap their values of ambition, risk-taking and transparency.

Modi will likely make a special effort to sustain the loyalty of Generation Y. This generation displays impatience with the impact and execution of policy choices

The Modi wave of the 2014 General Election had a large youth component. It is a generation that is highly demanding, wanting tangible policy execution on the ground, besides accountability, often reinforced by tools such as the Right to Information, and given to making heavy use of social media to vocalise their concerns for policymakers to note. Over three years into his government, Modi has managed to enthrall a large section of the youth that powered his victory, besides winning over supporters across other demographic slices. In a September survey done in India by US-based Pew Research Center, Modi was seen very favourably by seven in every ten respondents with some college education or more, and by more than half (54 per cent) of those with a primary school education or less. Notably, despite the Congress party’s traditional strength in rural areas, Indians in cities and the countryside showed similar impressions of the Prime Minister. This popularity has lasted for three years of his leadership, even as governments in other countries face disaffection; in Iran, for example, where religion has been enlisted for the political mobilisation of the youth for nearly four decades, rising prices of essentials has led to much discontent among them.

FOR MODI, GENERATION Y represents a long-term political investment in the run-up to 2019 and beyond. The Prime Minister appears especially keen to tap into one key characteristic of this generation to his advantage, its traditionalist moorings. This would fit well into the ruling party’s political worldview. According to a 2013 JWT Intelligence study of BRICS Millennials, Generation Y is broadly traditionalist at heart despite its tech empowerment and online life, with 57 per cent living with their immediate family and only 22 per cent having set up home on their own. Also, they are not giving in to global homogeneity, with most highly comfortable with the rich diversity of their own language, culture, dance-and-music and religious customs.

Observers are of the view this preference for tradition over globalisation among India’s youth may have compelling reasons. The decade of the1990s was one of unfettered globalisation, one in which highly educated, socially and politically well connected and aware individuals made gains in terms of employment opportunities, higher incomes and lucrative business deals. Like all such waves of liberalisation, the benefits were skewed heavily in favour of the few and against the many. However, the political opposition was forced into silence given that the bounty of the 90s marked a clear departure from the economic deprivation of the 80s. However, in the 2000s, especially after 2005and most pronouncedly after the 2008 global financial crisis, the opportunities of globalisation dwindled both sharply and noticeably.

That development had a telling impact on the nature of work: jobs became scarce as work became increasingly segmented and scattered across the globe, with companies hunting for cheap skilled labour to do outsourced tasks. Telecom advances meant that companies worldwide could cut costs by distributing different stages of a production chain across countries and continents, rather than locate them in a single country. This hit India hard around 2015, resulting in an employment crisis. These changes were at the heart of a return to traditional values by many young Indians, even though they appreciate globalisation and consumerism.

Job losses and scarcity have had two main effects. One, traditional ideas of religion and culture have taken on the role of life anchors, even as living with parents becomes an inexpensive choice. Two, the rising tide of aspirations has meant that people are no longer interested or satisfied merely with sops, favours, handouts and doles; what they want are tangible work opportunities and employment. These trends were reported by the September 2016 Pew Research Survey that showed a peak level of support for Modi and his brand of politics, and also confirmed the traditionalist, identity-rooted orientation of Indians in the 18-34 age group, especially among the better educated.

Unlike with Generation X, which had a strong social system and an extended family framework as an anchor, India’s Generation Y hankers for role models in the workplace and other spheres who speak its language. Transpose that organisational wisdom on to national politics, observers say, and it could reflect Modi as a strong leader who creates a platform of awareness and prioritises ethics and a moral system for them with easily comprehensible values and principles in which they have a direct stake, such as nationalism, tradition, dedication and hard work.

But while the traditionalism of Generation Y India may prove to be in harmony with the political ideology of Modi and the BJP, as indeed its refusal to be enamoured of the past, there are likely to be issues that he has to deal with this year in order to sustain their loyalty. This generation is restless and displays impatience with the impact of policy choices and their execution. They want political and economic accountability far more strictly than older citizens do. Earning and keeping their loyalty at the ballot, therefore, requires that the Government be seen as delivering on its promises and that job creation takes off.

According to Professor Krishna, director, IIM Indore, it is imperative to fully comprehend the nuances of this group’s behaviour. An NCEAR study from 2012 suggests that as with any other socio-economic group, a standard profile of the Generation Y citizen may not exist. The study stratefied India’s post-liberalisation population into Deprived, Aspirer, Middle, Upper Middle and High-Income households, of which only 31 million homes were at the level of affluence common in the US. While the Aspirer strata was seen to be moving into the Middle Class, the Generation Y of this class couldn’t be compared with that in the US in terms of disposable income, but could be compared to Generation X in the US. In second and third tier towns in India, affordable access to good education, a key marker for India’s millennials, is still difficult for a lower-income group of Generation Y, and this has implications for their economic prospects.

The aspirations of the metropolitan youth are distinguishable from those of young Indians in smaller towns and rural India, as also those crowding the big cities in search of a living. The Modi Government would have to generate employment not just in the manufacturing sector, but also in agriculture and allied industries, besides boosting the rural and medium-and-small- enterprise sectors. It is a tough task indeed, especially given that India’s institutional mechanisms were already anaemic.