Photo: PTI

Smile or Frown? Hope in the New India

Photo: PTI

At a New India Conclave on July 16, Narendra Modi set out a vision of a New India.

Modi focused on youth. He said that young India feels that anything is possible. He also praised the energy and courage of young people and acknowledged the important role that youth played in India’s anti-colonial struggle. The message was clear: the prospects for India are excellent and the youth are overwhelmingly leading a new surge in confidence. Government support is less important in this optic than the celebration of the capacity of young people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

This vision of youth driving a new India is the latest in a series of state attempts to develop a compelling idea of India.

In the first four decades after Indian Independence, the Government disseminated a notion of India closely tied to the four ‘founding myths’ of the Indian nation: secularism, socialism, democracy, and federalism. ‘Modernisation’, in particular, served as a touch-point for the Indian state as it struggled to address the deprecations of the colonial era.

Powerful institutions fundamentally reworked this idea of modern India in the early 1990s. First, liberalisation replaced an older protectionist, import-substitution model, of economic development. Second, organisations representing Hindu nationalist philosophies provided a powerful new vision of the Indian polity. Third, low caste political organisations came to express political demands.

Interacting with these changes over the past two decades, but not attracting mainstream comment, has been a ground-level transformation.

Since the late 1990s, the rise of formal education, expansion of communications media, and growing influence of liberal citizenship ideas across India has resulted in a social revolution. This is manifest in increasing civil society action and vibrant cultural assertion.

Since 2006, and most clearly under Modi, the state has channelled the energies of those involved in this social revolution and encouraged its further development through such measures as the Right to Information Act and Right to Education legislation. ‘India’ in this optic is a knowledge society, technologically savvy, and determined to address the structures of corruption inherited in large part from the British. India is also overwhelmingly youthful. Half the population is under 30. One in ten people is an Indian youth.

It is this social revolution that provides the foundations for Modi confidence. Youth across the country are discussing the need to instil in themselves and others a spirit of hope, where hope is understood to involve establishing a sense of a definite future (forecasting), attaching goals to that future (planning), and then maintaining belief that those goals may be possible (optimism). Several of the young people with whom I work in north India refer to themselves as hope machines.

But we need to pause here. In reflecting on social reality the anthropologist Ghassan Hage refers to lenticular photographs that when you tilt them turn from a smile to a frown. Lenticular moments are ones in which there is a switch from one apparent situation to another that is very different.

This metaphor is highly relevant to youth in India today. This vast population often feel frustrated at their social situation. Young people, especially young women, often face a shortage of graduate employment, limited training and infrastructural resources, as well as scarce opportunities to scale up their imaginative social action.

Youth are restive, manifest for example in increasing violence against women. Reflecting the reimagination of India in the early 1990s, religious and caste violence are common, even in parts of India where conflagrations are rare historically.

At a more everyday level, many of my friends talk about periods in which they are engaged only in timepass – passing time in an aimless and unproductive way. There is a palpable risk that the apparent advantage to India of having a large youth population may turn into a demographic disaster – a lenticular moment when the smile becomes a frown.

At the very least, young people are receiving Modi rhetoric with mixed feelings. Elite youth in metropolitan India may indeed feel that anything is possible. But it is hope in the face of setbacks – and sometimes prolonged periods of timepass – that is the dominant experience of 1 in 10 people in the world.