No country for the young
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When Mahatma Gandhi launched the non-cooperation movement in 1920, Jinnah mockingly told him that it would only appeal to the young, ignorant and the illiterate. Jinnah was right: satyagraha was the turning point for the freedom movement because it created a message that spread to deeper levels of the Indian society. The British empire survived for 200 years only because it was a joint venture with disparate Indians groups; Gandhi destroyed this joint venture by unifying many of these groups with a horizontal narrative that trumped their vertical divisions. His genius was in recognising that politics is a battle for hearts and minds. Gandhi did not seek consensus but moulded it. As India approaches parliamentary elections in 2014, there seems to be a curious acceptance that they will result in a hung parliament. There is also a curious lack of narrative from any political party for the young and the aspiring. Could these two tragedies be related?
The absence of a compelling narrative or vision in contemporary politics has many alibis. The secular card does not work because India is much more secular than it was — the Khans in contemporary Bollywood, Aamir, Salman, Saif and Shah Rukh, are hardly more talented than Madhubala, Nargis, Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari, but they don't have to change their names to mask their religion.
And we haven't had Hindu-Muslim riots since 2002. The garibi hatao card does not work because voters are jaded by the lack of execution of promises since that slogan was coined 40 years ago. The free electricity card does not work because it leads to no power, which infuriates the people further. The reservation card does not work because we have reached the limits of confiscating capacity in hiring, education and promotions. The big state that is financed with deficits is discredited because the economic mayhem of the past few years shows that there is no magical "multiplier effect", and deficit financing leads to inflation with no boost in output. The freebies card is less effective because it has to be given to everybody, since fixing the plumbing to target its distribution is so difficult to achieve. The majboori card is less potent because of prosperity; it is much harder to get people to migrate to big cities than it should be. The foreign enemy card does not work because Pakistan is imploding and we are hardly surrounded, like Israel is. The mystique of the incumbent does not work because the 24-hour news cycle encourages breathless breaking news over reflection. The "young blood" card does not work because the only pathways in politics are geriatric. The corruption card does not work because, um, if everybody lives in glass houses, everybody needs to answer the bell.
Political parties are confused because the old is dying and the new has not been born. In other words, is the hope, which Nandan Nilekani voiced in his book Imagining India, of "horizontal aspirations overwhelming our vertical divisions" finally starting to play itself out? The traditional lightning rods of religion, caste and poverty do not inspire the same level of indignation, outrage or action that they did because of India's youth. Younger people have more in front of them than behind them. They are not focused on preservation but creation because their dreams are more powerful than their memory. But Indian policymaking is currently hostage to old people positioning their self-interest as national interest: land mafia, education entrepreneurs, road contractors, small retailers, trade unions, state electricity employees and secretaries angling for post-retirement appointments, politicians whose only competence is manipulation, and crony capitalists.
Confronting these blood clots requires courage and imagination. This is politically impossible in an ageing country like Japan where deflation and a strong yen — it recently reached the highest level since World War II — is murdering Japan's exports and hurting young people. But the government is not responding because a high yen benefits Japan's elderly residents and retirees by accelerating the flow of less expensive imported products into the country, which lets retirees stretch their savings. Professor Yutaka Harada at Tokyo's Waseda University recently told The New York Times, "Japan's tolerance of the strong yen and deflation is rooted in a clash of generations and for now, the seniors are winning". Seniors winning over the young is understandable in Japan, but not in India, where 65 per cent of the population is less than 35 years old.
India's young care most about jobs. And a narrative that places job creation at the heart of policy synthesises the most important issues: roads, power, labour laws, land reform, education, skills and deregulation. Executing on this narrative will also leave beneficiaries of the current status quo less entrenched.
Many politicians say they believe in reform but don't know how to get re-elected once they do it. Job creation offers them a simple narrative for the young at the intersection of good politics and good economics.
A recent survey suggests that both the Congress-led UPA and the BJP-led NDA will get an anaemic 120-130 seats in 2014. Whatever the numbers, it is highly probable that India is in for a rerun of the painful movie we saw in the late 1990s, when it was raining prime ministers. But 18 months is a long time in politics. In the US, Mitt Romney represented a non-ideological pragmatism that appealed to nobody till his selection of the running mate made the November election a sharper choice between different narratives. Of course, India needs a generational change; the wisdom in physicist Max Planck's quip that science progresses "one funeral at a time" applies to Indian politics.
But Gandhiji's takeover of the Congress after his return from South Africa demonstrated what is possible with a strong narrative even without generational change. The only thing worse than being wrong in life is being confused. Political parties that choose the young and jobs will neither be wrong nor confused. Any takers?
The writer is chairman, Teamlease Services