Young, restless, angry

It is hard not to think of Rahul Gandhi's call for more youth to enter politics more as wishful thinking than as serious grappling with the complex sociological and institutional realties of youth in India. At a surface level the problem is institutional. Political leaders simply don't inspire; rules of entry are not clear; the sordid compromises associated with politics are enough to dampen the idealism of youth; there are serious financial obstacles to most people working in politics. This is for traditional politics. But there are other forms of engagement with public affairs, more likely to be expressed in arenas away from normal politics. The other two faces of this engagement reveal the fissures and disjunctures emerging in modern India: both its promise and peril.

The benign face is the active engagement of a large number of professionals in the NGO movement. There is an astonishing range of experiments going on, driven by young people: from Janaagraha, to PRS legislative research based at CPR; from Lok Satta to groups valiantly working on producing accountability in health, education, RTI, NREGA. These interventions are political in the sense that they want to penetrate to the core of politics, producing accountable institutions. But they are driven by what some might call an overinvestment in professionalism: they are not so much about wielding power as improving process. They are driven largely by people with professional backgrounds, many of whom have returned from abroad after giving up glittering careers. They are confident in their own skills and have something of a sense of what the future should look like. The extent of their impact is an open question: their social base is very thin, the terms in which they understand the purpose of politics is at odds with the obsession with identity and partisanship that drives so much of our politics, and they are undermined by the political economy of power. But this phenomenon is very real.

The other face is more troubling. An RSS leader recently told me ruefully that the RSS was finding it hard to attract young people. "Woh sab to Bajrang Dal ya Raj Thackeray ke paas ja rahein hain, ya phir Gurjjar type agitation mein lag jaate hain." We are in dire straits indeed when we begin to feel that the RSS of the old days was something you could understand: at least it had some connections to a larger spirit of service than what is replacing it. In a strange way this insight also captures another, more disturbing sociological reality. Extend this argument to the attraction of SIMI, the fascination with violence and terrorism now spreading amongst some sections of the Hindu youth, the continued attraction of pathologically violent Naxalism. The extent of these trends is hard to know, and we all have our favourite theories of what explains this. We also console ourselves with the fact that these groups do not represent the majority within their age cohort. But it is true of both communalism and violence: the actual numbers matter less. A toxin may be only a few drops, but it can contaminate everything else. But for all the supposedly mitigating circumstances that explain the turn to violence, marginalisation of Muslims, sense of frustration amongst Hindus about terrorism, economic injustice, you cannot but feel that for certain sections of youth, particularly educated youth, there is a deep rage against the system, expressing itself in pathological forms. This is a violence that merely needs a pretext and we are all too happy to provide it.

What is driving this? It is difficult to tell, but there is an odd way in which these two styles of political engagement represent the dualities being produced by the experience of education. From Raj Thackeray to the VHP, to caste groups, there is an attempt to target educated youth, a class that does, across many places, have a deep sense of feeling cheated. Just listen to the anxieties of students in regional universities. In some cases education is creating a new social identity, confident opportunity and self-image, one that is sometimes, perhaps, too "above" the messy realities of India. But in other cases it reminds one of a description Pierre Bourdieu once gave of the pathologies of educated and disillusioned youth. "These young people, whose social identity and self image have been undermined by a social system and educational system that have fobbed them off with worthless paper, can find no other way of restoring personal and social integrity, than by a total refusal. A whole generation, finding it has been taken for a ride, is inclined to extend to all institutions the mixture of revolt and resentment it feels towards the educational system."

Most public institutions are also unable to create a sense of purpose and identity to those who participate in them. Malegaon may be a warning sign that even the one institution that we were so confident could do so, the army, is fraying at the edges. It is not an accident that a politics that appeals to these youth is not one of high ideals, but one that confirms their status as victims. This politics also provides them with an easy narrative, one that blames outsiders for their state: this is what Raj Thackeray, SIMI, Bajrang Dal, all trade on, though there is some evidence that amongst Dalit youth Mayawati does act as a palliative. It is also not an accident, that this politics is divorced from any sense of long-term goals. It is in search for instant affirmation, symbols of revolt, something that grants an immediate sense of identity. Precisely because this politics feeds off disillusionment and resentment, it cannot brook the message that politics is the slow boring of hard boards.

We had hoped that with the arrival of our first genuinely postcolonial generation, the fading memories of Partition, some of the old communal issues would go away. But they have found a way of feeding off new forms of identity crisis. The Bajrang Dal is not about lifelong service and self-denial as the RSS with all its faults was; nor is there any equivalent of JP movement around, the last social movement to draw in waves of young people (Rajiv Gandhi attracted young people in a more top-down way). So we have three genres of youth politics: traditional, defined by boundaries of access and money; professional approaches to reform, limited in effect; and the politics of resentment. Transforming all of these will require not just appeals, but a battle on many fronts.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

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