Excerpted with permission from What Millennials Want: Decoding the World’s Largest Generation, Vivan Marwaha, Penguin India.
The biggest challenge that millennials face politically today is that they have been clubbed together with every other generation, and are not viewed as a unique, dynamic generation that faces its own set of opportunities and challenges.
Although millennials all across the world—from the hundreds of thousands unemployed in Spain to the millions facing ethnic violence in several African countries—face a unique set of challenges, in many places, their needs have taken centre stage in the public discourse. But in India, it is rather bewildering that policymakers have not been engaging in a substantive set of conversations regarding the hopes and anxieties of this generation.
The West, and in particular, the United States, has developed a borderline obsession with millennials. While businesses try and understand how to sell products and services to them, and also retain them at the workplace, politicians are keenly focused on engaging them politically. Recognizing that millennials are economically and politically significant, companies and leaders are honing their communication and changing their policies, focusing on issues such as climate change and student debt.
In the Indian context, parties and politicians occasionally talk about some issues important to the youth. But rather than outline a proactive set of policies, they use millennials’ anxieties as an electoral weapon. To take the case of the lack of blue-collar jobs, for instance, India’s tiny manufacturing sector is not a result of the last seven years of Modi’s time in office, but rather, the last thirty years. Despite liberalization, the country did not become a preferred investment and manufacturing destination for any industry—whether one considers the low-end apparel sector or more specialized segments, such as semi-conductors. Why is that? Although some believe this is because India prioritized capital-heavy industrialization instead of labour-intensive manufacturing, this is a problem that no leader from any part of the political spectrum has been able to fix. Since the 2000s, the two major political parties that have held power in the central government have offered nearly identical economic policies, largely comprising incremental reforms. And yet, when they are in Opposition, they attack the flaws of those same policies, as seen in the heated debates of the long-stalled Goods and Services Tax and expansion of the Aadhaar Unique Identification Number program. This means that any serious discussion and debate on deeper questions such as unemployment and the country’s failure to grow its manufacturing sector becomes needlessly political, and unable to grow into a broad, national consensus. This also makes it difficult for millennial voters to pick a party that might be better for their personal economies and leaves them making decisions based on narrower social and cultural issues.
Millennials’ struggles, then, are largely ignored. One of the most important issues to millennial women, an existential issue, in fact, is that of safety, both in urban and rural areas. But the unending struggle that Indian women face is usually ignored and only brought up in the unfortunate event of violent crimes, such as rapes, after which headlines are dominated by the brutality of the crime while the media bays for blood. In the ensuing media storm, policies that could actually make cities safer for women are ignored. One of the most common problems I hear among millennial women is that they feel stifled in many north Indian cities because their families don’t let them out of the house after dark. But few politicians have succeeded in making cities safer for women. Some governments have tried implementing measures they think will improve women’s safety, such as prohibiting alcohol and organizing free transportation for women, but they continue to face harassment and physical attacks simply because of what they wear, what they do, and where they travel.
The American political arena has been roiled in recent months by the rise of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, a bartender from the Bronx, New York, turned firebrand leftist politician, who, at the age of twenty-nine, felled one of the party’s biggest and most powerful politicians to win a seat in the House of Representatives. She ran on an unabashed progressive platform, and even calls herself a ‘Democratic Socialist’, arguing for bold, new leadership on the environment, the economy, and in many ways, the fundamental way in which the US functions. Ocasio-Cortez has since become a media sensation, a darling of the progressive left, and bogeyman of the right. What Ocasio-Cortez has achieved is nothing short of remarkable. Most of the US is talking about her policies, whether they agree or disagree. Her ‘Green New Deal’, which was not even on the political radar when she got elected, went on to be sponsored a few months later by nearly every serious Democrat running for President. Ocasio-Cortez is taken seriously not just because of her achievements, but because in many ways, she speaks for an entire generation. While not all millennials are as liberal as her, a growing majority of American millennials tend to agree with the need for bold action on the climate and for a fairer economy in which opportunity is not limited to those with privilege. Ocasio-Cortez has been the face of a young people’s movement that has shifted the entire Democratic Party and its establishment further to the left.
India does not have many such voices on the Left. Leaders such as Jignesh Mevani, Alpesh Thakor and Hardik Patel came to prominence during youth agitations in Gujarat. Some then stood for and won political office but have not since shaped or created a national conversation on youth issues. Similarly, JNU student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar and Shehla Rashid have made a mark in opposing the excesses of the Modi government, but once again, have failed to turn their social media success into political victories. Kumar, a former president of the JNU Students Union, contested on a Communist ticket from Bihar’s Begusarai constituency in the 2019 general elections, attracting Bollywood celebrities and political activists from all across the country to campaign for him. He was defeated by more than 400,000 votes.
The staggered nature of elections, which leads to constant electioneering, as well as the tribalistic nature of politics, where leaders primarily appeal to caste and language groups, has put a lid on important, pan-Indian conversations. Policies are rarely discussed in terms of their potential benefits for the entire nation, but rather their effectiveness as electoral ploys. In January 2019, the BJP announced a 10 per cent reservation for seats in government educational institutions and public sector jobs to ‘economically weaker’ individuals in the general caste category, effectively creating a system in which a majority of seats would now be reserved. The move was made with a clear eye towards the upcoming general elections, where the party was afraid of losing its traditional support from upper-caste voters. And since young Indians are the primary group concerned about education and jobs, this was presumably a move directed largely at them. But it was clearly a quick-fix measure aimed at the elections instead of actual long-term progress. Millennials across the country are facing incredible anxiety because of the dearth of good quality colleges and jobs, and their fears must be addressed, but the latest reservation could be compared to putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. Instead of using its tenure to create these opportunities, the government chose to take the easy way out and increase reservations.
In other democracies, a clear division in ideologies between the Left and the Right gives voters the ability to choose policies that they think will benefit them. Whether parties promise to create prosperity by scaling back the role of the government, or unlock opportunity by expanding public education, clear political differences usually ensure that electoral rhetoric focuses on which policies, not personalities will serve the public best. The conversation then shifts to which individuals are the best fit to advance these policies, but that largely takes place after voters consolidate behind ideas they want to prioritize.
In my conversations with millennials across India, one thing stood out: They see problems in the world around them and have some ideas on how to fix them, but they don’t see a political environment that will allow these ideas to become reality. The dirty nature of politics, with its backroom dealing and dynastic tendencies, not only discourages qualified people from running for office, but also leaves millions dejected with a system they have come to accept as the status quo. In such an environment, they are forced to rely on personality over policy.