Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World
By Snigdha Poonam, Hurst, 224 pages, £14.99
In 2014, in the 16th general election since winning independence from Britain in 1947, India voted for a new leader. The choice was a relatively simple one. The election pitted the centre-left Congress party, whose de facto candidate for prime minister was Rahul Gandhi, the lacklustre scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, against the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi, a polarising but charismatic rightwing activist turned politician from a poor provincial family.
Covering the election for [British newspaper] The Observer, I travelled from Delhi, the Indian capital and my base as South Asia correspondent, to Meerut, a small city an hour or so north, to attend a Modi rally. The meeting was vast, with tens of thousands hanging on the BJP leader’s every word. He promised a national regeneration, an India that stood up to its neighbours, was proud of its Hindu heritage, and which offered a hand-up to those who worked hard but had little sympathy with anyone who expected a hand-out.
Before the meeting I spent time with the local branch of the RSS, the Hindu nationalist organisation with which Modi had started its career. Officials and activists told me how the Muslim and British occupiers followed by socialist “sickularists” — a pun on “secularist” — had ruined their country. Now they told me Modi was going to win it back.
In the end, Modi and the BJP won a landslide. Of the 814 million Indians eligible to cast a ballot at 930,000 polling stations, 120 million were first-time voters. At the time of the election, a third of the population was under 15, more than half under 24; every third person in an Indian city today was between 15 and 32; the median age in India was 27. Their votes were critical to that victory.
Among them was the founder of WittyFeed, a company in Indore staffed entirely by twentysomething Indians who have never travelled overseas but who succeed in enticing hundreds of millions of people, many in the US but elsewhere too, to click on worthless lists of banalities and thus generate colossal revenues.
Snigdha Poonam, a writer for India’s Hindustan Times newspaper, opens Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World with a long passage about these young editors. One says their job is “feeding American curiosity”, which is arguably something India and Indians have been doing since the late 1960s.
Another says: “Everyone here is an entrepreneur. Everyone wants to be something” — a statement that would be as relevant in the small towns across India where they are all from and which feature heavily in this perceptive, useful book on an important topic.
If Dreamers is slightly given to hyperbole — “the world’s future” does not “depend on young Indians meeting their aspirations” — Poonam is clear-eyed on the challenges the youth of the Indian population present. At the moment, she writes, less than 17 per cent of India’s graduates are immediately employable. Only 2.3 per cent of the Indian workforce has undergone formal skills training (compared with 80 per cent in Japan and 96 per cent in South Korea) and India will therefore need to educate about 100 million young people over the next 10 years, a task never before undertaken in history.
At least 1,000 universities will need to be built over this period and nearly 50,000 colleges. Around 117 million people need to be absorbed into new and more productive jobs. The growing gap between jobs and jobseekers may lead to what the International Labour Organisation calls a “scarred generation”.
These young people are hitting adulthood with the cultural values of their grandparents — socially conservative, sexually timid, God-fearing — but the life goals of American teenagers: money and fame, Poonam points out. They are the most global young Indians ever, but with the narrowest ideas of what it means to be Indian, based on language, region, religion, and an exaggerated notion of the country’s precolonial glories.
Meerut is a city of 42 per cent Muslims and 58 per cent Hindus, and has long been classified as “riot-prone”. Its first sectarian riot was well before Partition, in 1939, and its most recent in 2015.
Kumar, who doesn’t like “girls” after being spurned a few years before, spends days harassing couples, assaulting those who come from both communities. This gives him an opportunity to counter two perceived threats to his own social and economic position: the increasing emancipation of women in India, and minorities. It also brings him, he says, izzat, or status and honour.
Kumar already feels anxious about the future — he can’t go back to being irrelevant. There is only one way for him to go and he knows it. “I am thinking of politics,” he says.
Poonam, who is lucid on her own status as an educated, independent, professional and metropolitan woman, also meets 26-year-old Sachin Ahuja, one of the gau rakshaks (cow protectors) who “are the most feared men in India today”. The official logo of the Cow Protection Army, an organisation of extremist Hindus dedicated to preserving the lives of the holy animals, is the gilded torso of a cow flanked first by a pair of swords and then AK-47s.
From 9am to 6pm, Ahuja sells insurance schemes; from 7pm to 8pm, he lifts weights; and from 9pm onwards, he protects cows. This is not only because he thinks they are tied to his Hindu identity but, like Kumar in Meerut, because the position of gau rakshak brings him what young men in his situation most crave: respect. “People listen to you,” he says.
This craving for respect is replicated at every level, and it is this which may have more of an impact on India’s place in the world in coming decades than any economic success the country might have.
“This is the most desperate generation of Indians since Independence… but also the one most bent on world domination,” Poonam writes. “No matter how poorly placed they find themselves now, they make up the world’s largest ever cohort of like-minded young people, and they see absolutely no reason why the world shouldn’t run by their rules.”