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NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK

- Politicians are still unaware that their voters are changing

In the new century there are fundamental changes in Indian society. Rapidly rising numbers of young people, urbanization, inward migration, literacy, penetration of social media and the communications revolution (internet, television and and telephones) have in one decade changed political constituencies. The political class is yet to adjust.

Anna Hazare and the gangrape and death of a 23-year-old in Delhi showed up the complete disconnect between the urban youth and the government. The government developed its strategy and tactics for dealing with the lok pal and anti-corruption agitation led by Anna Hazare as popular uprisings around false promises and tough counteractions. No one in the government appreciated the revulsion against corruption in this new demographic dispensation. Government leadership was more apprehensive of other political parties taking over leadership of the demonstrations as Jayaprakash Narayan did when he took over the student agitations in the early 1970s. The government’s devious strategy was to buy time with an initial pretence of sympathy followed by brutal suppression.

The government’s strategy was similar regarding the demonstrations in support of justice to women after the rape of the girl in a bus in Delhi. Verbal expressions of sympathy were accompanied by indiscriminate beatings with lathis, teargas, water cannons, attacks irrespective of gender, age or type of activism, the exiling of busloads to the periphery of Delhi and blaming the media for publicizing the demonstrations. There was no attempt to reach out to the demonstrators or have a dialogue with them, to show some action to redress grievances as was initially done with Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev (when a joint drafting committee for the lok pal bill was formed).

The police actions to disperse the demonstrators were in each case heavy-handed. The severe beatings with lathis ignored gender or age, as did the repeated firing of water cannons, tear gas, the dumping of demonstrators miles away on the outskirts of Delhi, and jail. The Opposition parties tried to earn credit by attempting to join. For the Anna Hazare-Baba Ramdev agitation, the government initially fielded a phalanx of lawyer-ministers to cajole, convince and threaten. Fledgling politicians like Baba Ramdev and General V.K. Singh tried to take the leadership of the ‘justice for women’ movement. Anna Hazare’s movement died under the government’s comprehensive onslaught. The agitation for the rape victim was sought to be defused by the government by exporting the victim to Singapore. She died and the anger against the government became exacerbated.

The ‘we want justice’ campaign by students felt the heavy weight of police reactions from the outset. The home secretary and the police commissioner, in their detailed television briefings, were dismissive of the demonstrators. An ineffective home minister tried to soothe the demonstrators with words. Extensive TV coverage countered the police commissioner’s charge that the “mob” turned violent, lumping everyone in one category. What was completely missing was an attempt to reach out to the demonstrators by officials from the government and from the political leadership.

The sudden appearance on the third day of wannabe politicians like Ramdev, Arvind Kejriwal and General V.K. Singh, out to grab the leadership of the students, gave an excuse to the police to unleash swift and strong violence. Peaceful demonstrators were then called “goondas”, and the politicians rabble-rousers. It helped the police that a constable collapsed and the commissioner promptly blamed the agitators. It gave greater excuse for beating boys and girls, men and women, and the media, irrespective of their actions.

Our governments have not yet recognized the major demographic changes in India. The population is getting younger. In the 2001 census, 31.16 per cent of the population were below the age of 25 years. The United Nations State of the World Population Report in 2007 says that by 2030 more than 65 per cent of the population will be below the age of 35. The average age of an Indian in 2020 will be 29 years, compared to 37 for China and 48 for Japan.

The urban population was 28.53 per cent according to the 2001 census, and 31.16 per cent as per the 2011 census. By 2030, 40.76 per cent of country's population is expected to reside in urban areas. Urban populations are known to be less divided by caste, and more able to get together for better services like roads, water supply, consistent electricity, proper housing, sanitation and so on. They are easier to organize into large crowds.

A good part of this urban population consists of inward migrants in search of jobs, from the same state, from small towns and rural areas. There are many from poorer states who migrate to places like Delhi for jobs. In 2001, 309 million persons were migrants, about 30 per cent of the total population, an increase of approximately 37 per cent over 1991. 13 per cent of them were interstate migrants. More than longer term urban residents, these new migrants are subject to the patriarchal norms of rural India, with a reduced status for women, and less intermingling of the sexes.

Thus the politicians of today have to deal with a burgeoning young population with growing literacy increasingly resident in urban areas, of which a third or so has migrated from rural and small-town India. These migrants may have a conditioning to regard urban women as ‘easy’ and ‘loose’. (There is no evidence to this effect. It is speculation.) Coming from places where matters of sex face relatively greater suppression, they might be more prone to sexual predatoriness. Unemployment in urban India might also be a cause of anti-social behaviour.

Urban areas are concentrated and grievances are common to most. There are many there who are literate or have higher education, or have learned new skills. Urban populations are very different from earlier political constituencies. Caste and community differences are eroded. Economic class is what counts.

Urban India also has a growing middle class, young, educated and concerned about their society. Adding to this is the penetration and use of social media and the internet, overwhelmingly so among this urban middle class. Social media users in India grew from 38 million in November 2011 to 60.5 million at present, a fantastic rate of growth. Internet users are growing rapidly and are now at 137 million. Around 75 per cent of ‘netizens’ are below the age of 35. The numbers are growing. Mobile phone owners number over 934 million. Even allowing for multiple phone ownership, and very limited use, this is an impressive number. The young urban literate population is thus well networked. It can communicate immediately and mobilize numbers speedily. While mass media and particularly TV may not initiate their concerns, they do give these mobilizations saturation coverage. After all, these young people are the prime customers for the advertisers that keep TV channels in business. Anna Hazare or a gang rape easily mobilizes the youth through social media and TV.

Our politicians and administrators have little connection with this well connected young urban population. These young people are beginning to realize the power they can wield because of their common concerns and quick communication. God help the stagnant political class when this penetration reaches rural India, as is already happening. ‘Spontaneous’ uprisings will become the norm in coming years.

Government responses to this instant mobilization of angry young people on the streets were hesitant and blundering. The governance of Delhi with the police under the home ministry made the police commissioner into a despot, with no accountability. His bosses, the lieutenant governor, the home secretary and the home minister, are far too busy to guide and direct the commissioner. Politicians are too important to use the social media, and are unaware of the extent of anger.

Barack Obama mobilized the internet and the social media to build a powerful base of volunteers, funding and support. Our politicians have to learn this lesson and reach out to the powerful vote blocs of young, urban, networked individuals.