Rahul Gandhi, the son of Sonia and Rajiv and a member of India’s best-known political dynasty, last week launched the ruling Congress party’s campaign for re-election. The rise of Gandhi in the Congress is being seen – especially by Gandhi – as the rise of youth in Indian politics. He is now, for the purposes of the elections next year, the main prime ministerial candidate besides the Bharatiya Janata party’s controversial Narendra Modi – a 63-year-old who presided over Gujarat’s economic boom and the 2002 pogrom of Muslims, and, lately, has rambled inarticulately on both these matters.
Modi had to isolate and sideline the BJP’s octogenarian elder statesman, LK Advani, before he could become its frontrunner. The Congress, on the other hand, is full of smart young MPs, most of them sons of entrenched Congress politicians. All young politicians are young, but some are more young than others: which is why Gandhi has emerged, inexorably, as the Congress’s candidate. He announced recently that the Congress was going to reach out to the young voter, given India itself has become a country not for old men (as it used to be, at least in terms of exerting authority), but one in which every other person is under 26 years old.
But if India has now become young, it has also a place that has redefined itself, in the last 20 years, as a place where power and influence are handed down and inherited: a country where bourgeois individualism, with all its dubious privileges, has been replaced by fiefdoms, coteries and, for a few, a fierce sense of entitlement (which should be distinguished from aspiration) endorsed by paternal blessings. Modern India has long had, and profited from, business families; but other kinds of families have – despite the thick contexts of caste, class and relationships that mark Indian society – been more fractured, and augmented their fortunes by a variety of means, including education. The last two decades, however, have seen the rise, and near-universal acceptance, of fiefdoms as a way of governing life and even circulating ideas in India.
The notion has appropriated class, caste and ideological difference; if upper-caste political parties had their exclusive lineages, so too do lower-caste politicians. In defence of the latter, you might claim it’s high time the lower castes had a few powerful fiefdoms of their own, and there’s something to be said for this. But in the end, fiefdoms in India have negated the radical impact of introducing new elements to mainstream politics, and made the ambition of achieving power and then perpetuating it by any means a universally accepted norm, whatever the cosmetic gestures towards class and other differences. This has actually robbed Indian politics of much of its potential oppositionality.
The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which controls the Congress party is, of course, the most resolute of all modern Indian fiefdoms; so it’s ironic that Rahul should be invoking the «young voter» at a time when young people are fed up of corruption but might also be fed up of inherited power, one of the major facilitators of sleaze. Or are they? Certainly, fiefdoms characterise almost every walk of Indian life. There’s a building I know in Calcutta, which, every time its co-operative committee elects a new president, sees the liftman wearing a new uniform and a new potted plant appears downstairs. When the next president takes office, the potted plant is changed, as is the liftman’s uniform. Similarly, but on a larger scale, the West Bengal government, led by the Trinamul party, was elected to power after 34 years of the Left Front. Immediately on assuming power, the chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, did away with the colour red in public edifices, and replaced it with blue and white.
Such changes imply that there’s a new queen or king hovering above us, a new dispensation in place. What’s been most disquieting is the way the apparently secular media in India is also largely demarcated by alliances with friends and family, so that you get a very limited range of voices, arguing in discussions overseen by long-running and unchanging news anchors.
There’s no doubt that the aspirational middle-class young want change, and have been the engine behind enigmatic populist anti-corruption activists such as Anna Hazare, the recent extinction of their interest in the man leading to his sudden relegation to the background. But it’s also undeniable that Indians who grew up in the 80s and 90s have been in many ways morally and imaginatively conservative: they are the context, for instance, in which wish-fulfilling skin lighteners like Fair & Lovely have flourished. A reminder of this was the public reaction to the Delhi rape case earlier this year: a solidarity at first moving, and then disturbing, given the cries for the castration of the rapists. This makes the young now very different from, say, early 19th-century precursors who were called Young Bengal, who ate beef steak to break that particular taboo: bad boys of a kind. Raja Rammohun Roy and his contemporaries pushed for reforms against sati and for widow remarriage in the 1820s; but India, which has desperately needed social and institutional, and not just economic, reform for a long time, hasn’t seen comparable shifts since then. It remains to be seen how adventurous the young in India today really are.
Amit Chaudhuri‘s is a novelist and professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia.