In 1974, Jai Prakash Narayan (JP) borrowed a line from Ramdhari Singh Dinkar's poem and gave the youth, disillusioned by the lack of progress 25 years after independence, a new slogan — 'Singhasan khali karo ke janata aati hai' (Vacate the throne, the people are coming). Thirty seven years later, hundreds, several of them in their teens and twenties, gathered at New Delhi's Jantar Mantar, where Anna Hazare was on a fast unto death to pressurise the government into enacting a strong anti-corruption law. They carried banners, led candle-light marches and shouted 'Mera neta chhor hai' (My representative is a thief) and 'ek doh teen char, band karo yeh bhrashtachaar' (one, two, three, four, stop corruption).
The import of the slogans may not have changed much in the past four decades, but India has, as have those who have historically driven such protests — the youth.So, can the Anna Hazare led anti-corruption campaign be called the first major youth agitation of post liberalisation India? Has another generation come of age by putting its weight behind these protests? How is it different from the one that participated in the JP-led movement of the 1970s and the impassioned Mandal generation in the early 90s? HT, along with C-fore, conducted a survey among those who were 18-30 years old during these three periods for some answers.
The survey threw up interesting results, but none more than participation in the three movements. Consider this — only 6% of the youth participated in the Anna Hazare movement, versus 16% in Mandal and 27% in the JP-led movement. "I am not surprised. This movement concerned the chattering classes in New Delhi but not the rest of the country," says Paranjoy Guha-Thakurta, commentator and senior journalist.
But there are still those who believe that today's youth is capable of bringing about real change.
"I don't buy the argument that the youth is not idealistic," says Gurcharan Das, author and management guru. "But, the ideologies of the youth from the previous generations have been somewhat replaced by middle-class preoccupations like getting their child into school". Upward mobility, brought on by the 8% plus growing economy, has been the achievement of the private sector, but the evolution of politics has remained disappointing and weak,making the youth cynical, says Das.
"The youth have so many opportunities that they don't have any pressure driving them to address larger issues", says renowned ad-man Piyush Pandey.
Yet, thousands did come out to protest, following Hazare's call. Why? "The upper and middle classes are angry about corruption, and with the media projecting the Rajas and the Kalmadis as figures of hate, people needed heroes, and the rustic and puritanical Hazare personified that," explains Thakurta.
Idealistic or consumerist?
Forty-three percent of Mandal protestors felt that today's youth is either too cynical or not political enough, thus explaining why the recent protests were not of the same scale as in 1990. The corresponding figure was 52% in the case of JP protestors, says the survey.
Liberalisation might hold the answer to why that is so. "After the economic reforms, there is a sense of self-confidence, which we last saw in the youth of the 1950s because they had created a nation, and this has promoted individualism," says Das.
"Much of the youth expresses deep dissatisfaction about the state of affairs, but is unwilling to get its feet dirty," says Thakurta. After all, a large section of the urban youth today is, willy-nilly, the beneficiary of a corrupt polity. Even then, in South Mumbai constituency, in spite of widespread anti-government protests and candle light vigils post the 26/11 attacks, only 43.3% voted in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. "The young urban elite is vocal, but when it comes to participation in political processes or social movements, it tends to be reticent," Thakurta added. A fact supported by the survey — when asked if they would consider joining politics, only 18% said yes.
The Twitter revolution
Much was made of the lakhs of 'online protests' lodged on sites like Facebook and Twitter. But is pressing a button online enough? According to the survey, 21% of today's youth took part in the Anna Hazare protests only via social media platforms only. "But what percentage of people even have access to the internet in India?" asks Thakurta, questioning any online movement in a country where only 6.9% of the population, according to Internet World Stats, uses the internet.
"Social media gives people a sense that they are a part of something bigger," says Das. "If you already know that it is a big movement before you step out on the streets, it acts as a de-risking option." Earlier you never knew if anyone would show up if you went out to protest, he adds. What is heartening, however, is that 97% of today's youth feel that a youth movement is required to change things in India. One can only hope that when that time comes, they don't limit their protests to 140 characters.