The story may be apocryphal but Mahendra Singh Dhoni was once asked about Farokh Engineer and whether he had modelled himself in any way on India's original wicket-keeper batsman. Dhoni looked nonplussed for a moment and then smiled. "I haven't heard of Mr Engineer. I don't look to the past when I play my cricket, I am concerned only about the present," he said.
It was typical Dhonispeak from a cricketer who has shown in the course of a remarkable career that he is unchained by the baggage of Indian cricket history. He wants to, and has, set his own rules on how the game is to be played. He is a free-spirited cricketer, but also a canny one with an acute awareness, on and off the ground. Then, whether it be his hairstyle, his helicopter shot or his calm under pressure, Dhoni gives the impression of a self-confident man. That he comes from the cricketing backwater of Ranchi is revealing--the monopoly of the big city over sport was broken some time ago. That he is also probably the wealthiest cricketer this country has produced is not surprising. This is an era when Mammon calls the shots.
Dhoni, to my mind, is the prototype of the new, young Indian : ambitious but self-assured; aspirational but rooted. Of course, it helps if you have a rare talent, but across India there are other Dhonis emerging, young Indians from humble backgrounds with fire in the belly and a willingness to chart new boundaries. You see them when you visit an info-tech company office in Bangalore, when you travel to Dalal Street in Mumbai, at the pizza takeaway counter on your street. Why, you may even meet them in the many television newsrooms where a number of fine young reporters don't come from schools and colleges with 'pedigree' but have an abiding passion for news-gathering. In a growing service sector economy, these Indians are the foot soldiers of the economic revolution, marching to the drumbeat of money and consumerism (they all want the best smartphone money can buy!).
Narendra Modi has a term to define this aspirational class: he calls them the "neomiddle class". Modi's original definition was in the context of those who had risen from the category of the poor but were yet to stabilise in the middle class. But I believe the definition should be wider, since it is now slowly cutting across traditional income and geographic divides. Many of the neo-middle class are young; a demographic shift has meant that the bulk of this new class will be in the 18-to-30 age group, young Indians who even if they live in a small town now have a certain metropolitan consciousness. Their English may not be perfect, but speaking it is a sign of "arrival". With their T-shirts, jeans and dark glasses, the sartorial gap between them and their parents is perhaps even wider than the generation gap. This class see themselves as consumers first and citizens next. It is this class that is driving the growth engine, that is constantly looking for new opportunities to climb the social ladder. That sees a glitzy mall as a 21st-century temple.
In the 2014 election, this class played an important, if not decisive, role in the final verdict. A post-poll analysis by Lokniti, a reputable political research agency, suggests that first-time voters between the ages of 18 and 23 voted overwhelmingly in support of the BJP and Narendra Modi. About 36% chose Modi as their prime minister, just 17% plumped for Rahul Gandhi.
The support that the new, young Indian gave Modi is not surprising. The young Indian is looking for iconic figures who will break with past stereotypes, who will symbolise change, not continuity. He wants leaders who will constantly communicate with him, be it across social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook or through a Town Hall format. By engaging with younger voters on social media or, indeed, in gatherings like his speech at the Shri Ram College of Commerce in New Delhi, Modi struck an instant chord with this younger India. His ideas and his aggression appealed to them. They either had no memory of Gujarat 2002, or did not consider it relevant. For them, what mattered was what Modi had come to represent in the 2014 election - a change agent who offered hope, in contrast with a Rahul-Manmohan-Sonia troika that appeared stuck in older rhetoric and a dynasty-driven culture that sacrificed merit at the altar of lineage (which is also why a Dhoni-like figure is so appealing to this young India: he has become captain of the Indian team not because of a famous surname but simply because of his high level of skill).
Ironically, the only other politician a section of these young Indians seemed to identify with was Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal. If Modi's machismo was attractive, Kejriwal's anti-corruption, anti-VIP-culture rhetoric also struck a chord. Both Modi and Kejriwal appealed to the young because they were talking of 'transforming' India. A Lokniti survey, in fact, showed that 50% of those who voted for Kejriwal in the Delhi assembly election chose Modi as their prime minister. But while Kejriwal's primary appeal was to angry Indians who felt left out of the growth engine, Modi was, in a sense, presenting himself as a post-liberalisation politician, someone who would usher in "achche din" if he was voted to power.
But in their seeming disdain for the past, is this young India less caring and less conscious of its social responsibilities? When I see the continuous outrage on the social media, for example, I wonder if the definition of the angry young man is changing. In the 1970s Amitabh Bachchan era, the angry young man was positioned as an anti-establishment hero, someone who would confront power, injustice and villainy. Today's new young Indian appears less inclined to be anti-establishment, more tempted to stress his so-called 'nationalist' credentials. I see it in Twitter profiles: 'young, nationalist Indian, proud Hindu, NaMo supporter'.
The rightward lurch in the polity is reflected in the priorities of this young Indian: he will be less inclined to support a movement that seeks rehabilitation of dislocated tribals or a trade union agitation to ensure minimum wages for labour. Instead, he will identify with 'let's teach Pakistan a lesson' war-mongering or even a more worrying 'don't trust the Indian Muslim' rhetoric. It is this sharpening of religious identity that is troubling. In the 1990s, the 'Garv se kaho hum Hindu hai' slogan echoed among VHP kar sevaks, who were rooted in their Hindutva ideology. Now, I hear it among young Indians who will not join groups like the VHP but will still espouse their religion by positing it against the 'other'.
I often wonder then, is the new young Indian economically liberal, but socially conservative? He may wear an ear-stud or a tattoo but will he allow his wife or girlfriend to wear tight skirts or trendy saris? He may work in an environment where narrow identity should not matter, and yet in his private life does he use the cloak of anonymity to spread venom against those who are 'different'? How many of these new young Indians would openly support gay sex or gay marriage? Don't forget the otherwise voluble Modi, the icon of this generation, has remained conspicuously silent on gay rights and Article 377. He also did not hesitate to brand Shashi Tharoor's late wife, Sunanda, a '50 crore girlfriend'.
Maybe I am being harsh or, worse still, pandering to broad generalisations. In a vast country like ours, there can be no single definition of the new "young" Indian. It isn't as if the spirit of idealism is dead. I often meet youngsters who appear to be constantly engaging with new ideas and contributing their time and energy to making a difference. I saw their fury during the anti-rape protests in Delhi a few years ago; I saw it during the anti-corruption Anna andolan of 2011. Their concerns may shift easily, but they are legitimate nonetheless.
A few weeks ago, I went to a college where the students asked me if I would take up the Ice Bucket Challenge. I had no idea what it was till a student explained that it was an activity that involved dumping a bucket of water on someone's head to promote awareness of a disease called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS. "It's gone viral on social media, sir," one student said excitedly. A few days later I was told that a group has begun a 'Rice Bucket Challenge', asking people to donate a bucket of rice to someone in need. "An Indian version for Indian needs' is how it was described on Facebook. There is hope, I guess, for a new, enlightened India after all.
(The writer is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal.)
(This is the first in a series of articles written for Hindustan Times' 90th anniversary.)