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The Rise of the Satellite Generation

There is a new wave of political assertion and economic ambition sweeping India. Its roots lie in reforms, digital technologies and Bollywood’s dream machine writes N Madhavan.

india Updated: Dec 27, 2013 23:37 IST
N Madhavan
N Madhavan
Hindustan Times

Salman Rushdie’s celebrated novel, Midnight’s Children, in effect gave a name to those born around August 15, 1947 growing up in a newly independent India, with its attendant joys and anxieties. That was the Midnight Generation, enjoying a newfound freedom and defining itself in a fresh mould that was a cocktail of economic self-reliance and cultural assertion. It was more about identity than ambition, more about assertiveness than prosperity, more about gratitude towards India’s new political leaders than an attitude to hold them accountable.

Some 44 years later, on July 1, 1991, Manmohan Singh, just appointed finance minister to run an economy in the throes of a foreign exchange crunch and high inflation, effected the first of a two-stroke devaluation of the rupee, beginning a long and winding road to economic reform. It was what some called India’s Second Independence, as the government unleashed a new wave of optimism built around a spirit of entrepreneurship in a liberalised economy.

Exactly one month after the devaluation, Star TV was launched in Hong Kong as Asia’s pioneering satellite television company. Over the next year or so, it brought forth into tens of millions of Indian homes the power of images, words and ideas that seems to have shaped the worldview of a generation born around that time.

Now, it seems, the Midnight Generation is out, and the Satellite Generation is in.

An estimated 150 million people casting their ballots to elect a new government in New Delhi in 2014 will be first-time voters and for all practical purposes, members of the Satellite Generation, born around 1991 or a little after.

This generation has been shaped by a variety of factors that show that its attitudes, aspirations and ambitions are qualitatively different from the ones that worshipped Gandhi and Nehru. Their bar is higher and their energy seems untamable.

In the 1950s, Estonian economist Ragnar Nurkse advanced the theory of “Demonstration Effect” that discusses how effects on the behaviour of individuals are caused by observation of the actions of others even in different circumstances.

Nurkse argued that the exposure of a society to new ways of living – especially in consumption of goods – creates unhappiness with what was previously acceptable.

To a generation growing up in the 1990s, satellite television provided game-changing exposure that brought in ideas on economics and democracy that was not available so easily to the previous generation. On the one hand, economic liberalisation was firing up new opportunities, while on the other, technology was opening up new possibilities in both wealth creation and expansion of the mind.

In urban India, retiring parents with regular pensions and homes made the younger generation free to raise their ambitions. In rural India, urban growth and a larger market fired up opportunities for migration and commerce.

The same digital technologies that brought in the satellite TV revolution were also the cause for media convergence that was administering to democracy and entrepreneurship a dose of steroids.

The Internet arrived in India in the mid-1990s, alongside a new telecom policy that ushered in cellphones and private telecom service providers.

Over the next decade, text messages and e-mails gave rise to message boards and chats, chats to social networking and social networking to a profusion of groups discussing animatedly the prospects of a changing world – and ideas to change the world further.

In Mecca, coffee was banned in the 16th century because it was said to encourage political gatherings. In Paris much later, cafes were a source of social ferment. In the first decade of the new millennium, Facebook has became the new café and Twitter, the new parliament – resembling as it does a virtual town hall. These are the new places to share thoughts, argue over the sublime and the ridiculous and exchange hyperlinks that are shaping hyperdemocracy fanned by ideas from all across the planet.

Mahatma Gandhi, Bhimrao Ambedkar, Allama Iqbal, Ram Manohar Lohia, Jawaharlal Nehru, Netaji Bose and Jayaprakash Narayan had one thing in common: they were all educated in the West, and brought with them back to India various flavours of nationalism and democratic justice.

In the new millennium, a new class of non-resident Indians – now flourishing in the West and some returning home with new confidence -- brought in new concepts and ideas that increased a sense of economic democracy – and with a new sense of ambition.

The listing of Infosys on the Nasdaq, the technology-heavy US stock exchange, was a milestone that brought into Indian middle class homes the idea of using venture capital to get rich. This in a way broke a glass ceiling that the Licence-Permit Raj preceding 1991 had erected – one in which inheritors and fixers ruled the roost in the business of creating wealth.

Software companies, call centres, back-office units and other IT-enabled services have since created 3 million direct jobs.

A potent combination of emerging affluence and technologies that shrank the media to a palmtop experience has since then fired up new ideas on what one could expect: of the government, society and the world at large.

Atal Behari Vajpayee, somewhere during his tenure as prime minister, captured in a casual remark the arrival of a new set of aspirations. Expectations among Indians, he said, were no longer about “Roti, Kapda Aur Makan” (Food, clothing and shelter) but more about roads, schools and hospitals.

On the other side, anxieties were on the rise. Everyday corruption that urban citizens were encountering at the hands of government clerks and touts, and the security threats created by the Kargil War, the hijacking of IC914 by pro-Taliban terrorists and finally, the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai steadily gave rise to worries on national security. The spectrum and coal scandals in UPA II’s rule added to layers of anxiety. Possibly, the fat numbers of taxpayer’s money lost in the scandals as projected in media reports compounded the Demonstration Effect. In the “new normal” of public expectations, it was the government’s job to govern across a wide range of activities.

Bollywood was doing its own bit to shape the disenchantment with political leaders—as it has done since the 1950s, when Guru Dutt and his poet accomplice, Sahir Ludhianvi, had raised hard questions on the efficacy of governance in Nehru’s India. The JP movement of 1974 coincided with Manoj Kumar’s Roti, Kapda Aur Makan that painted the scarcity of bare necessities.

In the new century, there were new story-tellers to feed and fan a new sense of angst.

Yuva (2004), Rang De Basanti (2006) and A Wednesday (2008) were movies that shaped urban angst over insecurity, mal-governance and corruption. If Zanjeer (1973) Deewar (1975) had fashioned the iconic Angry Young Man played by Amitabh Bachchan in the 1970s and encouraged the anti-Congress politics of the 1980s, a new script with a similar undercurrent of outrage was playing out in a different decade.

It was as if a generation born around 1990 had been honed in its teens to come up with a potent mix of energy, outrage and the comfort of reasonable affluence that gave them the freedom to take part in loud protests – this time against corruption, injustice and venal politics.

The 90s was about identity politics in a largely rural scenario. The BJP’s Hindutva ran into the politics of job reservations championed by backward caste leaders. But urban growth arising from economic reforms had been compounded by what economists called a “demographic shift” of skilled workers finding their feet in a new world. In this perhaps lay the kernel of the “Aam Aadmi” who demands his share of justice, security and governance.

And then the Arab Spring in 2010 fired the imagination of youths across the world – and made magnificently easy by the rise of social media platforms that helped protesters drum up support.

While Arab nations may have been up against authoritarian regimes, in the case of India, the cause was suitably altered. Barely five months after the first flowers bloomed in the Arab world, in April 2011, Anna Hazare’s fast to enact a strong Lokpal Bill happened in a cruel month for the UPA, mixing memories of the JP movement with the desires of the Satellite Generation.

Perhaps, like the role of Sage Narada in Indian mythology, the media might have played its part. Competitive TV news channels winning over viewers in high-pitched outrage that spoke up for citizens’ issues fanned new political fires. This was no longer the staid he-said, she-said media but one of revealing stings and heated arguments at prime-time, powered by increasingly affordable digital cameras.

The aspirations and anxieties they have fanned – and discussed with “Like” marks on Facebook, political jokes on WhatsApp and Retweets on Twitter – are moulding a new social discourse, with its own strange mix of style, substance and attitudes.

When young Indians go to vote next year to help elect the next Lok Sabha, deep in their subconscious, the buttons they will press would have been shaped by a myriad images, videos, comments, and ideas that bounced off distant satellites hinting to them that sky is the limit.

First Published: Dec 27, 2013 23:22 IST