Chetan Bhagat’s “young India” will be a politically frustrated minority.
When attempting to discern how India might behave as an actor in the international system, an almost entirely overlooked factor is the changing perception of younger Indians. To select but one recent example, Nonalignment 2.0 makes but two passing mentions of the importance of ideas among India’s youth, and that too in the context of the country’s rise as a hub of innovation and research. There are many good reasons for remaining mute about the effects of generational change on national politics and foreign policy, not least because identifying a single perspective representative of a large, diverse country such as India is terribly problematic. Anticipating the effects of that evolving worldview on one’s foreign policy is doubly so.
In his latest book, What Young India Wants, the prolific and popular writer Chetan Bhagat ambitiously attempts to capture the prevailing zeitgeist amongst India’s youth. To his credit, the 38-year-old Bhagat admits that he has a specific young Indian in mind: “When I visualise it, I today see it as sombody who is from a tier-two, tier-three city, maybe between twenty to thirty, maybe finishing school trying for college, trying to get a job…” This young Indian, in his reading, desires more than anything else a job and a girlfriend (“meri naukri, meri chokri”), which also suggests a particular bias towards a (heterosexual) male worldview.
So, going by available demographic data and in its absence carefully considered if crude estimates, how representative is Bhagat’s young India of the country as a whole? India’s population under 30 years of age is approximately 55% of its total population of 1.2 billion. Of those under 30, some 53% are male, making young males approximately 29% of India’s total population.
Education—meaning, in this case, some tertiary education and some command of English—is also central to Bhagat’s conception of young India. Based on current enrollment data, roughly 21% of Indian males of appropriate age have some tertiary education. When projected on India’s total youth population, this statistic is likely a bit on the low side, as enrollment rates are continuously rising and a higher proportion of those currently under 18 can be expected to receive college educations. For our purposes, a rough estimate of 25% will have to suffice.
Bhagat’s clarification of his target being from second-tier or third-tier cities is an interesting addition. India’s urban population is about 24%, of whom roughly one-third live in the eight largest metropolitan areas (Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkatta, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Pune). Urban India has much higher rates of advanced education than rural India, so—for the purposes of estimation—let’s assume that less-educated big-city dwellers and highly-educated rural citizens cancel one-another out. This, admittedly, errs on the side of larger numbers.
Thus, the young India that Bhagat attempts to capture—under 30, male, small city, university-educated—is, in reality less than 67% of 25% of 53% of 55% of India. In other words, they represent less than 5% of India’s population and 9% of Indians under 30. Extend Bhagat’s voice to females, and one still finds him purportedly representing the views of about 17% of India’s youth: 112 million of them.
Why is any of this important? Criticism of his writing and themes aside, there is no question that Bhagat touches a chord with his large and loyal readership. This is only underscored by the tremendous success of the film adaptations of his novels, particularly 3 Idiots, which was watched well over 100 million times in Indian cinemas. His audience may turn out to be largely representative of India’s middle class in 25 years: they could very well be the cohort from which the next two generations of Indian political and business leaders will emerge.
But where Bhagat’s claims of speaking for India’s youth fall exceedingly short are when they are translated into the political sphere. Small city, upwardly-mobile educated Indians will still represent less than one-fifth of the electorate in 25 years. Adjust for accelerated urbanization and enhanced higher education opportunities, and their ranks may swell to about one-third, but they will almost certainly remain a minority for the next quarter century. The Bhagat brigade’s political impotence will only be compounded by its apparent political apathy. As Nilanjana Roy writes, “[Bhagat's] protagonists never address the ugliness of a certain kind of Indian chauvinism or anti-Americanism, the narrow or absent political engagement among The Youth, the incuriosity about India’s history and recent past, the invisibility of anyone on the margins, either geographically or culturally.”
The situation is cause for both optimism and concern. The optimism arises from the fact that a large—and growing—proportion of young Indians are evidently confident, demand greater opportunity, and crave progress. The concern arises from the fact that, while successful, this cohort will almost certainly remain a politically frustrated minority well into middle age, one led by a government with electoral incentives to remain majoritarian. India will undoubtedly shed much of its Cold War baggage and its leaders may adopt a newfound confidence in international affairs. But it will take more than a generation or two to escape the impulses of a developing state, even if it is one with a sizeable naukri- and chokri-seeking middle class.