LESSON FROM INDIA’S DEMONETIZATION: RUSHING FOR “CHANGE” Part II: Cautious EuphoriaKartikeya Batra
Part II: Cautious Euphoria
Part I of this two-part essay delved into the rise of India’s radicalized citizenry, and its manifestations in the form of unexpected political mandates and responses to tough policy decisions. In the following piece, I mention reasons to be cautious, while also harping on the possible reasons behind this phenomenon in the Indian context.
Why the cheerleading?
While they could be several and diverse, at least three important trends come to mind. The proliferation of easy-to-access media platforms that allow information to travel across borders in no time has, among other things, promoted the electorate’s aspiration, thereby making them difficult to please through piecemeal measures. The trend, however, is not entirely desirable, for it allows sensational propaganda to travel at a rapid pace even before it hits the very first hurdles of fact-checking, and before one knows, it is embedded as a fact in the minds of a sizeable population. Yet, the one outcome that can’t be ignored is the emergence of a demanding electorate, which expects a lot more from political systems than its previous generations.
Very closely related to this is the demographic composition of the country. The country’s “Smartphone” generation is simply too impatient and exuberant to settle for incremental change – which could in a lot of ways be perceived as a direct outcome of ‘messy’ democratic systems. They are instead gunning for tectonic shifts in the way politics is conducted. Clubbed with the rise of consumerism which has allowed for instant gratification, patience levels have turned too low for conventional policy-making. 79% of India’s population is younger than 45 years of age; around 48% falls in the 15-44 year range. These are remarkable numbers, and indicate a major reason behind decisive mandates and an apparent appetite for unconventional policy decisions. In a recent interview with Dr. Prannoy Roy (NDTV), author and investment banker Ruchir Sharma highlighted a disturbing trend – the erosion of faith in democratic systems, globally. Surprisingly, as per his findings (World Values Survey), the youth are driving this sentiment, primarily because they are disillusioned with the slow pace of democratic processes, and/or are too young to know/recall the disastrous implications of anti-democratic political systems.
Finally, especially particular to the Indian context, it is important to recall that the previous national government under PM Dr. Manmohan Singh demitted office in 2014 with an abysmal record during 2009-14, marred by massive corruption scandals, faltering economic growth and a profound perception of policy paralysis. In that context, the likes of CM Kejriwal and PM Modi symbolized freshness and change. Big bang announcements made by their governments, along with intelligent public relations strategies, have been perceived as courageous decisions out of the ordinary, although their effectiveness may or may not have been proven empirically.
The Case for Cautious Optimism
There is, thus, a lot of restless energy waiting to be channelized towards the fructification of socio-political transformation. Therein lays a massive opportunity as well as a huge threat. The idea of channelization of this sentiment towards positive change needs little discussion, for it promises huge socio-political dividends, something exemplified by the now famous 2011 anti-corruption campaign launched by social activist Anna Hazare and his team (which would later split in different directions, one of them being the AAP). Nevertheless, it is equally true that this thirst for change may well be manipulated to suit vested interests. It is, in fact, in play as we speak, and therein lies the threat. Public support behind bold decisions/announcements marketed as viable solutions to long-standing challenges is capable of nurturing mob mentality, which can disrupt social fabrics. Examples from outside India are ample and continue to grow in number.
Within India too, the “rally around flag” sentiments are being assiduously nurtured and cheered. This has already created a vitriolic political discourse, wherein objective voices questioning aggressive policy decisions are being labeled as anti-national, not only by political leaders involved in policy-making but also by the electorate that increasingly won’t accept a speed breaker to what it perceives as the Government’s unconventional reformist roadrunner. In fact, in the same NDTV interview cited above, Sharma did mention that anti-incumbency is stronger than ever globally. Scarily enough, leaders who seem to be able to buck the trend are increasingly relying on nationalistic sentiments (read: Putin, Erdogan and the like). India could take a cue from this analysis.
Concluding this piece is a challenge, for there is a lot of temptation to philosophize about Governments’ morality and the potential for socio-political change that could be harnessed, if intended to. Instead, I shall end on a note of caution. History suggests that political restlessness possesses the potential of yielding dividends, but only if it engages with political systems, but is not co-opted by them. Ironically, if the latter happens, we risk a collapse, and not transformation, of existing socio-political systems (as imperfect as they may be). A world with better systems is desirable, but one with imperfect systems is definitely better than no systems at all.
With overwhelming support for change and an apparent gullibility among the masses in this regard, India’s socio-economic trajectory is in a critical phase. As a realist, the best scenario that I can hope for is a fine balance between public welfare and political interests, for anything more than this will be demanding too much from the political system we live in. Nevertheless, one can’t resist from envisioning the face of the nation if this prevailing potential of massive magnitudes can be harnessed in the right direction.