Friday, 9 June 2017

Civil Society, Middle Class & Youth

 The idea of CHANGE is the common thread that runs, albeit in varying degrees, through all three groups, namely civil society, middle class and youth. The youth is the harbinger of change. It defines generational transition, suggests a break from the past and signals advent of a new spring after many a frosty night. The participation of the middle class in the process of change is not so direct, obvious and instant. It perhaps waits on the sly and puts its weight behind the process at the moment that it finds opportune. The civil society, true to its multi-dimensional character, works for change in many ways- advocacy, mobilization, agitation, and awareness campaigns and so on. As you might agree with me Change has been the constant in the history of mankind. Whatever progress we have achieved over the 5 millennia or more, has been made possible only because the human race was amenable to changes brought over generation after generation. In that sense, it might be said that change is a good thing in spite of aberrations that took place from time to time.  

We may now turn our focus on the present state of affairs, particularly in India, and rather quickly look at  the role played by the aforesaid groups in facilitating the changes witnessed in the country in recent times. One cannot over emphasize the fact that the forces, which were relentlessly conniving to transform India from a secular, socialist, democratic country to a majoritarian and capitalist state have succeeded to a degree, that through making full use of the democratic process. They, drunk upon the heady wine of power, have on the one hand unleashed the obscurantist, retrograde hounds baying for the blood of those who dare oppose them and on the other side are clandestinely working on the agenda of re-writing the constitution of India. So what we see today is change taking place on almost every front- political, of course, and then economic, cultural, social, environmental etc. The question to ask is to what was the role of the agencies of change in this process, to what extent and in what manner. Who among them stood against the reactionary forces, who became their willing partners, who were taken for a ride unmindful of the consequences and who were oblivious to developments taking place around them?

Let us first briefly discuss the role of the civil society. We have already noted that its character is multi-dimensional. The civil society, is generally identified by various nomenclatures like NGO, CSO or CBO etc, but in fact encompasses all non-governmental entities. Through them it strives to intervene in the realm of public policy with a view to seek better conditions for the greater good. (We may leave aside business lobbies by whatever name they go, because their mandate is exclusionary and limited to garnering monetary profits for its members). The civil society groups mostly function in two areas- a) service delivery for community welfare and b) mass mobilization through peaceful means. Both develop their roadmaps based on the input provided by such allied groups that have expertise in the field of public awareness and action research etc- the tools necessary to carry out their activities. However, the civil society suffers from three major drawbacks- 1) In the specific case of India, dependence upon funding agencies that makes them vulnerable in many ways to the dictates of the latter 2) Tendency to view a cause in isolation and not as a part of the whole, thus missing or overlooking the larger picture & 3)   Seeking instant and superficial solutions rather than addressing to the root cause i.e. the political will.   

The net result is that the organizations that tread the mass mobilization route soon lose their stamina and willpower (though things may not be as bad in the case of service delivery organizations) and the state   stops taking note of them. But that is not all. What should worry us is that talent, energy, spirit and motivation of a whole lot of people engaged in the civil society at various levels get wasted in this manner. Quite a few of them become disillusioned and depoliticized and move away to some other direction. The trade unions are also an integral part of the civil society. But of late we notice that to a great extent they too by confining themselves to narrow ambitions have lost the ability to find common cause with the general public. The same is also true in respect of two other strong bases of civil society-our universities and media. They are supposed to provide intellectual input and impetus to people’s action but by and large both have failed to come to our expectations in this time of momentous transition.  

As regards the middle class, its mention evokes two diametrically opposite views in India. One school of thought generally believes that the middle class is the original change-seeker; that it has time, energy, resources and inclination to work for change; is better educated and articulate; and can form and use social groups to raise its concerns. But in contrast there is another viewpoint that looks down with contempt at this very section of the society. In its eye the middle class is opportunist, status-quoist, self-centered, obscurantist and finally, betrayer to the cause of a just society. Not going deeper in the debate,  one cannot miss the story that has unfolded about the middle class in India in the last three decades or so. It is estimated that the population of this class which is around 60-70 million now is likely to reach almost 600 million or 60 crores meaning about 40% of the total by the year 2025. A number of essays have been written and many books published about this emerging trend; a whole range of interest groups have set their eyes on them. A newspaper columnist points out that way back in 1991 two myths were created- one about the great Indian middle class and another about the great Indian growth story, at a time when 30% population of the country was living below the poverty line. (Radhika Saraf, Daily Mail, London, 19th May 2013).

One may get an idea about the origin of this myth-making in a much-cited report published by McKinsey Global Institute on another 19th May, much earlier in the year 2007. The report titled- Next Big Spender: Indian Middle Class- goes on to assert- “Within a generation the country will become a nation of upwardly mobile middle-class households, consuming goods ranging from high-end cars to designers clothing. In two decades the country will surpass Germany as the world’s fifth largest consumer market.” This report, and there must have been many more before and after this, is obviously written for the eyes of corporate honchos. It reduces a whole class of citizens to merely being the consumers and in the process paves the way for designing, planning and implementing schemes to lure them to marketplace by cutting them off from their surroundings and its hard realities. Therefore it is not surprising that we now have a system in place that has NGOs dedicated to consumer guidance and protection, consumer courts as different from regular courts, and also consumer awareness campaigns like –Jago Grahak Jago. In this skewed system one can seek redress for a grievance as a customer in the marketplace, but hardly has any power to rein in the powers that be.

 Sociologist Rowena Robinson in an article published in January 2001 says that modernity does not mean inclusion. On the contrary it means exclusion. She finds that the middle class Indian is fundamentally non-democratic, intolerant and committed to tradition. Furthermore it perpetuates patriarchal and hierarchical notions and for it being liberal means only consumption and spending. This statement makes it abundantly clear as to what role the middle class must have played in bringing about the change that has become the reality of the day.

Finally, we may come to the role of the youth, which on all accounts should be regarded as the most significant of all three groups. It is often said with some pride that India is on the way to becoming a young nation. In the current year i.e. 2015, the young population of the country is expected to reach almost 55% of the total. The youth symbolizes many qualities- action, ambition, courage, energy, freshness, idealism, imagination, innovation, learning, and vigour etc. But it is heartbreaking to see that the country has not been able to harness this immense potential in a gainful manner.  The youth in a general sense needs motivation and guidance to prepare her to face the future with courage and conviction.  In a nation that takes pride in its constitution based upon the principles of democracy, pluralism, social justice, human dignity and equality, there must be ideal conditions for imbuing its young generation with these cherished values, and also the leaders, both in civic life and political sphere who may don the mantle of friend, philosopher and guide for the young ones.

Let us listen to what Jawaharlal Nehru told his audience at the Inter-university Youth Festival held in 1955 in Delhi. He said- “What is my relationship to you? Most of you have adopted me as an uncle. But I was thinking of another kind of bond, an intellectual and mental bond, between you and me.” In the same speech he exhorted the youth to ‘Have the pride of youth, the ambition of youth, to do something worthwhile, something big.” As a matter of fact, I can’t think of any other leader who has stirred and inspired at least three young generations of this country and in such a powerful way. From 1920s onwards he kept on interacting with the youth and repeatedly urged them to take risks, change the stagnant pool of Indian civilization into a moving stream, strive for to remove the canker of communalism from the society, not be afraid of consequences, shun safe career and take a leaf from the French revolution’s    dictum of Daring and daring and still more daring.

Contrast this with the present situation. One Satpal Khattar, a PIO entrepreneur and a Padmshri recipient from Singapore prophesied thus in June 2011- ‘Young Indian will lead the next wave of change to make India a truly industrialized nation in the next 10-15 years.”  It implies that India will not remain a nation of villages; the vast majority of its youth will have to move out to industrial clusters or cities to become either a factory hand or fit in at some level in the tertiary sector; and from our viewpoint will have a completely strange attitude. If one is to believe Marketing consultant Rama Bijapurkar (April 2011) - “Unlike previous generations, today’s youth are not obsessed with ins and outs of the politics.” She boldly proclaims- “Today, even if Parliament blew up, no one from this generation would notice. It has little relevance for them”.  

Bizarre, atrocious, horrendous, whatever adjective one may apply to this last comment but I ask myself, is it only an exaggerated statement or she telling a hitherto unthinkable truth. Going by what is happening now in many parts of the country, one would have to agree that the celebrated businessperson that Ms Bijapurkar is, has made a candid observation that touches upon the reality about the mental makeup of a very large section of the youth today. One may enumerate a hundred reasons, which have lead to creation of this disturbing scenario, but we will do ourselves a disservice if we are bogged down in it as the need of the hour is to think beyond it and come up with some concrete action plan for future. The time has come for all democratic and progressive forces to join hands to develop a new and holistic agenda for India, particularly for its youth.

 I for one would like to first concentrate on political education of the youth. All young persons, having attained the age of 18 are eligible to cast vote in elections. A sizeable number of this group comes from university students. Yet, the social orthodoxy disapproves their participation in politics. This is against the democratic polity and has to be contested.  It is necessary to revitalize the youth and student wings of both the left and liberal political parties. Let us not overlook the fact that the rightist forces are assiduously working through their youth organizations to woo the new generation and in the process have reaped huge political benefits. However, the youth is bound to become disenchanted, sooner rather than later, with the policies and programmes being implemented by the present regime.

 The enthusiasm about the BJP-lead government generated by party’s loud proclamations before and during the elections has almost evaporated. The spin doctors have retired to their nests and the government faced with the task of running the country is faltering at every step. Its bravado has come to haunt it. The people now sense that how they were taken unawares by hollow promises made by BJP campaigners. The youth, being the biggest stakeholder is worst hit by this realization. It needs an alternative, a truthful one. A new agenda offered by democratic, progressive forces will help them to comprehend the prevailing situation, give them hope for the future and prepare them to travel along a new path.

Paper presented in AIPF national Workshop, Chandigarh, February 2014