What young Indians want: India Tomorrow part 6 podcast transcript

First time voters take a selfie after voting in Bhopal in May 2019. Sanjeev Gupta/EPA

This is a transcript of part six of The Anthill podcast series, India Tomorrow. Click here to listen to the full episode and also find out more about past and upcoming episodes in our series episode guide.

Subscribe to our Anthill podcast newsletter to hear about new episodes as soon as they drop.


Craig Jeffrey: One in eight people in the world is an Indian under the age of 30. It’s worth repeating that. One in eight people in the world is an Indian young person. Someone under the age of 30. Now that’s an extraordinary statistic. And it gives a sense of the importance of that demographic for the future of Asia and of the world.

Annabel Bligh: This is Craig Jeffrey, director of the Australia India Institute and a professor of geography at the University of Melbourne. He’s done decades of research on young Indians and social change.

Craig Jeffrey: Now, unlike the same generation 25 years ago, that set of young people are very well aware of events in other parts of the world, which are streamed to them via their mobile phones or on the internet. They are increasingly in secondary school, including young women. And in school they’re learning to obviously dream big. And the government is also encouraging those young people to see themselves as part of a new India, that’s modern, in which people are based often in urban areas doing kind of what historically has been described as middle class work, service work.

And where you’ve got that situation of both demographic growth and a rapid revolution of rising aspirations, you need an outlet for young people so that they feel, as they move into their 20s and 30s, that they’re achieving the goals that they desire. And that’s not happening.

Annabel Bligh: From The Conversation’s Anthill podcast, this is India Tomorrow. I’m Annabel Bligh from The Conversation. And I’m joined by my co-host, Indrajit Roy, lecturer in politics from the University of York. Hi Indrajit.

Indrajit Roy: Hello Annabel.

Annabel Bligh: In this, the sixth part of our podcast series India Tomorrow, we’re going to be focusing on young Indians, the concerns they face as they go about their lives and the key issues they’re likely to be thinking about as they head to the polls in 2019. We’ll also be hearing about their views on caste and marriage – and about their aspirations for the future.

For this episode, we’ve teamed up with our colleagues at Trust Me I’m An Expert, a podcast from The Conversation Australia. It was Bageshri Savyasachi, a multimedia intern at The Conversation, who spoke to Craig Jeffrey about his research. You can actually hear a longer version of their conversation on the Trust Me I’m an Expert podcast, available wherever you get your podcasts from.

So, there will be an estimated 84m first time voters going to the polls in 2019. Here’s Bageshri.

Bageshri Savyasachi: What do you think India’s young voters want? What are the overarching political imperatives and demands of India’s huge generation Z?

Craig Jeffrey: I think it’s a great question. Those numbers are astonishing aren’t they? And it’s very difficult I think for pundits to predict what precisely they’ll do in terms of the elections.

Indrajit Roy: Craig says there are three things which are crucial in the minds of these voters.

Craig Jeffrey: One is jobs. So young people across India and particularly in parts of India where the economy’s been less successful at creating jobs. So some of the northern states, for example, are going to be really concerned with the capacity of the government to provide better employment opportunities.

Indrajit Roy: The second is education.

Craig Jeffrey: They’ll be looking to see which political parties and politicians are promising to improve higher education, tertiary education more generally, the skills environment, and school education. Because for a lot of young people who aren’t part of the elite in India there is a mismatch often between the educational opportunities they obtain in school or university and then the employment market and the demands of key private sector firms.

A third area that’s perhaps less obvious is the issue of healthcare and public health. And my own observations as an anthropologist and human geographer working in mainly Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand over the past 25 years on social change is that young people are often demanding access to health services that are poorly provisioned in provincial India, particularly in relation to issues like sexual health, mental health, reproductive health. And that’s an area where I think young people are looking to government for more action. And I think that will also be in young people’s minds in the lead up to the elections.

Indrajit Roy: As we heard about in the last episode of this series, jobs and unemployment are a key election issue. And particularly so for young people. In rural India, 17% of men and 14% of women under 30 are looking for jobs. And, in urban India it’s 19% for men and 27% for women, according to data leaked from the official statistics office. And there is also a big problem of underemployment, where young people are doing jobs for which they’re overqualified.

Bageshri Savyasachi: What jobs are available to young people? And do they want to do those jobs?

Craig Jeffrey: Well I think one of the stories of Indian economic growth since 1990 is its failure to create large numbers of what might be regarded as white collar, or middle class jobs for the increasing numbers of young people who are getting high school matriculation certificates or degrees in India. Now India’s not especially unusual in that regard, particularly since the global financial crisis in the late 2000s economies around the world often found it difficult to create secure employment opportunities for people. Of course automation, mechanisation is changing the nature of work throughout the world. So this isn’t specific to India. But India is a almost, a very condensed or intense example of the failure of economic growth to create lots of good quality jobs. That long predates 2014 and the coming to power of the BJP. It’s a structural feature of the Indian economy since 1990 and especially since the mid-2000s period.

Indrajit Roy: But what does this mean for the jobs that are available for young people?

Craig Jeffrey: In many cases what we’re seeing in India is that people are having to realign their expectations of what work they’re going to do in that five or ten year period after they graduate from high school or university. This is not new. Ronald Dore wrote in his book The Diploma Disease in 1970 that India was the country of the BA bus conductor. So that sense of having to downplay your expectations in light of circumstances is quite old in India. But now I would argue that a lot of people with bachelor’s degrees in India would be very keen to have a job on a state roadway as a bus conductor, so intense and cutthroat has the employment market become.

So you’re seeing people with master’s degrees, with PhDs having to do very small scale, entrepreneurial business work. You’re seeing them especially having to go back into agriculture, not as large scale agricultural innovators making large amounts of money and employing other people, but rather working on quite small plots of land in an environment where they didn’t imagine that they would go back into farming.

Annabel Bligh: So young Indians in their 20s and 30s are struggling to achieve the goals they’ve set themselves. But just how big a problem is that for the country?

Craig Jeffrey: Well obviously for the young people concerned it’s a big problem and for their families. And young people are not passive in that situation. They actively and creatively seek ways to make do. That may be entering into fallback work in agriculture. It may be finding jobs that perhaps that they weren’t aspiring to originally, but which provide a means for establishing a family and getting by, in areas like sales and marketing.

Annabel Bligh: But, Craig says, it also means there is a lot of disappointment among young people who are living their lives in limbo – something he wrote about back in 2010 in a book called Timepass.

Craig Jeffrey: What’s surprising perhaps is that that sense of social suffering hasn’t led to more unrest in India. And I think there are several reasons for that. I think partly because India is a democracy, people have an outlet for frustration, through the political system, through voting, through demonstrating on the streets. I think the second reason why there haven’t been more political mobilisation is that people often perceive this as a personal failure rather than a failure of government or of society, or as a structural failure, as social scientists would put. They see it as, “well I didn’t try hard enough” or “I wasn’t successful enough in that examination”.

Indrajit Roy: He says that quite often this failure is personalised, people blame themselves rather than the structural problems with India’s economy or its institutions.

Craig Jeffrey: There’s a whole history of commentators on India talking about the country as being poised to sort of fall into unrest. I’m not going to do that. I think India, it holds together. And as I said people, young people are actively finding ways to make do. But I do think it’s a major social issue at the moment – the lack of capacity for young people to realise their aspirations. It should be and will remain an absolutely critical issue for government in India.

Annabel Bligh: So what do young Indians, going through college, want their future to look like?

Sneha Krishnan: By and large what they want to do is find a way to live a life that feels to them, I would say “dignified”. And I think how they would put it is “sophisticated”.

Annabel Bligh: This is Sneha Krishnan, an associate professor in geography at the University of Oxford. You may remember her from part four of this series on women, where we heard about the fascinating research she’s done with young Indian women, many of whom live in student hostels or dorms under strict curfews.

Indrajit Roy: Sneha’s research is ethnographic, meaning her work focuses on particular examples or case studies. She pointed to one from her research that illustrated young people mean by a sophisticated life.

Sneha Krishnan: So there was one young woman who emphatically told me she didn’t want a job. Right. She was going to college. She was studying something like computer programming which you know is applicable across a range of industries and so on. So she could easily find herself some kind of job in the future.

Indrajit Roy: But, Sneha says this young woman didn’t really want to work.

Sneha Krishnan: She had a boyfriend who had really wanted to study art and she threw a fit. And so he ended up in an engineering college because she was really upset at the idea that she might end up with a poor artist. And she did not fancy herself living like that. Right. So she was very emphatic that what she wanted was a husband with a well-paying job. She wanted them to be able to own a three bedroom house that she and her husband would have a room, the children they had would have a room and there would be a third room in which her parents or his parents could stay when they came to visit. And the reason she had this idea was that she had grown up herself in a one bedroom house and had shared a bedroom with her parents her whole life. And any visiting relatives ended up in the same room.

Indrajit Roy: She didn’t want that to be her future. She wanted something different.

Sneha Krishnan: So sophistication is a word that I think meant different things to different people. But, by and large, I think what it referred to was being able to live a life where they felt kind of able to make their own choices. Whether it was choices like not working and having a highly paid engineer for a husband.

Indrajit Roy: I also asked Sneha whether she felt young people in India were actually becoming more liberal in their views – by which I meant more progressive rather than more economically liberal.

Sneha Krishnan: So I want to cautiously say that maybe young people are getting, as you said in the English language colloquial sense of it, more liberal. And the reason I say that is because when I left field work when I initially did it in 2013, right, before the elections happened, I was seriously disappointed during that time and I wasn’t surprised at all with the BJP victory.

Annabel Bligh: Sneha points to the national debates going on at the time about rape, which took place after the high-profile gang rape and fatal assault of a 23-year-old woman, Jyoti Singh in Delhi in 2012. This helped foster a conservative narrative which emphasised the need to protect women.

Sneha Krishnan: A lot of upper caste, middle class young women seemed to subscribe to that sort of view and it left me feeling sort of quite negative at that point.

Annabel Bligh: While Sneha says she hasn’t done any more direct fieldwork since then, she believes there has been a shift in thinking.

Sneha Krishnan: From the sort of smaller interactions I’ve had, that doesn’t seem to be the case this time. In that there are a lot of reasons for young people to be very disappointed with this government. One of them was demonetisation. What a fiasco.

Indrajit Roy: We heard about Modi’s demonetisation policy in our last episode, in which the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes were scrapped overnight in an effort to combat corruption. Sneha says it was really inconvenient for young people.

Sneha Krishnan: A lot of young people are incredibly busy people trying to sort of make careers in a bad economy. And they just don’t have the kind of time that that moment required for them to stand in queues and still not get the money they needed. To be running around and helping you know elderly relatives stand in queues and still not get the money they needed.

Annabel Bligh: She says that the growing number of attacks in India on ex-untouchables or Dalits, and Muslims in recent years, which we heard about earlier in this series, hasn’t created a backlash against far-right Hindu nationalism. But it has given some young people pause for thought.

Sneha Krishnan: I do think that the sort of enormous scale at which that’s happened in the last few years has kind of gotten through to people, in that I am sensing a certain sort of exhaustion with the way things are. And you know, again, urban middle class young people really like their personal rights. Right? And there’s a lot of talk about, you know, if I can’t marry a Muslim without people hounding me. If I can’t make out with the Dalit boy on the beach without someone hounding me. Do you know what I’m saying? So I think there’s a lot of anxiety that their rights to a certain sort of global lifestyle where they make choices, which are unfettered, is somehow under threat.

Annabel Bligh: Bageshri also asked Craig Jeffrey for his thoughts on this issue.

Bageshri Savyasachi: Do you think there is a growing shift towards illiberalism among India’s youth?

Craig Jeffrey: I think that’s a really interesting question. First one has to think about well what is liberalism. And if we define that relatively narrowly in terms of a commitment to formal equality and individual freedoms, then I think there’s evidence both ways. There’s evidence of young people contesting those visions of formal equality and individual freedom. For example through their views on on areas like sexuality. So there was a recent Centre of the Study of Developing Societies survey that showed that the majority of young Indians didn’t approve of homosexuality. So there’s some evidence there of a certain kind of inverted commas “illiberalism”.

There’s evidence of young people’s involvement in societies or organisations that are policing people’s right to eat certain foods – again which would suggest the rise of a certain form of illiberalism. But there’s also of course a great deal of evidence the other way that young people are very active in nongovernmental organisations that are seeking to protect people’s formal equality, protect people’s freedoms. The number of youth NGOs in India is growing very very quickly.

Annabel Bligh: Craig says there is also an interesting debate going on about the relationship between the individual and liberalism in India.

Craig Jeffrey: An argument that’s mean made by several people is that actually liberalism in India is organised around a sense of group rights, rather than around individual rights. So it’s perfectly possible to be part of a caste organisation or religious organisation that’s about equality and freedom, but nevertheless is articulating those notions of equality and freedom through reference to caste and religion. So that would be an argument that I think lots of Hindu nationalists would make, is that even though Hindus are the majority and even though they’re making an argument in Hindu terms, it’s an argument about tolerance and about liberalism, rather than about violence or exclusion or limiting people’s freedoms.

Indrajit Roy: We asked Suryakant Waghmore, associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, to help explain more about the caste organisations that Craig mentions here. You may remember Suryakant from our second episode on Hindu nationalism. His research looks at the way different types of caste associations work in different cities, particularly Mumbai and Ahmedabad. Suryakant explains why caste associations for so-called higher castes began.

Suryakant Waghmore: The caste associations of the pure and privileged groups, you know, when most of these came up during the colonial rule, with cities becoming important hub of economy, of society, of politics. And these castes associations kind of negotiated this urban space for several of these rural inhabitants from the privileged caste to come to city and negotiate urbanism; especially gain education and you know become mobile so that they could kind of mimic the Western way of life. But, this was rooted in caste.

Annabel Bligh: Today, Suryakant says, associations for higher castes, such as those for Brahmins, remain important, but for different reasons.

Suryakant Waghmore: In fact quite a few of these castes associations are also finding it difficult to attract youth in these associations. And most of the volunteers who kind of work in these associations are about 50 and are trying to attract the youth to kind of root them again in caste as their primary identity.

Indrajit Roy: He tells us they have an anxiety of people “losing their caste”. And in cities like Mumbai, which are large, cosmopolitan, urban environments, these associations are trying to turn caste into community.

Suryakant Waghmore: And the most important fear for these castes associations and these volunteers is that the female members of the caste marrying outside the caste or falling in love outside the caste.

Annabel Bligh: Only around 7% or 8% of marriages are considered inter-caste marriages, according to Suryakant. In another research project on inter-caste marriage, he studied 2,000 profiles on marriage dating websites to look in more detail at how ideas of caste and marriage interact.

Suryakant Waghmore: So what a typical profile, you know, would have your caste. Then your income, then your skin colour and then your preference about the person who you’re going to marry.

Annabel Bligh: By that he means stating your caste preference. In the past, he says some of these dating profiles would state that caste was no issue, except for two important exceptions: the ex-untouchables or Dalits, and people from scheduled tribes, known as Adivasis. Now, Suryakant has found, some people say caste doesn’t matter at all.

Suryakant Waghmore: Now, what is interesting is that, when they say caste does not matter, it’s just a way of saying that they would not necessarily marry outside caste. But there are some who really mean caste does not matter. What they do is that they list out castes they would be open to marry into.

Annabel Bligh: Suryakant looked at who was listing what.

Suryakant Waghmore: Now what we saw in this preference was that, that the middle castes want to marry in the middle range and upwards. The upper castes would want to marry upper range and a little to the middle order.

Annabel Bligh: So even if the ex-untouchables are not specifically mentioned or barred, Suryakant says there is still an unwritten inclination to avoid them.

Suryakant Waghmore: Whoever is kind of trying to move beyond caste, even then there is this line of purity and pollution and those castes that are considered kind of permanently polluted, that would be the ex-untouchable caste, are not really preferred to be married.

Annabel Bligh: But he stresses that this also depends on which cities people live in.

Suryakant Waghmore: Quite a few youngsters tend to think beyond caste, you know, especially in Mumbai. This is not the case in Ahmedabad, you know, there is a general kind of belief that one can not marry the ex-untouchable castes and so forth. But in Mumbai what we see is that there’s definitely adventure in the space of friendship and love. So people transgress these boundaries and do not necessary think so much about the caste. In Ahmedabad, also, it’s there too at some extent, but it is lesser.

Annabel Bligh: So Indrajit, I found this idea of a post-caste society really interesting, especially in light of everything we’ve been talking about on this series. It seems that some parts of Indian society may feel threatened by a future in which caste no longer mattered, whereas others think it’s a long overdue idea?

Indrajit Roy: That’s quite right. I think people who have been privileged by the caste hierarchy would obviously see its disappearance as a threat. But for those who’ve been oppressed under the caste system, or those who’ve found themselves being marginalised or stigmatised by it, would certainly want caste to disappear.

Annabel Bligh: So is this particularly pertinent with Modi being up for re-election?

Indrajit Roy: Oh I think so. Remember a number of the people who voted for Modi actually wanted him in power because they thought he would preserve Hinduism, preserve the caste hierarchies that came with it. Others saw him as – because he was a low-caste person himself, or at least he claimed to be from one of the lower castes – they thought him being at the top position of the country would actually challenge the caste hierarchy and contribute to its dissolution. So in a way you have both groups, those who believe that caste should not matter any more, as well as those who believe that caste is disappearing too fast and it should be preserved. Both groups have ironically vested a lot in Modi and his up for re-election actually shows the contests between these two groups.

Annabel Bligh: So whatever future they want for themselves, it’s clear that young Indians are a political force to be reckoned with. And Indian students have found themselves at the forefront of national politics in recent years, with a couple of high profile controversies over the way some student protesters have been treated.

Indrajit Roy: The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, or ABVP, a student youth organisation associated with the Hindu nationalist RSS that we heard about in episode two, has become an ever more powerful political force on some campuses. But all of India’s political parties have strong youth wings, which are key to their electoral efforts.

Back in 2014, Modi’s BJP was successful at winning the support of young people. According to the National Elections Survey – that’s a survey done with people as soon as they’ve left the booth, after casting their vote – 44% of upper-class 18 to 22-year-old first time voters preferred the BJP. This compared to 40% of middle-class voters from the same age group, 35% for lower-class voters and 24% for the poor. But the support varied widely by state – from 65% in Madhyar Pradesh, to 32% in Maharasthra. Bageshri asked Craig Jeffrey whether this is still the case going into 2019.

Bageshri Savyasachi: Is young people support for Modi on the wane? My impression based on the conversations I have with my friends and what I read is that Modi doesn’t have a lot of support among the youth. A lot of young people supported him when he was first running for prime minister, but now a lot of young people are feeling disappointed with how he has handled Hindu nationalists and violence. What do you think?

Craig Jeffrey: I should do that classic academic thing of saying that I’m not an expert on contemporary views of young people in India. Where I’ve done …

Annabel Bligh: Craig explains that it’s been some time since he did the bulk of his research, and most recently it’s been focused on a village in a remote part of Uttarakhand in northern India.

Craig Jeffrey: … I try to pick up on the streets a sense of the mood but in that regard I’m an armchair or amateur interpreter of young people’s political views at the moment. And with those caveats in mind, my sense is that young people may not support Modi as much as they did five years ago, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t vote for him.

So one needs to maybe distinguish between support and how people will actually behave in the ballot booth. I think lots of people that I speak to recognise that given the high pitch to which Modi raised people’s aspirations in 2014 there was always going to be a sense of disappointment. That skilling hundreds of millions of people quickly was going to be a very tough ask and that the vision of new India while attractive in certain respects is not borne out in social reality for those outside of the elite and particularly in provincial parts of India, in small town and rural India. So people see on the social and economic side a kind of mismatch between promise and actuality. And I think that’s undermined a certain enthusiasm for the ruling BJP government.

Indrajit Roy: There are only a few more weeks now to find out what does happen. The final round of voting in the 2019 elections is on May the 19th, with the results announced a few days later on the 23rd. We’ll be taking a pause in this series until then, when we’ll be back with a panel discussing the election results, and answering any questions you might have.

Annabel Bligh: Until then, thanks very much to everyone who’s been in touch so far about our series. And do keep those questions coming. You can get in touch via email on podcast@theconversation.com or on twitter @anthillpod.

You can read more of The Conversation’s coverage of India by academics around the world on theconversation.com or follow us on social media. And you can also find a transcript of this episode, and other episodes in this series, on The Conversation.com.

Don’t forget you can hear a longer version of Bageshri’s interview with Craig Jeffrey on the Trust Me I’m An Expert podcast from The Conversation Australia. Find a link to it in our show notes too.

And if you’re looking for some other podcasts to listen to in the meantime, check out Pasha from our colleagues at The Conversation Africa. Pasha means ‘to inform’ in Swahili and each week features a short interview with an academic expert. Recent episodes have focused on the health impacts of cyclone Idai in southern Africa, and the social stigma facing women in Ghana who don’t have children. Search for Pasha from The Conversation Africa wherever you get your podcasts.

A big thanks to all the academics who spoke to us for this episode and to the journalism department at City University for letting us use their studios. The Anthill is produced by Gemma Ware and me, Annabel Bligh. Sound by Alex Portfelix. And an extra big thanks to my co-host Indrajit Roy.

Indrajit Roy: Thanks Annabel. See you soon.

Annabel Bligh: Thanks for listening. Goodbye!