India has turned a year older from last year. Happy Birthday, India! The cynics would, of course, say that there is nothing to celebrate. The gloom on the economy, polity and society has only intensified in the 66th year since independence. Still, anniversaries, birthdays and other such marquee occasions are a good time to take stock of the good and the bad.
The good news (there is some!) is that with each passing year, India actually becomes younger. At 66, a massive 66 percent of the country's population is under the age of 35. In theory, this should yield a tremendous demographic dividend at some point in the not too distant future. Also, in the long history of nations, 66 is hardly even middle age. At the same age, the United States of America was only just discovering capitalism and that too courtesy the robber barons. The outstanding quality of youth is its impatience, and the standout feature of contemporary globalisation is connectivity (global comparisons are easier), so India does not have the American luxury of a century of slow progress.
A youthful, impatient, aspirational India is the pressure group that India so desperately needs. Unfortunately, the bad news is that the country's political leadership, still the ultimate arbiter of the nation's destiny, cutting across party lines, is more disconnected than ever from India. The country is young, the country's people are young but politics is aged and tired, wedded to the past, divorced from the future. Consider the state of some of the major parties as the country readies for its 16th General Election in its 67thyear.
Congress: India's party of freedom is stuck in a time warp. Its current leadership is directly descended from the leadership of 1947, the legendary Nehru-Gandhi (and presumably Vadra in the future ) dynasty. Its ideological moorings are still anchored to a time (1940s) when the Soviet Union, and its rapid industrialisation, was the role model for newly independent countries. Congress promised to free India from poverty in 1947. It renewed that pledge in 1971 with Indira Gandhi's famous Garibi Hatao slogan. Indira's daughter-in-law and grandson are still promising the same 40 years on. The Congress has ruled India for 53 years out of 66. That its faux pro-poor policies have failed is clear as daylight. But the party has resisted reinvention.
The Congress's purported attempt at reinvention, by projecting a youthful image to the people of India, is a charade. Almost all of its most prominent youth leaders, beginning with Rahul Gandhi, are scions of political dynasties. There is scant regard for merit, a principle so dear to the country's aspirational youth, in the party's structure. By perpetuating feudalism, Congress is actually travelling further into the past than even 1947, a time when the party did contain some genuinely talented and meritocratic politicians. A disconnect with young India cannot be bridged by privileged young princes.
BJP: Founded in 1980, it is a relatively young party (Congress was founded 100 years earlier) but carries the burden of the past. A successor to the Jan Sangh and an offshoot of the RSS, the BJP cannot resist the temptation of resurrecting the real communal wounds of 1947 and the more mythical communal hurt from the long history of medieval India. That politics of grievance, which admittedly helped the party rise as a force in national politics, is now out of sync with the young aspirational India.
An overwhelming majority of Indian's have no memory of partition and no desire to delve into history. They want a dream for the future rather than a recounting of a nightmare from the past. The BJP could have so easily cast itself as a modern party of the centre-right, promising opportunity not entitlements, promoting merit, not inheritance. But it hasn't done so convincingly.
If there is a silver lining for the BJP, it comes in the form of its state-level leadership where dynamic Chief Ministers - most of them have risen from the grassroots - have recognised the need to cater to aspirations, eschewing parochial community-based agendas. The party may connect better with India once Messrs Narendra Modi, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Raman Singh and Vasundhara Raje have a firmer grip on the national apparatus.
SP and BSP: The powerhouses of Uttar Pradesh rose in the late 1980s to challenge Congress domination in the Hindi heartland. In principle, both were well placed to provide not just political empowerment to previously marginalised castes but to also deliver governance that the Congress had failed to. Two decades on, both SP and BSP are best known for standing up in favour of what is wrong. The fact that both parties spoke loudly in their defence of Robert Vadra and Sonia Gandhi, rather than demanding an impartial inquiry reveals their instincts. Perhaps they have no choice given that their leaders, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati are so mired in corruption cases themselves. Whatever the reason, a blind defence of those accused of corruption is not something young India wants, not even the 200 million people of Uttar Pradesh who voted the SP and BSP into positions of power.
The prospect of reinvention is limited. The SP has been reduced to the fiefdom of one family. The BSP is the property of one woman. For parties that stood for empowerment, this is an extraordinary disempowering turn of events. It would be foolhardy for SP and BSP to take the voters of UP for granted. So far, they have relied on old vote-banks. But there are signs that the young could break down old barriers and vote differently. The SP and BSP could be in for a nasty surprise in 2014.
Left Parties: They have been around since before independence, made a mark in Kerala in the 1950s and rose to prominence in Bengal in the 1970s but now in the wilderness after a rout in their bastion in 2011. The CPI(M) is known for admiring its counterpart in China, the Communist Party of China (CPC). But it refuses to adopt the one thing the CPC got right: a decisive thrust to free market economics. Needless to say, it has been less hesitant in emulating some of the darker strategies of the CPC, particularly those that involve political violence (just ask Mamata Banerjee).
So far, it has nothing to offer young India other than frequent renditions of Marxist and Leninist thought. Their legendary anti-Congressism, a potential vote gatherer, was compromised by support to UPA1.
JD(U), TMC, BJD: All three are relatively young parties (born in the 1990s). The hopes of Eastern India depend on this regional threesome. On the surface, all can claim to have a connect with their people. The BJD has won office for three consecutive terms, the JD(U) for two and Mamata has an iron grip over West Bengal. Unfortunately, when faced with a challenge, these parties lurch, all too easily, into the negative politics of the past. So, Nitish Kumar does not hesitate to invoke the myth of Narendra Modi as a mass murdering Hindu nationalist to cynically consolidate power with the "Muslim vote bank".
Mamata still invokes the Left (or some other conspiracy theory) when she is asked serious questions about her own record.
In Orissa, the apparently modernist Naveen Patnaik has surrendered his state's industrialisation (and employment creation) process to sundry activists, who believe that tribals must still live in the 19th century. Can the threesome resist the temptation of the forces of the past and chart a future course? The jury is still out.
In the end, India's voters have to choose between what is available. A combination of one or more of these parties will rule India for a long time. For the country's sake, let us hope that at least some modernise their thinking. India doesn't want blasts from a difficult past. It would infinitely prefer crystal balls into a bright future.