September 25, 2020
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Rahul, Obama And The Youth

Despite important differences, there are remarkable parallels in the recent electoral victories in the US and India. Indeed, the outcome of India's elections may be no less transformational than the election of Barack Hussein Obama in America.

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Rahul, Obama And The Youth

It is tempting to read the re-election of the UPA with more seats in the 2009 elections as a mandate for continuity. To many, these results appear to be a contrast from the election of the first Black President in America on a historic mandate for change in November 2008. The political dramas enacted in two of the world’s leading theaters of democracy have very different scripts and characters. Despite important differences, there are remarkable parallels in the recent electoral victories in the US and India. Indeed, the outcome of India’s elections may be no less transformational than the election of Barack Hussein Obama in America. The story of the resurgence of the Democratic Party in America and the Indian National Congress in India share at least one common refrain. In both countries, the youth seem to have emerged as central to the political discourse and may have unleashed a process of churning that can have far reaching consequences.  

The phenomenal success of Barack Obama--popularly called the "obamanomenon"--was achieved by reaching out to a vast army of young Americans between the ages of 18 and 29. Obama’s brilliant campaign strategy was hatched by experts around the University of Chicago, where Obama lived and taught as a professor of Law. His campaign offered numerous cyber tools that enabled volunteers to mobilize locally. The student President of the University of Chicago Democrats, Leigh Hartman, told me that young Americans like himself became "A bottomless pit of resource for the Obama campaign. We were prepared to go to Iowa on our own money, crash on someone’s couch for four nights till we had knocked on each door in a small town at least two times to register new voters and distribute campaign fliers." Sitting two blocks down from Obama’s former office at the University of Chicago Law School, America’s leading expert on race and US politics, Professor Michael Dawson, explains that the American youth played a decisive role in organizing and campaigning for Obama. Yet, he says, young people did not drastically influence the absolute numbers of the electoral outcome.  

In contrast to the US, the youth in India are demographically significant because India is a predominantly young country with more than sixty percent of its population under the age of 35. Whether youth votes actually led to the victory of the Congress party remains inconclusive but the power of young people to numerically affect elections can hardly be denied. An unprecedented 43 million new voters were registered across India, although we don’t know how many of them actually voted. Yet, it is plausible that the importance of young voters might have played a positive role in the nationwide success of the Congress and its improved vote share. There has been much talk about recent rejuvenation of the Youth Congress and induction of young Congress party members. However a large part of the urban youth may have supported the Congress but they remained largely aloof from the actual process of campaigning unlike youth participation in the Obama campaign.  

The increasing importance of the youth in the current discourse about elections in the US and India is historically significant at two levels. It represents a shift from decades of alienation of young people from the political system in the both countries. Moreover, the recent successes of the Congress Party in India and the Democratic Party in the US reflect a newfound "coolness" acquired by these two political parties. It is a far cry from the resentment faced by these parties in recent history.  

For the past two decades, the Congress had come to symbolize the politics of the old guard, dynastic rule and empty symbolism. Meanwhile the BJP built its political career by destroying a mosque and demonising Indian Muslims as agents of Pakistan. It rose to power on the backs of a politics of hate and violence that argued for an imagined history of Hindu unity and persecution. By strategically shifting the framework of public debate, the BJP pushed to the wall a Congress party viewed as weak and corrupt. Any talk of including marginalized castes and religious minorities in India’s mainstream was attacked by the Sangh Parivar as an anti-Hindu politics of appeasement. As a result, a defensive Congress had become increasingly apologetic about professing the very ideals of equal citizenship and secularism enshrined in India’s constitution.   

In the US, the Republican Party rule since the late 1960s, except for two Clinton terms in the 1990s, cultivated what is known as the "culture wars." It entrenched a divisive cultural politics based on race, religion and immigration in the American political discourse. The post World War Baby Boom generation who came of age in the 1960s was the architect of this conservative identity politics. Domestically, Americans incessantly debated abortion, gay marriage and scientific knowledge production versus Christianity. American foreign policy remained focused on waging ideological wars in Vietnam in the 1960s, in the Gulf in the 1990s and in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001.  

Over the years, notes the American commentator Andrew Sullivan, the Democratic Party internalised the fear that the majority was not with them. A Regan-era legacy of neo-liberalism meant that Democratic programs for inclusive distribution of wealth and public services were attacked as communist agendas. Many of Obama’s young supporters came of age when America’s War on Terror unfolded after the September 11 attacks. This generation felt let down by the staleness of the old culture wars, America’s disastrous military adventures and the economic recession. These frustrations provided a historic window of opportunity to reconfigure public debate that had been dominated by decades of jingoistic right-wing politics. Social welfare policies and the end of the war with the Muslim world were increasingly seen as the only way to deliver America out of this moral and economic morass. Obama stepped in by embracing an inclusive and secular political agenda. According to Sullivan, he was "among the first Democrats in a generation not to be afraid or ashamed of what they actually believe." Michael Dawson notes it is not that the American youth have become pro-abortion or atheists. Instead, they have shunned public appeals to religion in matters of personal choice and scientific research. 

Taking a cue from the Obama campaign, the BJP wooed India’s growing tech savvy generation through an internet blog for its eighty-one year old prime ministerial candidate. Of course, this was the wrong cue because the medium is not always the message. Failing to go beyond the hollow trappings of modern technology, the Hindutva party’s youngest candidate, Varun Gandhi, spewed communal venom against Muslims in his campaign speeches. The party offered more of the same divisive politics to a generation of youth that likely connected this hate politics with the distressing images of Mumbai’s siege in November 2008. Only weeks before the Mumbai attacks, young Indians had seen America’s ability to elect Obama and transcend racial cleavages that have marked the US since its founding. The lesson the Indian youth seem to have taken from these events is that attacking minorities instead of including them in India’s mainstream would only make all Indians more unsafe.   

In contrast, the Congress successfully reworked the popular discourse so that the values of pluralism, secularism and egalitarian growth were once again seen as desirable rather than signs of Hindu weakness. Success of social welfare schemes coupled with steady economic growth resonated with voters cutting across the urban-rural divide, many of whom were young people. Like the rejuvenated Democrats in the US, the Congress seems more confident in espousing the dictate of "inclusive growth" without apologies. Rahul Gandhi’s efforts to democratise the party machinery and inducting young blood dampened the age old, unimaginative dynasty debate in Indian politics.  

Young Indians and Americans appear to be less apathetic and cynical. Unlike the youth of the 1960s counter movement who dissented by remaining outside the political system, this generation is beginning to enter the political process at different levels. They seem to prefer moderate, left-of-centre politics over exclusionary right-wing campaigns. According to Michael Dawson, "What we are seeing in India and the US will have long term ramifications within the two countries, but we can also expect this to become a trend internationally." To what extent the Democrats led by Obama and the Congress led by Rahul Gandhi will use the transformational potential of the youth to craft a humane and inclusive politics for the 21st century remains to be seen. The possibilities are immense. 

Mona G. Mehta is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago.

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