The anger and ambition of India’s youth
Dreamers: How Young Indians are Changing the World. By Snigdha Poonam. Harvard University Press; 288 pages; $17.95. Hurst; £14.99.
VINAY SINGHAL and his brother, Parveen, co-founded WittyFeed, a content-factory that churns out clickbait, as a Facebook page in 2011. By 2016 it had its own website, 150 writers around the world, a valuation of $30m and a big HQ in Indore, a third-tier city about halfway between Mumbai and Delhi. Mr Singhal has bigger aspirations yet; for a while he thought he might aim to become prime minister. And why stop there? “I want to lead humanity…I want to lead Mars,” he tells Snigdha Poonam, an Indian journalist.
“Dreamers: How Young Indians are Changing the World”, Ms Poonam’s first book, contains an abundance of bombastic characters. “Eyes red from sleepless nights of plotting his and his country’s rise to glory, Singhal can seem like the face of the new India,” Ms Poonam writes. “This new India”, she adds wryly, “is not always easy to like.” Quite. The country she describes is deeply worrying.
Two-thirds of India’s 1.3bn citizens are under 35. Roughly 1m people enter the workforce every month. Few find jobs; most graduates are too poorly educated to be employable. Meanwhile a numerical gender imbalance means many men remain single. Yet India’s young men—Ms Poonam’s interlocutors are mostly men, because they dominate public spaces—believe they can have it all.
And they believe they are owed it all. Unlike previous generations, they see the pleasures of the wider world in their Facebook feeds, Instagram timelines and WhatsApp chats, and wonder why everybody else goes on foreign holidays, drives imported cars, and parties with vodka and girls. They blame the Muslims, the West, the Congress government and its decades of socialism and appeasement of minorities. Now Narendra Modi, whose muscular brand of Hindu nationalism has fired up the young, is prime minister. He will put those miscreants in their place.
Ms Poonam travels to small towns, largely in Hindi-speaking parts of north and central India, and repeatedly finds the same mix of aspiration and anger. At a motivational class in New Delhi, 32-year-old Shahnawaz Chaudhary, who wants to become president, explains to a paying audience that the British destroyed India. Vikas Thakur, a 29-year-old social-media warrior for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and an aspiring MP, boasts about “flattening his enemies” when he was at college. Arjun Kumar, 19, carries around an iron rod on Valentine’s Day in the hope of finding Hindu-Muslim couples to intimidate. Sachin Ahuja, 26, leads a gang of cow protectors on midnight raids, looking for Muslims transporting cattle on northern highways. Pawan Poojary, 19, merrily duped Americans through phone-scams, partly for the sheer joy of deceiving people who “considered themselves superior to the rest of the world”. (Eventually his conscience drove him to tip off the American authorities.)
That these young Indians are “dreamers” is incontrovertible; the idea that they are “changing the world”—as Ms Poonam’s subtitle asserts—is more questionable. But her book offers valuable insights into the politics of identity and resentment that have gripped much of the world. It demonstrates, for instance, that the perfect past of nostalgia need not lie within living memory. Nor is that fantasy restricted to the middle-aged. Many devotees of Mr Modi want to bring back the glories of pre-colonial, pre-Islamic Hindu kingdoms from centuries before they were born. Greatness is a point forever receding in the distance, and yet somehow within reach.
How did this politics of anger go global? A clue can be found in the structure of this book. “Dreamers” begins and ends with stories of young Indians deploying assets they acquired from the West against credulous Americans: content-free listicles and call-centre databases. Silicon Valley’s social-media platforms feature throughout as the foundation of young Indians’ social lives. They spend their leisure time staring into their phones. The part this technology has played in the rise of populism in the West has been much discussed. That its spread in other parts of the world has been coterminous with that of smartphones and internet connections is noted less frequently. Ms Poonam offers empirical, if anecdotal, evidence of that overlap.
She does not dwell on statistics. But what “Dreamers” lacks in citations of official data it makes up for through its Hindi-speaking author’s ability to draw out her subjects’ inner thoughts. The picture she paints is impressionistic. It is also alarming. If young Indians really are changing the world, it may not be for the better.