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Has BJP’s rise made India’s youth less liberal?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 08-05-2017 Roshan Kishore

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s growing political footprint since 2014 marks the success of the party’s efforts to polarize India.

The BJP’s rise reflects growing intolerance and a decline of liberal values in the country.

Young people, especially young people who support the BJP, are less liberal today.

This is a popular narrative among the BJP’s opponents and also some commentators. In truth, the reality of India and Indian politics is much more complex—as survey data sourced from Lokniti at the Delhi-based Centre for Studies of Developing Societies (CSDS) suggests.

The data shows that BJP’s supporters among the young are nearly as liberal or as conservative as the average young person in India, except when it comes to the consumption of beef.

Overall, while India’s young may appear quite conservative when compared to their global peers, they have become less conservative over time. The rise of the BJP has not been accompanied by a rising tide of illiberalism as many believe. Instead, it seems to have been accompanied by a growing feeling of economic insecurity among young people, the Lokniti data suggests.

The Lokniti report, titled Attitudes, Anxieties and Aspirations of India’s Youth: Changing Patterns is based on a 2016 survey of 6,122 people between the ages of 15 and 34, across 19 Indian states. The exercise was done nine years after a similar survey was conducted in 2007. The 2007 report is called Indian Youth in a Transforming World: Attitudes and Perceptions. Both surveys were conducted with assistance from the German think tank, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS).

The 2016 survey shows that around 25% of the country’s youth identifies itself with the BJP, making the party’s base among the young, the biggest among all political parties. But it is worth noting that a majority of respondents do not identify with any political party.

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On questions of patriarchy or tolerance, young people who support the BJP appear to be only marginally more conservative compared to the average. Expectedly though, on the question of beef, there is a wide gap between those who support the party and those who don’t.

The classification of patriarchal respondents is based on a patriarchy index, in turn based on answers to five questions related to women’s freedom to work after marriage; higher education being more important for boys than girls; women obeying their husbands; women wearing jeans; and men being better leaders than women.

A comparison of the 2007 and 2016 surveys shows that India’s young have become more liberal on issues such as reservations, inter-caste/inter-community marriages, dating, and alcohol consumption.

Strangely though, there is increased support for banning student unions in 2016.

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It is likely that immediate events such as the extensions to OBC (other backward classes) reservations in 2006 and the controversy around charges of sedition slapped on the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union President in 2016 have shaped some of these responses in the respective surveys.

The perception of discrimination among young people also seems to have declined sharply over the past decade. One caveat here is that the questions which were asked in the 2007 and 2016 surveys regarding discrimination are slightly different, as they seek responses on varying degrees (frequently, sometimes and never) and binaries (yes/no) respectively. The 2016 report also shows that the perception of discrimination is higher for disadvantaged groups.

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The findings of the surveys pose an interesting question: How has a party, which apparently bats for conservative values and right-wing politics, been able to position itself as the national pole of Indian politics at a time when young people appear to have become more liberal, and the perception of discrimination has declined?

Part of the answer might lie in economics rather than sociology. Although India’s young people appear to have become more liberal over time, it has also become more anxious, the surveys show. On issues such as unemployment, health costs, and family problems, India’s young are far more worried than before.

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Given the sluggish pace of job-creation in the country and the rising burden of health costs, such concerns are not entirely surprising. It is these material concerns that may have led the youth to abandon other parties and support the BJP, which has a well-articulated development pitch.

Still, despite the rise of liberal values among them, India’s young are less permissive and more conservative when compared with those in other countries. For instance, support among young people here for banning a film which hurts religious sentiments is as high as 60%, according to the Lokniti report. But the differences in permissiveness, and in some liberal values between Indians (and even other Asians) and those from Western countries are likely to hold for all age-groups, not just the young.

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Such differences may be partly rooted in our history. Unlike western countries, India did not undergo a comprehensive social-reform movement against entrenched prejudices in its process of democratic transition. While our freedom fighters succeeded in establishing an electoral democracy, they did not succeed in establishing a truly liberal democracy (a Mint column had discussed this issue in detail).

Nonetheless, given the progression in liberal values among them over the past decade, it is likely that today’s young peope are far more liberal than older voters.

The latest findings do not fully controvert the claim about BJP’s polarizing politics but they do suggest that economic concerns could have played as big a role, if not a bigger role, in driving the BJP’s rise as the consolidation of the Hindu vote in the elections held since 2014.

Lower levels of economic anxiety in 2007 might have helped the incumbent Congress government to return to power in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections while a rise in economic insecurities may have catapulted the BJP to a leadership position in India’s polity over the past few years. This also means that unless the BJP is able to address such anxieties successfully, it could also lose support of an insecure and impatient generation.

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