India's Rising Aspirations

India’s newly formed Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had a spectacular debut in recent state elections. Its leader became the chief minister of the state of Delhi. The election results seemed to indicate a fundamental change voters now perceive politicians not as “rulers,” but as professionals with a limited mandate to serve. The AAP ran on an anti-corruption agenda, and Delhi’s new chief minister seems to “walk the walk.” He uses public transport to commute to work, a refreshing change from the typical politician in India who is usually seen riding in a convoy of vehicles.

As we reflect on what the election results could indicate, I would say one key driver was the rising aspirations of voters, specifically among younger people. The cohort of constituents who are in their early 20s were born after the economic liberalization of the early 1990s and are now entering the workforce. The experience of their formative years is quite different from that of India’s previous generations. Then, India had been a country of scarcity. Risks were shunned because opportunities were so few; the acme of success was to work at a stable job, preferably within the government or at a blue chip company.

Having grown up in the 1980s in urban India, my primary means of entertainment came from my family’s black-and-white TV that showed one state-owned channel. Movies that were typically built on romantic fantasies and offered temporary relief from the tedium of common daily struggles were another form of entertainment for the average viewer. These movies typecast wealthy people as corrupt. This actually held an element of truth because success in pre-liberalized India was often achieved through cultivating political patronage and navigating bureaucratic rules that seemed to regulate almost everything. All this led to inefficiencies and hampered productivity. For example, my family had to wait several years for a simple phone connection. India’s laws even prevented companies from achieving economies of scale because bureaucrats in Delhi determined production capacities.

Even in cricket, the national sports obsession, aspirations were low. India was invariably a defensive team trying not to lose but very rarely going for a win. The Indian cricket team was composed mainly of humble middle class players from the largest cities, who rarely strove to dominate their opponents.

The new India, as seen through the eyes of many of its younger citizens, is a lot different. It is now acceptable to aspire to be wealthy; in many industries one can become wealthy purely on merit. The movies have changed, the wealthy are no longer depicted as corrupt. The more than 700 TV channels now compete for viewers; movies now cater to niche audiences and still make money. The Indian cricket team has transformed itself. The bulk of the team is composed of players from the small towns and hinterlands. The new cricketers are almost brash. The team now plays with a refreshing assertiveness, resilience, and confidence.

And thanks to the country’s outsourcing of the past decade or so, many more young Indian minds have been exposed to the developed world. Working with colleagues in the developed world is now not restricted to the few who went abroad to study. Rather, any graduate from India can aspire to work overseas. Indians working abroad tend to return home with much higher expectations from their employers and from society-at-large. Their changed aspirations have spread to their friends and family.

As India grows wealthier and healthier, more urbanized and more educated, we might someday look back to these years as, perhaps, a turning point in the country’s long march towards development.

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