From Naxalbari to the Arab Spring, our popular imagination has seen the youth as the harbinger of revolution that breaks down the bastions of privilege. How do we reconcile this with the decisive victory that modern Indian youth have handed to the BJP, whose manifesto focused on entrepreneurship rather than redistribution? I would like to argue that a large number of first-time voters, combined with fertile social and economic conditions, made for a perfect storm. On one hand, modern Indian youth are at the vanguard of a social transformation that reflects rising education, economic aspirations and participation in global culture. On the other hand, their lives are circumscribed by limited opportunities and deeply conservative social mores. So it is not surprising that a manifesto which promises to increase economic opportunities while protecting a conservative social fabric finds resonance with them.
Levels of education have risen sharply in the past decade and along with them, the aspirations and expectations of the youth and their parents. The India Human Development Surveys (IHDSs), organised by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and the University of Maryland, document a striking increase in enrolment ratios in the age group of 18-22. This survey of about 42,000 households was conducted in 33 states and Union Territories in 2004-05 and then again in 2011-12, and it allows us to examine recent changes in Indian society. These surveys show that while only 25 per cent of youths aged 18 were studying in 2004-05, this proportion rose sharply to 40 per cent by 2011-12. It is well recognised that primary school enrolment is near universal now. However, the increase in enrolment at the tertiary level over the past decade is particularly striking.
Unfortunately, in spite of this rise in enrolment and vast government programmes like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, obtaining quality education remains a challenge at all levels. At the primary level, ASER surveys of about 3,00,000 children as well as smaller IHDSs show that basic skills like the ability to read a simple paragraph have not improved and even show a marginal decline over time. This has led to a crisis of confidence in government schools. In 2004-05, about 28 per cent of children aged 6-14 were in private schools; by 2012 this had grown to 33 per cent. At the college level, faculty shortages have placed a tremendous strain on established university systems, and have led to the growth of private colleges of dubious quality.
Rising parental and youth aspirations, reflected in increased enrolment and the growth of private schooling, often collide with very slow growth in employment opportunities in the continued…