I first noticed this in 2016. Friends on social media began sharing posts lamenting the end of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. It continued into 2017 when these friends began sharing statuses marked with a defiant #NotMyPresident. And then, more recently, students marched through cities (with posters that conspicuously featured #MarchForOurLives) demanding a change in gun control laws.
All perfectly normal events except, of course, these passionate, outraged, conscientious friends all live in India, hold Indian passports, and study in Indian universities. They commiserate with their fellow global — American — citizens in their times of distress, when popular American politicians retired, when American lawmakers refused to pass basic gun control legislation and when an American man who offended their liberal American sensibilities won an election to run their country. Why then, does this group not react as emphatically when similar events occur in India?
This is a trend that exposes a more fundamental feature of our country’s politics. There is a sizable portion of affluent, urban, educated English-speaking Indians (or Indo-Anglians as Sajith Pai calls them) who are far more interested and aware of developments in American politics than in similar events back-home in India. I believe this preference for American, and usually Western, politics has two core reasons.
One, for the group in question, American politics and politicians are more relatable. These people constitute the privileged, who can afford to only have a cursory relationship with the Indian government. The most significant immediate impact of politics on their lives is at most a marginal increase in the price of electronics, slightly higher taxes or a longer wait at the passport office. These are not the citizens who avail of government schemes, depend on rationed food, or apply for LPG subsidies. For them, politics is simply entertainment, a series of hypotheticals and anecdotes, easy fodder for intellectual discussion with friends, family and strangers on the internet.
If stimulating, sophisticated entertainment is what this group desires, American politics has much to offer. It includes well-publicised debates with discussions that involve policy, action plans and worldviews. Candidates usually also have degrees from marquee universities (Obama went to Harvard), read the same books (Obama’s book recommendations) and listen to the same music (Obama’s playlist on Spotify).
Two, and I think more importantly, American film and literature have made politics even more exciting, providing an additional menu of conversation starters for the internationalist urban Indian. From a broadway show on the founding of the country and Oscar-winning movies on the American Civil War and the Watergate scandal to Emmy-Award winning television shows on the Oval Office and the Vice-President’s Office, there is much to consume. A variety of biographers and historians analyze, document and repackage the legacies of American politicians for the part-time citizen. And every night, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah and others provide further political entertainment on live television. Is it not natural that the casual political observer would follow American politics? American capitalism included politics as well, marketing yet another product to sell to hungry consumers, both in America and abroad.
I think this group’s lack of participation in the electoral process is unfortunate. Of course, they only constitute a small fraction of the overall population; there are far more pressing problems that need solving. That said, when we lose educated privileged citizens’ interest, we also lose their time, their capital and their ability. They do not even care enough to vote – in the recent election in Karnataka, voter turnout in Bengaluru was 51per cent, compared to 78 per cent in rural Karnataka. Why will these citizens, who have so much to give back to the country, do so without necessity nor inspiration?
Albert Hirschman was an influential 21st century American development economist. His most-famous work was a paper titled ‘Exit, Voice and Loyalty’. His key idea was that participants in a grouping of any kind have two options when faced with poor quality in their communities. They can either “voice”, where they communicate their displeasure and effect change in their groups, or they can “exit”, where they remove themselves from the organization. Hirschman hypothesized that when more participants begin to use the exit route (than voice), the organization deteriorates, without a reason to improve, and eventually fails.
That is my fear. That these educated, wide-eyed young Indians have exited Indian politics as they face a conversation they do not understand nor respect. And, as a consequence, we lose their participation in the overall public discourse, a foundational element of our constitutional democracy. This vacuum in our politics was the basis for the virality of the Aam Aadmi movement and the BJP 2014 campaign in cities across India. It is the closest we have had to an affluent urban political awakening.
I think this is an issue where media and literature can play a prominent role. We need authors, filmmakers and artists to capture our country’s public imagination with stories from our country’s rich political history. We need biographers and historians to develop narratives from the eyes of the underprivileged and from pivotal points in Indian history. We need more books like Half-Lion and more movies like Newton. We need to bring back their attention to the Indian story, one where they can choose to be both a spectator and a protagonist.
Barack Obama said he was a “skinny kid with a funny name from the south side of Chicago”. India’s Barack Obama is somewhere in an Indian town today, with nothing but her potential, her aspirations and her passion. We cannot afford to have her exit our politics.