Fri, Aug 27, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Young Indians waiting for their political chance

By David Rohde  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , KNOWLEDGE CITY, INDIA

This American-style corporate campus outside Mumbai is complete with an artificial lake, gym, cafeteria and the ambitious young Indians who are its lifeblood.

Ask them about India's future, and they chorus politely but firmly: If older politicians will just get out of the way, a new generation of politicians will make India an economic superpower.

"There are old people in wheelchairs," lamented project manager Huafrid Bathena, 24. "Let them lead themselves, not us."

In a demographic bubble that is transforming politics and society, 54 percent of India's billion-plus people are under age 25. As that group ages, seeks jobs and raises families, their demands, dreams and frustrations will dominate India.

Indeed, they already are, from their growing demand for limited university slots, to marketers' frantic efforts to shape their consumer impulses, to the way their attitudes about sex and families are changing patterns of population growth and the spread of AIDS.

They are a demographic behemoth but not a monolith. In interviews with 21 Indians under age 25 in high-technology offices, slums, villages and cities across the country, young people expressed a clear split over how India can achieve greatness.

The division reflects the difficult mandate facing the new government, led by the Congress Party. As it pursues continuing growth and globalization, it must balance the rich and the poor, the old and the new.

It must reconcile the division between those who hearken for India's community-oriented quasi-socialist past and those who embrace capitalist Americanizing influences, between those who believe the profit motive fuels selfishness and greed, and those who believe it most efficiently allocates and expands resources.

Some young Indians are extravagantly successful, linked by technology to a globalizing world. More are poor, isolated from the rest of the world and frustrated by their exclusion from a narrow economic boom.

Young, highly educated Indians employed here at Reliance Infocomm, an Indian telecommunications conglomerate, express little faith in government, hail private-sector work, and vote and often live independently from their parents. They call the free market the best tool for eradicating poverty.

Poorer, less-educated Indians say they generally trust the government, want public-sector jobs, live at home and vote like their parents. They believe that the state should lead a sweeping campaign to end poverty.

Young Indians did agree on some things. They sharply criticized religious extremism and called for a new generation of leaders. Most said they expect India to develop into a leading economic power in their lifetimes.

They praised American business practices now sweeping across India, saying they had brought more merit, efficiency and entrepreneurship to the country. But they criticized American popular culture, saying it was decreasing human contact, creating political apathy and weakening traditional Indian culture and families.

Their views reflect the hopes and contradictions of maturing youth everywhere, but also the ambitions of a nation that has decided its time has come.

Rohit Pandey

Barely audible over the din generated by hundreds of Reliance Infocomm coworkers, Rohit Pandey, 23, and two fellow engineers brimmed with confidence as they sat in an American-style corporate cafeteria.

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