At this moment, we can divide the leaders of the world’s major democracies into two categories: the walking wounded and the walking dead. Angela Merkel, Donald Trump, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron have all taken serious hits in the past few months, and Narendra Modi is the latest casualty. A man who came to power promising sweeping change, and speaks of himself as someone who got India moving after seven decades of stagnation, has actually altered precious little in India’s economy and polity. His reign has been a continuation of the story since 1991, of incremental reform producing impressive growth that stopped short of being spectacular thanks to misplaced priorities and serious blunders. The difference now is that growth no longer generates jobs at the rate it once did. For India’s vaunted demographic dividend to truly pay off, the economy needs to accelerate, and no party has a plan to help us hit a higher gear.

I despise religion-oriented politics and, therefore, dislike the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is manifestly a fundamentalist Hindu party and becoming more so with each passing year. I am glad, therefore, that the Congress has done well in the state elections that just concluded. The BJP appears to have no route to gaining a majority on its own in the general election of 2019. My hope is that should it return to power at the head of a broad coalition, the party’s worst elements, such as the thuggish Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, might be held in check. I’d be happier if the Congress gains enough seats to cobble together a stable coalition of its own.

Having said that, the Congress has severe demerits of its own, such as its sycophantic attachment to the Gandhi dynasty and its culture of corruption. And the sad truth is that neither the BJP nor the Congress nor any alternate formation has demonstrated the vision required to tackle the structural problems India faces. Nobody has a plan to facilitate the creation of enough jobs to absorb the tens of millions of unemployed and underemployed youth in the workforce. Agrarian distress may deprive the BJP of a majority in Parliament, but those protest votes are likely to be cast in vain, for no party sees the necessity of enabling a massive shift of the working-age population away from agricultural labour.

Age of crisis

A different kind of demographic crisis plagues affluent democracies, as the age of stable employment and rising living standards for European and American workers becomes a distant memory. Over the past weeks, Paris has witnessed protests and bouts of violence sparked by an increase in the tax on diesel which have persisted despite that levy being withdrawn. The leaderless movement of the gilets jaunes, or yellow jackets, is an inchoate revolt of French citizens from outside the big metropolitan centres. They feel marginalised because, following the great recession of 2008, small towns no longer create jobs like they once did. This is true on both sides of the Atlantic. Between 2010 and 2014, American counties with 1,00,000 or fewer residents lost more businesses than they created, in a period when the economy as a whole was growing and the unemployment rate falling consistently.

Germany under Merkel’s studious rule may appear to have evaded the crisis evident among its peers – a decline in manufacturing, cratering of the middle class, withering of the welfare state – but the sense of stability engendered by the country’s consistent GDP growth and low unemployment rate is a bit of an illusion. To quote an article by Oliver Nachtwey in The New York Times, “Average real incomes declined for nearly 20 years beginning in 1993. Germany not only grew more unequal, but the standard of living for the lower strata stagnated or even fell. The lowest 40 percent of households have faced annual net income losses for around 25 years now, while the kinds of jobs that promised long-term stability dwindled.”

Protesters hold a French flag near a burning barricade during a protest of Yellow vests (Gilets jaunes) against rising oil prices and living costs.  Image credit: Abdulmonam EASSA / AFP
Protesters hold a French flag near a burning barricade during a protest of Yellow vests (Gilets jaunes) against rising oil prices and living costs. Image credit: Abdulmonam EASSA / AFP

The squeeze on the middle class has spurred the growth of populist upstarts across Europe, mainly at the expense of established social democratic parties, but their prescriptions are far worse than the conventional centrism of Merkel and Macron. Their anti-immigrant rhetoric is attractive to hard-up working class people, but large-scale immigration remains an economic imperative no matter what it costs in social cohesion because European lifespans keep increasing while European birth rates have been falling for decades.

The nostalgic socialism of Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn is far nobler than the racism of far-right populists, but equally impractical. Corbyn is like a Rip Van Winkle woken after decades, oblivious to the fundamental technological and demographic shifts that have occurred while he was asleep. He deserves a shot at repairing the tattered dream of the social democratic welfare state, but I have few hopes for his programme, anchored as it is in a time when millions of British workers mined coal, forged steel and made motor cars.

The march of the gilets jaunes on Paris brings to mind the city’s history of similar agitations, notably the student and worker protests of May 1968. Like Parisians who had taken to the barricades in 1871, and 1848, and 1789, the activists of 1968 were fired by idealism and a vision of a just and equitable society. The yellow jackets, on the other hand, have no positive message to offer alongside demonstrations of their anger. Sad though this is, I cannot blame them, for I see no solution to their crisis emerging from the Left, Right or Centre. We are living in a moment when the old gods are all dead and new ones are yet to be born.