India’s economy had virtually stagnated over a quarter-century until the early 1980s, with autarkic policies on trade and direct foreign investment. The expansion of the public sector had turned into an epidemic, trespassing into most areas of industrial activity, and not just utilities; and the licensing system had become a maze of irrational restrictions. With growth at 3.5% and population increasing at 2.2% annually, per capita income grew at a snail’s pace (the infamous “Hindu rate of growth”). It therefore failed to pull the mass of people out of poverty and into gainful, sustained employment. We should then have expected a “revolution of falling expectations”: The poor could have risen in revolt, bundling the ruling Congress Party out of power because there was no hope of improvement.
Yet this did not happen. Perhaps, when little progress takes place all around, the centuries-old Indian fatalism takes over. But when the poor begin improving, then the “revolution of rising expectations” is likely to arise. This is a direct result of the perception of real possibilities. Indeed, one of the finest members of the ousted BJP government, former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, remarked on how difficult it was getting to find the resources to fulfill the demands that he found in his parliamentary constituency for greater financial allocations. This is also the view of people who work at the ground level: The young of India, including children from the lowest classes and castes, have enhanced expectations from life; and so do their parents, who vote. And this phenomenon — of expectations aroused but unfulfilled — has cut across the much exaggerated rural-urban divide.