India: A new Society?

20th Aug, 2014

A new political party in power doesn’t always precede, follow or equate to cultural shifts amongst the people, but it is an interesting time to take a closer look at public opinions on values and ethics, essentially, what is important to them.

Trajectory collects bi-annual data surveys of people from countries around the world. What is evident is the ‘new India’ of access to technology, employment, and less conservative views, rubbing alongside the ‘traditional’ qualities of family values, Bharat pride and gender bias.

A notable split is that between women who are employed, and women who are not. One would assume that an employment environment would equate to some kind of liberalization of values, greater access to personal freedoms and technology, but as of yet, that is not overwhelmingly true.

There is no great challenge in the data to the stereotype of an Indian who enjoys family time and feels proud to be an Indian; Indians are happy and proud and they state that family remains at the heart of their lives. Non-working women state themselves to be happier and prouder than working women do.

Perhaps not surprisingly, family is more important to women who do not work, than for those who do, and there seems to be a growing ambivalence about ‘family’ amongst working women.

After family, work is consistently seen as central, with over 9 in 10 Indians mentioning this. Income is valued, yet among women it seems to be becoming less important, which may indicate that their self-value and happiness is derived from non-monetary pursuits.

Politics, no doubt due to the lively and divisive election this year has seen a jump in worth for Indians. Last year 4 in 10 women noted its value, compared with 6 in 10 this year. It remains to be seen if politics has new relevancy for Indians or if it is simply just part of the election excitement. A large increase is seen in political party membership for Indians, so if this is sustained it could show a population more involved in civil issues. Not something to be overlooked in the world’s largest democracy.

Gender roles linger as a hot issue in India. About half of men think they make better political leaders than women, and 4 in 10 women who work feel the same way. When asked if men should have more right to a job than a woman during employment scarcity, almost half of women agreed, and shockingly this proportion was even higher amongst women who worked!

Divorce, abortion and prostitution remain unacceptable to Indians, and the knock on effects of this can be seen in television, cinema and advertisement censorship. There are small shifts however, with women able to see justification for divorce and abortion in some cases. In these cases, working women are more liberal than their non working counterparts.

Women can be seen as more moderate than men on most issues, notably when asked what kind of neighbour they would have an issue with. Interestingly, the assumption that employed women would be slightly more liberal or open-minded about neighbours was not strongly demonstrated in the data. Umbrage is taken with heavy drinkers, followed by homosexuals, immigrants, people of a different religion, single mothers, and those with the HIV virus.

Bribery seems to be more acceptable each year amongst Indians, with more people able to see a situation where it could be justifiable. With BJP storming into power on a promise of putting an end to the institutional corruption, public opinion could follow government example in years to come (for better or for worse).

Indians are now more active members of societal groups. However, I assumed that employed women would be significantly more involved than their non employed counter parts, which is not the case. This suggests barriers to involvement amongst women are not to do with income, or free time but something else that needs to be addressed.

As Modi reiterated in his Indian Independence day speech, he wants all Indians to have bank accounts. More Indians in 2014 have a bank account of some kind compared to 2011, although proportionately more men than women. More employed women have bank accounts compared to non-employed women, but the gap has been closing since 2011. The use of mobile phones is equal amongst men and women, and more women than men use the internet for booking travel, arguably an emancipating action.

No part of this data supports claims of a totally new India, with game-changing views on where this country is headed. What it does show however is that the importance of family might lend itself to men’s jobs being more important than women’s, divorcees and single mothers remaining pariahs and unwanted neighbours.

Indians are happy in 2014, so what may cause demand of more equality and understanding is a fall in this reported happiness and pride in the nation. This is soft power at its finest, and I for one am enthralled to see if Modi and BJP can nudge the liberal values into the mainstream for the benefit of all Indians.