There’s a pandemic of loneliness among Indian youths and it primes them toward right-wing radicalisation.
In the last half century, poverty has reduced across the globe at an unprecedented level. Fruit of capitalism and some version of equality across nations, demographics, and marginalised groups has been won.
But another aspect of this unprecedented growth is the ways in which capital flows have disrupted long-standing community ties. In villages, rural towns, and post-industrial cities globally, capital has fled. People in these places find themselves drawn to capital centres, like London or New York or Bengaluru, to find good jobs.
And these youngsters are lonelier than ever. By 2019, almost half the people living in Bengaluru were non-natives. A huge section of the Indian population is living in an environment new to them – a phenomenon called urban loneliness. A lot of them are men, moving out from rural and tier-two towns in search of a better life. Similarly, by a rough estimate, about 20 percent of those who appeared for the 2023 IIT-JEE entrance exam did so after studying at Kota. It means leaving home and living in a constantly competitive environment, with limited to no meaningful relationships in your life.
So, they’re increasingly looking towards the easiest venue for help, the internet. A place to help them fight their solitude and sadness. This is where lifestyle influencers come in, amass millions of followers, and push these lonely and melancholy men towards the right-wing.
Here’s a primer on how it happens.
Step 1: Urban isolation
There is a pandemic of loneliness gripping a large section of Indian youth. To overcome this, young Indians are turning toward the internet. India has one of the largest bases of internet users in the world with most of the users plugging into it using mobile devices. So, the internet becomes a crutch to overcome their solitude. While there is no direct work done on how internet usage links to loneliness, a 2017 study on patterns of Facebook use in post-graduate students in south India found loneliness correlated with the severity of use of Facebook.
So, who are these youngsters looking toward when they get on the internet?
With 467 million users, the highest in the world, and 29 hours of average use in a month, India is by far the biggest consumer of YouTube. On YouTube many youngsters gravitate toward the lifestyle influencer who offer tips on everything from relationships, to building muscle mass, and everything else you can think of.
What is so special about these people? They’re easily accessible at the click of a button, more approachable, and authentic than your family who lives not just far away physically but also emotionally, and generationally.
These people don’t come into your life as a gateway into the conservative movement. In fact, many might not even know the right wing from the left wing of a bird, let alone a political alignment. Think of Joe Rogan, Andrew Tate or, closer home, Ranveer Allahbadia, a popular Indian YouTuber with more than 5.7 million subscribers on his channel named BeerBiceps. He started with lifestyle and fitness advice, videos on how to be funny, and how to impress girls. Mashable says his net worth is Rs 58 crore.
Then there’s Sandeep Maheshwari, a motivational coach with 27 million subscribers on YouTube who frequently references Narendra Modi’s words as motivational usually accompanied with a fire emoji. Technical Guruji has similar numbers but focuses on all thing’s tech, with a sprinkle of friendly propaganda for the government. Abhi and Niyu, a couple who started with videos on sustainability and travelling but have now moved on to pro-government videos and now have more than 4.6 million subscribers.
A lot of niche YouTubers who make content in Hindi and other regional languages garner high numbers as well. Khan Sir is a popular teacher and YouTuber from Patna who straight-up creates Islamophobic and pro-BJP content. Study IQ IAS is another such channel with close to 15 million followers, primarily youngsters interested in securing a government job.
Step 2: Conservatism as a lifestyle choice
Whether it’s Biceps, Guruji, Abhi-Niyu or Khan Sir, politics isn’t what they’re selling. But conservative ideas are prioritised through their conversations and interviews. Conservative ideas are rooted in protecting the status quo so they are placed in your understanding of how things are and do not need you to reimagine a different world. And therefore, are an easy-to-consume sell for the way you feel about your place in the world.
For instance., arguing reservations take away what’s rightfully yours is easier than talking about the need to ensure justice and social capital for the historically disenfranchised. Reservations, to an upper caste person, seems just a way to secure a seat in a tech or medical college, and not the social safety net that it really is for the groups in need. So, the easier answer is that reservations exist not to correct a historic wrong, but to disenfranchise you and benefit the unintelligent.
Using an example of a rich Dalit person, who uses reservations to further their life, is not too different from Americans using the concept of welfare queens. Both are not real, and rooted in the fear of the powerful majority but both help amplify the sense of grievance of the majority community. Racism was defined by American psychologist Gordon Allport as prejudice + power that is precisely how we can define these majoritarian feelings.
Many of these challenges could be addressed by progressive leftism. But as we see, xenophobia and sexist versions of it are much easier to grasp.
a) We need many more doctors so we should have many more people become doctors for expansion of the medical education system. Sounds too complex, and does not make you the main character of this narrative. But when it is a fight about reservation against you, it is more personal.
b) People are generally being underpaid and are overextended. The answer is that the capitalist system is designed to look for profits above anything else. The solution isn’t unions, it’s deporting Bangladeshi immigrants and Muslims. There is no group that will benefit more from this than the software engineers in Bengaluru, if they could unionise. But that would require the kind of leap of faith that is just too tough to get by.
c) Masculine anxieties, in a slightly more equal world, inculcate chronic loneliness and anger. But it’s not because of the toxic masculine expectations placed on us by patriarchy, it’s women being slutty. See also the sense of loss of power or emasculation because women are hypergamous.
d) Unequal distribution of wealth means a tiny percentage of elites have more influence over society and politics than the rest of us combined. But the problem isn’t capitalism, it’s the Lutyens media or Khan Market gang or liberal cabal, even George Soros.
Now, the option you have is to either take the simple solution or reject the premise of the problem itself. Interestingly, both would be a step towards some form of conservatism.
Step 3: The memefication of loneliness
The internet and internet-based subcultures have their own vocabularies and people outside of these spaces might not understand or comprehend what is being said. If the term ‘trad’ or ‘raayta’ makes sense to you, you’d know what I mean. If it does not, I feel jealous of you.
Similarly, spending any considerable time in spaces heavily curated to present one-sided arguments can make you immune to understanding the cues of the normal outside world, and what’s considered appropriate.
As your memefied language slips into daily conversation, irreverent comments about religion and gender may antagonise women and believers of different religions, creating further isolation. And any reaction by them around your inconsiderate comment would only confirm what your reactionary influencer says about these ‘others’. They are too sensitive or are afraid to face reality.
There is a reason that ‘tight slap to a liberal’ type of videos became a popular genre on YouTube. They help scratch this itch of righteous zealotry. But what it does is that slowly, your out-group exposure is close to nothing.
Remember, it all started with life advice and careened into discussions about reservation, feminism, and the unfair job market, this was not sold as Islamophobia or misogyny. But somewhere along the path these friendly influencers offered life advice with a political nugget as a tag along and it was taken in as an axiom.
This is how politics is presented as a conclusion of their challenges, not as a set of beliefs.
Step 4: Deeper into the rabbit hole
Once you are into this influencer eco-system ready to be influenced, it is easy to slide on.
Sandeep Maheshwari has BeerBiceps on his show. BeerBiceps then introduces you to Abhijit Chavda, who later appears on the Sandeep Maheshwari show. And all of them appear on Abhi and Niyu. While BeerBiceps and Maheshwari are seemingly apolitical motivators, both do uncritical videos with Chavda on the ‘real history’ of India and normalise him.
Chavda – who is at his best a tin-pot conspiracy theorist – then on his own show brings you to the question of whether democracy is “more important than the nation”. He then appears on other shows with an even more right-wing bent having titles like “Were Gandhi and Nehru British agents” and says things like India did not become free in 1947 but got dominion status. In the absence of any definite answer from the other side, the slippery slope gets slipperier.
As the same folks show up in metadata, the internet thinks the guy “just asking questions” and the guy vilifying Muslims as traitors are interrelated. The viewer is then exposed to an idea slightly more right-wing than the last one, and so on and so forth. Slowly your algorithm is filled with people spouting similar things with different degrees of amplification and edginess.
Psychologists would tell you that it is unhealthy to surround yourself with your worst fears. But the addiction of these spaces is that every emotion you possess is converted into anger. Emotions like sadness, loneliness, fear, and dread of the future are passive and paralysing, but anger is an active emotion – it motivates, it can even make you feel righteous. You feel less in despair when you’re filled with righteous zealotry. So, you keep going back to the same place, much like someone in an abusive relationship.
Step 5: Repetition is the main argument, mockery is second
As BeerBiceps interviews a conservative conspiracy theorist, it doesn’t mean he endorses them, he’s just hearing them in the marketplace of ideas. But these ideas are thrown at you only from one lane: the conservative. The only time a lot of these people get to hear progressive leftist ideas is either in the form of mockery or out of context, to use as a support beam for a specific right-wing point. Abhijit Chavda on BeerBiceps says that Hindus were the actual second-grade citizens in India, with zero pushback. This is the same subject on which another guest of the show, right-wing leading light Anand Ranganathan, has come up with a book. And then niche YouTube channels like Study IQ IAS pick up the topic and do a video on it.
Remember, by almost all human development indicators, it is the minority Muslims of India that are the weakest, but why would facts come in the way of selling an effective tale of victimhood?
To spend time listening to right-wing talking points is to stumble upon a world where whataboutery is a legit form of argument, strawman and ad-hominins are rebuttals, and the same cliched turn of phrase over and over is the point. They are repetitive because they’re not good. Sai Deepak, for instance, uses a lot of repetitive jargon and conservative buzzwords – borrowed from the likes of Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson – to claim that democracy is implementing the will of the majority. But any student of political science would tell you that constitutional safeguards exist to protect against the majority going rogue. The repetition of buzzwords, however, helps give weight to an argument that lacks merit.
Step 6: Buzzwords maketh a bad argument good
Even at its finest, it fails to go beyond a diatribe of buzzwords. In his recent book, J Sai Deepak uses the phrase “indic consciousness”. It is used to prove that the idea of Bharat or India as a nation state existed not just pre-treaty of Westphalia, but a thousand years and more in history, and it is the consciousness that should guide the modern Indian state and not some western notion of secularism.
Of the many critical failings of this argument, let us look at the phrase “indic consciousness”. It is not defined clearly anywhere, beyond the fact that it is rooted in Vedic thought. Even then, how can a standardised consciousness exist for such a broad landmass? For instance, consider the Lokayata tradition, an Indian materialist school of thought that goes against Vedic theories or Tamil philosophical literature, like Silapathikaram and Tirukural. Are they not part of our consciousness? At its very best, the right-wing thought is a handful of out of context arguments, ad nauseam, and at its worst, it is limited to joking about the peaceful and sickulars, mockingly used to refer to the secular. These arguments are derivative, and so repetition is employed as a tactic.
A bad argument can’t convince you on its own merits, it relies on how it makes you feel using constant repetition at varying pitch and anger levels. This can be in the form of thought-terminating cliché, like if you even slightly question something about the Indian army’s human rights record, you must hate India, or the long-winded diatribe that someone like Sai Deepak and his ilk deploy. It sounds sensible, is grammatically correct but when asked for a gist, the best you can say is “watch this WhatsApp forward and it’ll make sense”.
Blaming Mughals doesn’t fix the economy, and misogyny doesn’t make men less lonely. But alienation from everything outside your bubble means the only relationship you have is that of this one-sided osmosis and much like a sponge you keep absorbing.
How can you offer a better story?
The first step in understanding this phenomenon is to contextualise the rise of these lifestyle influencers within the problem of urban isolation. The second part is to understand what the consumers of these influencers are looking for- they are not going on the internet for misogyny or xenophobia that is the byproduct of what is being sold to them. They are going there to overcome their social and economic misery and receive a brand of conservatism in return. Conservatism that makes them feel better about themselves in that moment but also fills them with a certain rage. And that rage is channelled as an addiction to keep them hooked onto right wing ideology.
The next question for those who do not adhere to it is – what is a way out?
The answer lies in the process itself, as much as loneliness is a physical state it also lays heavily on the mind. Sadness, loneliness, misery, and anger are all emotions. You cannot fight emotions with data. You fight it by providing better emotionally more attuned spaces for them to find answers, by helping them forge positive relationships that drive value and happiness into their lives. By making them see the other they are dehumanising as fellow humans, as equals, it can happen in a social setting like universities or via cinema, TV and even over the internet.
In his seminal work The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport writes about intergroup contact.
“Prejudice (unless deeply rooted in the character structure of the individual) may be reduced by equal status contact between majority and minority groups in the pursuit of common goals. The effect is greatly enhanced if this contact is sanctioned by institutional support (ie, by law, custom or local atmosphere), and provided it is of a sort that leads to the perception of common interests and common humanity between members of the two groups.” Emphasis added.
The reason right-wingers and conservatives hate universities like JNU and Jadavpur, or diversity measures such as reservations at workplace and education, or cinema that shows the other in a humane light, is because these create real and virtual spaces which allow intermingling of people from varied backgrounds. While isolation between these diverse social and gender groups propagates an easy path for dehumanising out-groups by these influencers. Even in schools, per the Right to Education Act in India, 25 percent seats in private institutions are reserved for students belonging to marginalised backgrounds, however, there is a massive middle-class opposition to the law.
The fight for progressive ideals is a fight for diversity in universities and schools, desegregation in community and public spaces, and more interfaith and inter-caste alliances. Conservatives cannot break through to you unless they can somehow make you see the other as a sub-human. They cannot do it in a world where humanity of the ‘other’ is staring at you. Our value as progressives, however, does not hinge on whether we can change anyone’s mind but on how we support the struggle for the ideals stated here.
The story served to these lonely men is a story of anger and victimhood, creating a regressive feedback loop. If somehow a bridge can be created between them and the progressive story, we can help them see that the fight for social and economic justice, though arduous, is worth fighting for. As it can create a world that materially makes lives better for a lot more of us.
And while their story has anger, despair, and revenge – ours has hope, kindness and egalitarianism.
Update at 11.20 am, July 24: This piece initially said Khan Sir is not Muslim. This has been corrected. The error is regretted.