The new Chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, is just 31. The new Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, is 37, and also the world’s youngest female leader. Tony Blair and David Cameron both became Prime Minister at the stately age of 43. Emmanuel Macron, 39, is the President of France. The average life expectancy of a political party, globally, is just 43 years – as voters grow tired of decrepit political parties, such parties are embracing new blood and empowering it, to survive.
In comparison, in India, political parties seem frozen, preferring to continue with their allegiance to seniority and hierarchy thereby associating it with experience and power. In 2014, the current Parliament had just 12 MPs under 30, with only 53% of its members under 55; while the average age of an MP was typically above 50 (54 for the BJP, 57 for the Congress in 2014).
As our population continues to grow younger (our median age is 25), our Parliament continues to grow older. The first Lok Sabha had an average age of 46.5 years, which rose to 51.4 years by the 10th Lok Sabha. Political leaders reaching an age beyond retirement continue to hold on to power, delaying any sign of vanaprastha.
Meanwhile, others seek to hold on to a seat until their progeny is ready to take it. A consequence of this is that most political parties in India have become family businesses. Political empowerment, it seems, is the domain of the elderly.
There are always exceptions, with some young leaders promoted to positions of responsibility. However, these are far and few, and in most cases, primarily due to political legacy.
And it’s not that political parties don’t seek the membership of young Indians. Most major political parties have youth and student wings. But their growth, in politics, is seemingly capped. While the adoption of an informal age of 75 for politicians to retire in some political parties is a welcome development, much more needs to be done. Youth participation in Indian politics, for now, is dependent on wealth, legacy and connections.
IS RESERVATION THE ANSWER?
Structural interventions too can help defy the hesitant participation of youth in politics. A number of countries like Morocco, Pakistan, Kenya and Ecuador set aside seats in their legislature for youth leaders. After all, if the reservation can be provided to a range of ethnicities and caste-based groups, why not for the youth?
In addition, our political structure ideally should offer multiple avenues for political empowerment. Municipal and panchayat polls should give rise to leaders who have experience at the ground level. Such leaders, after some experience, should be able to run for state and eventually the central legislative seats. After all, this is how leaders are found in healthy democracies.
Younger politicians understand what a youthful India needs and what their aspirations are. Political parties should be encouraged to provide space for such leaders to grow on merit.
However, sadly, politics today has earned its reputation for being a ‘dirty field’. The newspapers are flooded with details of scams such as Coalgate, 2G and CWG to name a few. In this paradoxical situation where lawmakers have consistently become law-breakers, is it any surprise then that the vicious circle completes itself and that it is only the lawbreakers who qualify to become the lawmakers of the country?
In our society, parents have traditionally given primacy to the conventional and lucrative career options (engineers, doctors or investment bankers). In a scenario where people have lost faith in their leaders, the government and in politics in general, why then would an educated thinking parent encourage his or her child to venture into the jungle of politics? The widely held view is that politics is not even in the league of alternate career options for bright children whose potential can be leveraged in better ways; politics is for corrupt and immoral bigots, a ‘dhanda’ of ‘chors’ and ‘goons’.
Until about two decades ago, perceptions about entrepreneurship were equally disparaging. The common view was that entrepreneurs can succeed only if they are corrupt and have a powerful `godfather’ to back them up. With the opening up of the Indian economy and rapid globalisation, these perceptions have changed. The youth is choosing to give up high paying jobs and follow their passion. The success stories scripted by some of these bright young entrepreneurs have become legends today: Narayana Murthy, Dhirubhai Ambani and Sabeer Bhatia being some of them. And hopefully, one will see a similar sort of revolution in politics.
By 2020, the average Indian will be 29 years, as compared to 37 years in China, 45 in Europe and 49 in Japan. On the other hand, the average age of an MP is currently 63 years. In a 543-member strong parliament, there are only 66 MPs below 40 years and just 30 MPs below 35 years. Representative democracy? I really don’t think so.
Clearly, the youth plays a vital role as stakeholders of what is probably the world’s youngest democracy. It is only logical then that we need youth in political forums to represent the aspirations of this vast section of society. While we need the experience and wisdom of seasoned politicians who are now in their twilight years, the exuberance of the youth, their lateral thinking to get things done will offer a whole new perspective to the many problems that the country faces today. But unfortunately, there are only two types of youth that participate in politics today, what I like to call the princelings and the thugs.
The princelings are those who make a career in politics because their fathers, grandfathers or uncles did so. 65% of the MPs below 35 years and all of the MPs below 30 years in India fall in this category. These walk into politics on the legacy of their previous generation(s), they need no qualifications or track record to prove themselves. They are the `blue-eyed protégés’ of Indian politics: Rahul Gandhi, Varun Gandhi, Sachin Pilot, Omar Abdullah and Jyotiraditya Madhavrao Scindia to name a few. The thugs, on the other hand, rule the roost in student unions and youth wings, shouting slogans, vandalizing places and resorting to violence at the slightest opportunity. They are aggressive, brazen and loud. If they are backed by an influential godfather, they may witness a meteoric rise in their careers, else they remain confined to the lower rungs of the party they are affiliated to. For most of them, any ambitions of reaching the position of a Gandhi or a Yadav will die a rather slow and painful death.
The Indian youth is aware of the problems that our country faces today; their fiery passion was visible when millions got together in New Delhi to support Anna Hazare in his crusade against corruption and later to protest against the December 2012 gang-rape. Irom Sharmila and Chhavi Rajawat stand as an inspiration for the youth in areas such as Manipur and Rajasthan.
Despite this willingness to engage, politics is not a desirable career option for most young people, and will not be for a long time. So what is the solution? Well, unless the youth jump into the dirt of Indian politics and manage to stay clean, how is the system ever going to change? We need to develop a critical mass of young, honest and successful politicians so that they can become a motivational role model for others to follow.
Demonstrations, protests, street plays and candle-light marches can raise awareness and focus attention on burning issues but ultimately, the power to bring change rests with those who sit in Parliament. Somebody has to take the first step; these path-breakers or early leaders have to be the lotus of Indian politics: they must remain shining despite the murky whirlpool around them. Only then can we expect to see a change in Indian politics.
The question remains: who will take the first plunge?