Making Politics Young
Updated: May 30
In 2010, while visiting Australia, I came across a young boy beaming during a dinner meet. To my surprise, the youth introduced himself as Wyatt Ryan, a Member of Parliament and surprisingly aged at only 20 years! We must accept it, at this age most Indian youth are barely thinking of contesting college elections – unheralded by national policy issues. Then I heard of a Canadian MP, Dusseault, who became a member of their House of Commons, at the age of mere 19 years. Both Wyatt and Dusseault command respect in their nations for their dynamism and upbeat approach to policy making.
Step aside from politics for a while and let us look at two most amazing companies of our times. Facebook, the world’s largest social network of a billion people and Microsoft, the largest software company of the world, were both started by their founders at the same age, 20 years. Youth is a time when ideas are not tied down by rusted beliefs – it is a time of the most innovative thoughts which any nation must tap into.
Let us come back to the Indian political scenario. It seems the increasing life expectancy of Indians has had the most pronounced effect in the age of the Parliamentarians. In 1952, the first Parliament under the new constitution, 20% of the MPs were over 56 years of age, today it is 43%, more than double. In 1952, not a single MP was over 70 years of age, today we have 36 such MPs. Fundamentally, the experience is not bad – but the right balance between experience and youth is what we are losing out.
But the real problem is actually in the composition of whatever little youth we have in politics. Although Indian Parliament is almost made up of fossils, 30% of all MPs are coming from deep entrenched political dynasties. Every single MP under 30 years of age are sons and daughters of significant politicians and across the length and breadth of India, one finds political families which run a network of politician-business-contractor model, often involving 30-40 members of the same family. Life is far easier if you have the political blood in your veins, sometimes reminds me that Royalty is back in the clothes of Democracy.
The problem to solve is how to ensure a truly democratic model of injecting youth into politics. First, Indian politics is driven by seniority, partly a reflection of our culture to blindly respect the older beings. Putting age akin to wisdom is a blunder in the age of the internet where knowledge flow is at the speed of light. Parties need to begin setting age caps to their internal officer bearers and candidates – for instance even the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has to retire at 65, then why not the same cap for all candidates for elections?
The second issue is to make actually make politics merit driven. For that to happen, we need to learn from the western world, where social activism, college elections, village elections and elections for the parliament are integrated with a clear path for good candidates to move from one level to the next higher level. Political parties need to go out to campuses, the best ones in a district, and pick their potential MLAs candidates from amongst the best leaders from there – somewhat like a talent hunt which runs so well in the world of music needs to be brought to foray in politics.
The third issue is the fact that politics is a costly and risky profession. The actual spending for an MP candidate is officially capped at Rs. 40 lakhs and unofficially it runs many times that number. It is time we extend “political scholarships” to meritorious young candidates who wish to enter politics but are stopped from it because of monetary considerations. This will help the best brain in the nation to serve in the most effective tool of democracy.
Sometime back, a prominent party in UP decided to go an extra mile to ensure meritorious youth are allowed a chance to contest polls in upcoming Lok Sabha elections. It seemed a great idea, only to be rigged by thinkers themselves. In the end, out of all the youth applicants with sound professional backgrounds, who paid Rs. 20,000 each to enter into this merit-based ticket “mela”, the only ones who walked away were the relatives of existing ministers and other favored netas. In one particular instance, a cabinet minister’s tainted son, with the weight of a dozen criminal charges “out-weighed” a well-known software engineer from the place. I asked the dejected engineer about his plans, he said, “Never again.”
The trouble is not only in lack of youth in the composition of the Lok Sabha or the Assemblies but in the complete absence of young thinking in our own minds. When we accept dynasty as a valid means of entry into politics we surrender our right of a true republic and when we allow hollow old men carrying the burden of old thoughts to rule us we surrender our opportunity of a golden future. But the question remains, till when will the youth of the nation keep discussing the political mess in the 15th floor cushy offices in Gurgaon, and when will their real march to the Parliament in Delhi begin?