Youth participation in politics is still dependent on wealth, legacy and connections

By Varun Gandhi
The new Chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, is just 31. The new Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, is just 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, himself 39, is now 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. 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. I, myself, have been a beneficiary of this age-old practice.
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 politics, for now, is dependent on wealth, legacy and connections. There are other ways to empower young, aspiring individuals. Serbia ran a multi-year 500 Young Political Leaders programme, which sought to foster youth political participation by identifying and selecting youth leaders to rebuild democracy in the country. The programme sought to provide political training for young leaders from various backgrounds while developing a network of youth leaders, who could develop policy solutions across party lines and opening establishment doors.
The programme helped create a conducive political environment to empower youth leaders, giving them stronger influence on party policies, while promoting bipartisanship. UNDP implemented a national youth civic education campaign, with $2.6 million of funding, which sought to increase civic knowledge and skills, and change attitudes towards the nomination of youth leaders in politics.
Kenya saw the National Democratic Institute facilitate a Young Political Leadership Academy since 2001, with young politicians across party lines receiving skills training on negotiation and advocacy, along with projects to implement in their parties.
Unicef funded an Innovations Lab in 2010-13 in Kosovo, selecting socially impactful ideas and seeking their implementation by aspiring leaders while providing them with mentors, necessary equipment and government’s institutional connections. UNDP hosted the Asian Young Leaders programme in 2007-09 seeking to enhance the leadership skills of young Asian leaders through a combination of national and regional workshops.
Reservation for Youth?
Structural interventions can help as well. A number of countries like Morocco, Pakistan, Kenya and Ecuador set aside seats in their legislature for youth leaders. After all, if reservation can be provided to a range of ethnicities and caste-based groups, why not for the youth?
Countries like Ecuador, El Salvador, Senegal, Uganda and Burundi have lowered the minimum age for candidacy in all legislative elections to 18. In Bosnia, if no candidate receives a majority in the election, Article 13.7 of its election law awards the seat to the youngest candidate.
El Salvador actively conducts campaigns in schools encouraging young people approaching the age of 18 to run for office. Kenya has announced a National Youth Policy (2006) and a National Youth Act (2009), both of which encourage greater electoral participation 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.
However, the decline in inner-party democracy, rising campaign spending and rotational reservation in municipal, panchayat and mayoral elections, have created barriers to upward movement for aspiring young politicians. Political parties need to actively consider reservation for aspiring youth from non-political backgrounds in certain positions, along with rolling out initiatives to induct professionals into mainstream politics.
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.
(The article was first published on Economic Times by Varun Gandhi a BJP MP)