An unmarried woman at 25 may be ‘past her prime’, but in India, a politician nearing 50 is still a ‘young scion’. Youth has never been considered a virtue in Indian politics, but thanks to a massive shift in demographics we are now home to an absurdly young population – 41% of the country’s population is below 20. It feels like an understatement to say that the voice of the youth matters now more than ever before. But you wouldn’t know it from looking at our parliamentarians or our options for 2019.
We were 14 the last time there was a general election, and will be first-time voters in the 2019 general elections. Five years have passed, but we’re still feeling the same disconnect with our politicians as we did in our early teens. Here’s an example of what we’re dealing with – Poonam Mahajan, the president of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha is 37. Till last year, the president of the DMK youth wing was 63-year-old M.K. Stalin – he was recently replaced by the relatively more sprightly 53-year-old M.P. Swaminathan. Worryingly, the age of the National Youth Congress president cannot be found on the internet.
If the youth is so important and our population so dynamic, why don’t we have new faces to choose from?
Being young in itself is not a guarantee of political ability, but seeing successful young politicians would go a long way in busting the myth that age corresponds to calibre.
At its core, democratic politics is about representation – we want to see ourselves and our interests reflected in our leaders’ rhetoric and actions. So it makes intuitive sense that younger politicians, who can relate to our experiences more sincerely, might represent us more easily. Take education, for instance, someone who went through the Indian school system a decade ago, versus someone who graduated from school five decades ago, is going to have a much easier time sympathising with our problems.
Our country cannot boast of giving dynamic young leaders the recognition they deserve, but here is a, hopefully incomplete, roundup of India’s ‘youth’ leaders.
Shehla Rashid’s agenda is clear – she knows that our political system lacks insight into 65% of its population (youth, if you haven’t guessed already) and she wants to fix this. Set to join national electoral politics soon, the ex-vice president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union has been an active – and often controversial – participant in student politics.
Voting in a young, progressive woman would be a step towards addressing the needs and problems of our predominantly young population. And it might help us move on from politicians who make statements like “Why do girls make boyfriends? If they stop doing this, the atrocities against them will stop.”
Jignesh Mewani is shaking up politics and altering the face of Dalit activism in Gujarat and the nation. However, this relatively ‘young’ politician is actually 37 years old. Although, that doesn’t diminish his achievements. In 2016, he led 20,000 Dalits in a Dalit Asmita Yatra to protest the torture and flogging of four people for allegedly skinning a dead cow.
As an independent candidate, Mewani contested and won a seat in the Gujarat legislative assembly election in 2017. He had appealed to other parties to not field candidates from his constituency, stating that the fight must be between him and the BJP only. The offbeat, young-ish leader has proven himself a proficient warrior against misogyny, casteism and communalism.
The other scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, Varun Gandhi seems the most self-aware of the shortcomings of our political system, and recommends himself by being aware of his own privilege.
He once said, “If my last name were not Gandhi, would I have become an MP at [the age of] 29? I would have not… When we talk about young MPs…everybody comes from a political family.” He is now 38 years old.
Gandhi was one of the first politicians to champion the Jan Lokpal Bill and donated his MP salary to the families of farmers who had committed suicide over the agrarian crisis. At the same time, he racked up two hate speech cases for “provocative” comments about Muslims – comments that BJP leaders quickly blamed on his Congress past, as they “did not represent BJP’s traditional culture”. Gandhi, since then, seems to have found other outlets of expression, publishing his second volume of poetry in 2015.
If her surname sounds unfamiliar, it is because Atishi Marlena’s Delhi University-professor parents created it as a tribute to philosophers Marx and Lenin: a fittingly intellectual name for the education wunderkind.
According to Manish Sisodia, the deputy chief minister of Delhi, Marlena, AAP’s golden girl was instrumental in improving the capital’s education system – a sector AAP uses as its electoral plank in other states as well. Marlena also worked on private school fee regulation and regular parent-teacher meetings, among other ventures during her stint.
However, Marlena was at a meeting with Teach for India when she was suddenly dismissed by the union home ministry, who said her post had become “void”. Sisodia denounced this move as political: he felt the centre was intimidated by AAP’s progress in the education sector.
Notably, this ‘young’ policymaker is 37 years old.
Sachin Pilot, president of the Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee, continues the legacy of his father, former Congress leader Rajesh Pilot. Politically, he has called for a united opposition in the 2019 elections aiming to defeat the BJP and NDA alliance, but of course, believes the Congress ought to be the pivot around which these parties congregate. He thinks that the Congress has a history of collaboration on issues like caste and agriculture that make this the right choice. In Rajasthan, he has criticised the government for reducing ease of doing business in the state and thus halting the economy.
The 40-year-old Pilot, however, is among the politicians mentioned in the Paradise Papersinvestigation for use of offshore accounts.
Jyotiraditya Scindia’s is political and actual royalty, part of a family that lives in a 19th century palace. Son of Madhavrao Scindia, former MP of Guna, Jyotiraditya has been elected to the same seat for fourth consecutive terms as a Congress MP. And if you’re wondering how a “young” person gets elected four times in a row – he’s 47 years old.
But everything’s not as staid as it may seem. Scindia’s grandmother, Vijaya Raje, was a founding member of the BJP, and his aunt Vasundhara Raje is currently the BJP government’ chief minister in Rajasthan (and once had an official press release refer to her as ‘maharani’).
Scindia’s father, however, switched sides to be Rajiv Gandhi’s lieutenant in 1977, a legacy Jyotiraditya continues through his close friendship with Rahul Gandhi. Recently, he chastised the media for focusing on Rahul Gandhi’s (admittedly hilarious) wink in parliament instead of important issues like farmer distress, Dalit rights and women’s issues in India. “Have you never winked in your life?” Scindia questioned the media.
The BJP has built an anti-nepotism reputation for itself over the last few years, trying to position itself as anti-Congress in its values. However, politics in India is a nepotists affair, regardless of which party you look at.
The BJP’s current chief whip in the Lok Sabha is MP Anurag Thakur – the son of Prem Kumar Dhumal, former chief minister of Himachal Pradesh. Talk about starting from the bottom.
The 48-year-old became president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) for nine months in 2016. However, his appointment led to him being embroiled in a legal battle with the Supreme Court. The apex court decreed that government servants and ministers should not hold posts in the BCCI. Who says he can’t have the best of both worlds? Well, the SC does.
Rahul Gandhi, the Suhana Khan of politics, was destined for fame well before birth – he comes from four generations of political leaders after all.
At 48, it’s a dig at our entire political structure that we consider Rahul Gandhi a young politician. His recent speech during the no confidence motion in the Lok Sabha impressed a wide variety of people.
Gandhi used the plank to voice support for women’s rights and also mentioned that while the youth was promised employment, they were handed the disaster of demonetisation. A Youth Ki Awaaz article titled ‘Dear Rahul Gandhi, I am the youth of India, and I see you as my leader’ followed the speech. His strategies to promote leaders from youth wings and set agendas focusing on the young population have been well-known – he aims to transform the ageing, grand Congress party into one which belongs to the twenty-first century.
With the exception of Shehla Rashid, the other well-known “young” leaders are in their late 30s, 40s and even nearing their 50s. That makes our youth leaders decades older than the average Indian. A quick glance through the BJP and Congress’ youth wing websites reveals faces and names that we haven’t heard much from yet. Hopefully that’s going to change in the near future, but with elections right around the corner, it seems India’s youth isn’t going to be voting in a youthful presence into the Lok Sabha regardless of who they pick.
While this points to systemic failures in including young people in politics, it may also indicate a dearth of political initiative on our part too. Political involvement can seem daunting, especially if you consider the fact that we’re allowed to decide the fate of the country at 18, but young men can’t marry until they’re 21; and most cities don’t allow alcohol consumption till 25. We can mould the country years before we can exercise personal agency, it seems.
But if the example of the above leaders has convinced you of anything, let it be that the political world is ours to claim. And no, it does not count as ‘youth leadership’ if our parliamentarians act like children in the Lok Sabha.
Aparna Shankar and Bani Bedi are interns at The Wire.
Featured image credit: PTI