At the heart of a genuine democracy lies popular sovereignty, where the power of the government is derived from the people themselves. The elected officials hold authority only as long as it aligns with the will and desires of the citizens. This ensures that true power remains in the hands of those who have entrusted their voices to democracy. In order to uphold the values of democracy, it is essential that every segment of society has the opportunity to express their concerns and interests through a robust and constructive political dialogue. This not only ensures inclusivity but also fosters a thriving democratic environment where diverse perspectives are heard and respected.
India, a nation with a significant proportion of its population below the age of 25 and even more below 35, unfortunately, witnesses a disconnection between its young citizens and mainstream politics as well as decision-making processes. Despite their numerical strength, these energetic and ambitious individuals often find themselves overlooked in matters that affect them directly. According to UN Youth2, in roughly one-third of democracies, the eligibility for parliamentarians begins at 25 years old and only 1.6% of parliamentarians are in their twenties.
When we analyze the current state of Indian democracy, it becomes evident that while student unions and youth organizations offer a significant platform for young people to engage, their representation in the parliament is woefully inadequate. This disparity highlights the pressing need for greater inclusion and proper representation of youth voices in our democratic institutions. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), young parliamentarians are defined at age 30 or younger. Despite India having the largest population of young citizens, with a median age of 29 years, it is interesting to note that the average age of directly elected Lok Sabha representatives is 55 years. Furthermore, the average age of indirectly elected Rajya Sabha members is even higher at 63 years. This raises questions about representation and the need for younger voices in political decision-making.
CHALLENGES FACED BY INDIAN YOUTH IN POLITICS:
- The Persistence of Nepotism in Indian Politics
Rahul Gandhi himself has once said, “Nepotism is a culture in India”
In spite of being a democratic nation, India has long grappled with the presence of nepotism in its political arena, with several contributing factors, the foremost being the mindset of its citizens. Dating back to decades, the influence of the ‘Varna System,’ which dictates that only the offspring of a priest can assume the role of a priest, continues to persist even in contemporary times. This persistence is largely due to the prevailing little or no political knowledge among the Indian populace, which, in turn, leads them to often elect their political representatives based on nepotistic notions.
Some years ago, Patrick French, an author, conducted a study on the Indian Parliament and uncovered disconcerting data. He revealed that in the current lower house of Parliament, all MPs under the age of 30 come from families with a political background, a phenomenon that would be considered remarkable in any other part of the world.
Furthermore, there are specific MPs who can be described as “hyperhereditary,” and most of them are affiliated with a certain political party. This essentially means that they possess numerous connections within the political sphere, aiding them in establishing themselves.
- Age Discrepancy in Voting and Candidacy
In India, there is a disparity between the age at which individuals are eligible to vote, which is 18, and the age at which they can run for elections, which is 25. This age gap results in a separation between those who can participate in choosing their leaders and those who are eligible to become candidates. This divergence in ages between voters and potential political candidates can potentially lead to a situation where a higher number of young voters may not necessarily translate into a greater representation of young people in government. Additionally, this age gap can create a perception problem, as the youth may begin to believe that their votes might not lead to concrete actions, given that elected leaders have limited accountability to the youth electorate, in contrast to communities or caste-based divisions.
- Lack of Mechanisms for Youth Representation
Furthermore, there are limited mechanisms in place to ensure a higher level of parliamentary representation for the youth. Despite the fact that individuals aged 15-24 make up 19.1% of India’s population, there are only a few formal avenues to guarantee their representation in the government. While there has been an increasing emphasis on encouraging youth involvement in local governance and efforts to establish pathways for young people to transition from student and youth politics to national politics, there is a lack of coordinated actions to actively promote youth engagement in the political and governance spheres.
- Religious differences among the people
Religion plays a significant role in shaping how young people interact with politics and their representatives, similar to its impact on the overall voting demographics. This is particularly relevant in the context of the increasing religious emphasis in Indian politics, as young atheists may become disheartened with participating in the political landscape.
Furthermore, young people belonging to religious and ethnic minority groups often face heightened job insecurity and workplace discrimination. This situation provides them with a continued incentive to engage in identity-based political participation as a means of addressing these challenges.
- Limited Government Engagement with Youth
Although there are a few programs aimed at fostering the comprehensive development of young people, structured initiatives to facilitate the Indian government’s engagement with the youth are notably lacking. While some informal interactions between policymakers and young Indians occur in settings such as educational institutions, there is a glaring absence of systematic channels for engagement between the government and the country’s young citizens. Moreover, there is a dearth of mechanisms enabling the youth to provide input and feedback to the government.
- Little or No Vocational Training and Political Education
Additionally, there is a noticeable deficiency in providing vocational training to young politicians, which could aid in their transition to state or national-level politics. The limited level of political education poses a significant challenge, particularly when considering the potential role of education in bridging the rural-urban divide. Interestingly, in a CSDS survey, it was found that both college-educated urban and rural men displayed similar levels of political engagement. Furthermore, education appears to have a positive correlation with interest in politics across different gender categories. Among all educational groups, a greater number of men express interest in politics compared to those within the same education level who are not interested in politics.
What needs to be done?
- Policymakers can empower talented young graduates by offering them practical exposure to the policymaking process through paid internships at various government levels. This equips them with essential skills and fosters their formal engagement in politics.
- To facilitate direct communication between legislators and the youth, institutional mechanisms for dialogue, conflict resolution, feedback collection, and policy development can be established. Additionally, the government can introduce assessment tools to evaluate the alignment of national policies with youth concerns. Organizing youth camps where young individuals can present their recommendations can further enhance political engagement, as opposed to unproductive activities like social media discussions.
- Utilizing engaging narratives of non-political young leaders in popular media can inform youth about their rights and responsibilities, inspiring them to participate actively. Sharing stories of lesser-known youth leaders at the grassroots level who have made significant changes can promote the idea of political engagement beyond nepotism and traditional routes.
- In educational institutions, creating incentives for organizing or participating in campaigns, raising awareness about political topics on social media, and competing in debates and public speaking competitions can be institutionalized by education boards. This approach aims to shift the youth’s negative perception of Indian politics and motivate them with constructive rewards from their school years.
- To institutionalize youth participation, quotas for young individuals in Parliament, state, and local-level bodies can be implemented. Reserved seats, similar to the system in Rwanda, could enhance youth representation in constitutional or legislative bodies. Legal candidate quotas may encourage federal units to allocate a specific percentage of their candidate lists to youth. Voluntary political party quotas, while subject to party bias, may necessitate external oversight to ensure fair implementation. These institutional reforms aim to ease the youth’s entry into politics, ultimately promoting more youth leaders in top political positions.
- Regulating political financing is crucial. Indian states can provide election-related subsidies to young independent candidates, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Election Commission of India (ECI) can encourage political parties to allocate a portion of their funding to increase youth participation, as observed in Kenyan and Irish laws. This reduces the financial barriers that hinder non-party-backed individual candidates, especially young ones, from entering competitive politics.
In a country as vast and populous as India, where the youth demographic is the largest in the world, it becomes imperative for the government to actively listen to the voices of its young citizens. The striking reality that the average age of our Parliament is significantly higher than in many other democracies underscores the pressing need for political reforms that encourage youth participation. This can take the form of embracing student politics and working towards reducing the predominant influence of seasoned politicians. To fully involve the youth in politics, it is essential to dispel ageist mindsets and reduce over-reliance on experienced politicians in society. Recognizing that young individuals possess the capability to bring about positive social change through innovative, inclusive, and fresh ideas is a crucial step toward harnessing their potential in shaping the nation’s future.