How to get more youth in parliament and legislatures

How to get more youth in parliament and legislatures

To give meaningful social change a chance, no option but to give youth more political representation; upcoming Bihar polls a good place to start

India is young. Its leaders are not. The country’s median age is 29. The average parliamentarian is 55. This is the directly elected Lok Sabha (LS) member. Indirectly elected Rajya Sabha members are still older, average age 63. About 65% of our population is below 35. Only 22% of the LS members are under 45. Credit: PTI
The youth vote should matter in the upcoming Bihar polls. The state, with a median age of 26, is young even by Indian standards, and its young women and men, known for their keen interest in matters political, have added reason to be invested in the electoral process this time round.

The economy is struggling to sustain jobs. The upset over the harsh lockdown and ill-timed engineering and medical entrance exams is fresh. Leading two important parties, the largest opposition outfit and a potential king-making one, into the state election are young men.

Yet, the new Bihar assembly may not have many more youth than the outgoing one, where an estimated two-thirds of the legislators were over 45, the International Parliamentary Union’s definition of a young parliamentarian.

This points to a larger issue. India is young. Its leaders are not. The country’s median age is 29. The average parliamentarian is 55. This is the directly elected Lok Sabha (LS) member. Indirectly elected Rajya Sabha members are still older, average age 63. About 65% of our population is below 35. Only 22% of the LS members are under 45.

The global situation, despite healthy youth representation in several national parliaments, isn’t much different – median age 31, average parliamentarian age 53, about 28% young parliamentarians. But that doesn’t make youth under-representation in Indian parliament and state legislatures any less curious.

After all, Indian youth shape political fortunes – they have played a key role in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) ascendance, and dwindling support for the Congress and the Left has been traced, among other things, to their disconnect with youth – and political parties, without exception, speak of the need for greater youth participation in politics.

And then there is the larger case for youth in positions of power: Because they have more reason to imagine a better future and the energy to chase it. Skeptics can argue against this, citing our young politicians’ failures to look beyond jaded party lines and associated rhetoric and methods, but disillusionment will lead nowhere. If we are to entertain the possibility of any meaningful change, there is little option but to repose faith in the youth to realise it. Chances of old warhorses shifting needles are slimmer.

Hurdles to youth participation

So, how can we have more young people in parliament and legislatures? Engaging with that question requires us to first address another: What stops young people from making it to these fora?

It isn’t lack of enthusiasm on the part of the youth. A third of those who threw their hats in the ring for the LS 2019 elections were under 40. About 62 percent were under 50. However, the enthusiasm among major political parties is another matter. Less than a tenth of the LS candidates the BJP and the Congress fielded in 2019 were under 40.

There can be three conceivable reasons for the reluctance among political parties. One: they believe the youth, having not seen enough of life, are unprepared for the demands of top-flight politics. Two: they fear that Indian electors, raised to respect grey, will not take young candidates seriously. Three: key party decision makers, typically veterans, do not want to yield space.

Since neither inexperience nor perceived elector attitude stops parties from awarding tickets to young political scions, it is primarily the insecurities of entrenched seniors that needs tackling.

Looking for solutions

One option to nudge political parties into backing young candidates amidst such pushbacks is to consider legally-backed youth quotas. These could be in the form of either seats exclusively (and rotationally) reserved for youth or a specified proportion of young candidates all registered parties contesting an election must field.

A second option is to promote inner party democracy. If it unfolds in the manner it should, one can expect more youth to rise through the party ranks, assert themselves in party fora, and lay stronger claims on party tickets.

A radical option is to consider the proportional representation (PR) system, a system that is associated with, among other things, better youth representation.

The PR system idea has implications for the wider electoral system, needs many complex angles to be debated and resolved, and has little traction currently. Tying youth participation to the PR system idea then is risky.

Inner party democracy, given the coercive whiff quotas can carry, is the more desirable option, but we have seen how difficult it is to achieve in the Indian context. Rahul Gandhi, for all the clout he is said to enjoy within his party, had limited success in getting young leaders to the fore. The BJP now has its own version of the High Command in place. Other parties, with the possible exception of the Left (which has its own challenges in engaging the youth), cannot honestly claim to be functioning democratically either. That said, the push for inner party democracy must remain, no matter what the challenges. The principle underlying it is too strong to forsake in the face of realpolitik.

Quotas are a red flag issue in India, and, given the history of the Women’s Reservation bill, there are few chances of proposals for constituency-based reservations for youth fructifying. Parties agreeing to field a certain proportion of youth candidates is more realistic. (This, of course, will need strong clauses to check gaming by political families.) We may not even need legal back-up if one or two large political parties set the ball rolling on youth quotas and make some clever noise about it!
 

(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and writer)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.