Four and a half years ago, I became a new voter. I had left India for graduate studies at the age of 19 in 1975, at a time when you had to be 21 to vote. Serving the United Nations around the world meant I could not vote in any Indian election until, at the age of 53, I was able to vote for myself in 2009.
According to the 2011 census, another 149.36 million first-time voters will emulate my experience in 2014 – a little over 22% of the estimated electorate in the coming General Elections. Aged 18 to 23, they appear to embody the urgent concern with India’s compelling problems that animates young Indians across the country’s political divides. An India seemingly outgrowing many traditional political allegiances is taking shape, as a better-educated, more aspirational, more urbanised and more vocal young population enters the hustings. Are we witnessing a decisive move from old-style politics to new — from Khap to AAP?
India is a remarkably young country. The nation’s average age is 28; half our people are under 25 and 66% under 35, which means that the young are already a majority in India. But they are not the ruling majority; according to The Economist, India holds the world record for the largest gap between the average age of the population and that of the Cabinet (which is 65). The young are entering the political world, but still with diffidence--and they continue to be outnumbered by their seniors in political authority, though not on the electoral rolls.
This predominance of youth in the population is expected to last until 2050--which is both good news and bad news. The good news is that we will have a productive, dynamic, even youthful working age population for decades, while most of the planet, including China, is ageing. (China’s current average age is 38; in 10 years, it will be 50, while ours rises to 29). In the next 20 years, the labour force in China will shrink by 5%, and in the industrialised “Northern” world, by 4%; in the same time frame, India’s labour force will increase by 32%.
But then there’s the bad news. The availability of a human resource of such magnitude only means anything if we can feed, house, clothe, educate and train these young people to take advantage of the opportunities the 21st century offers. If we fail to provide them the chance to make something of their lives in the new India, the same demography could be not only a burden but a threat, since so much of terrorism and extremist violence in our country is carried out by embittered and unemployable young men. The government is conscious of the new voters’ demands for rapid change. As a freshly-elected Member of Parliament myself in 2009, I recall Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, then 78, urging us to respect “the impatience of the young”. India’s under-35s are a generation that holds our nation to new, higher standards befitting the globalised era, standards that they understand prevail in the developed world. They are a generation born in the era of liberalisation, growing up with greater freedoms, more choices and opportunities than their forebears, impatient with the heavy hand of government and tired of shopworn rhetoric about socialism and upliftment of the masses. They want action, not slogans; results, not bromides.
And yet there is a significant gap between the political process and the participation in it of India’s brightest young sons and daughters. It was not so at the time of the freedom struggle, when the best and most energetic minds, cutting across all professional classes, actively participated in the nationalist movement. After the first flush of independence, though, cynicism and indifference set in. The middle-class, educated young turn to the professions, to civil service exams and to multinational corporations, but few amongst them spare a thought for politics.
Today it seems that change is in the air. More educated young people are beginning to think the previously unthinkable and contemplate a political career, or at least active participation in the political process. More and more young persons are convinced that they cannot afford to be ‘apolitical’ any more. There is too much at stake.
I welcome this. Three years ago I wrote in a letter to young professionals in my constituency, urging them to get involved in politics. I argued: “politics is not merely about elections every few years. It is about determining the choices your country makes, which intimately affect your daily lives wherever you live and work. Our government is doing a great deal that young people can’t afford to be indifferent to. Decisions are being taken on life and death issues about yourself and of your families — and if you are not involved in the process that arrives at those decisions, it simply means that you do not care. Vital decisions that will affect your professional opportunities, the investment climate in our country, the way in which revenues are raised and spent, and the policies that will affect your own advancement, are being formulated and taken in various forums – by local bodies, the state legislature and at the national level through our Parliament. It’s the political process that establishes these institutions and determines their composition. Please join it.”
The response I got was modest, but the young have begun to stir. Many have turned out in the streets to voice their concerns, whether about corruption or other urgent social wrongs, most recently the brutal gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old Delhi woman, dubbed “Nirbhaya”, a year ago. The challenge is to channel their energy into constructive political action.
The ruling party has already understood the need to involve the young generation by actively encouraging the participation of the citizenry in grass-roots governance. Path-breaking legislation, creating and strengthening the Panchayati Raj institutions, establishing the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and promulgating the Right to Information Act, are examples of innovative policies in recent years that have created conducive ground for mass political mobilisation.
Few Indian parties, however, have moved rapidly enough with the times. Only one – my own -- has begun to put in place compulsory elections to party posts, starting from the grassroots level. Instead of leaders being thrust on them from above, young people want to elect their own party leaders. So far, aside from the Youth Congress, they can’t.
Young Indians in the Information Age, with social media at their fingertips and a media echo-chamber in hundreds of news channels, are demanding more from political parties in an era of two-way communication. The Google Urban Indian Voters study found that a large percentage of surveyed voters were not satisfied with the available information about political candidates on the Internet. Forty-five per cent of urban voters said that they would like to see more information about political parties on the Internet to help them make an informed decision. Fifty-seven per cent said they would like to see information on local issues. Forty-eight percent said they would like to see updates on development activities undertaken in the constituency and 43 per cent said they wanted to see information on party manifestoes.
New voters have given confusing indications of their inclinations in recent years: the protests against corruption, against the maltreatment of women and against restrictive interpretations of Section 377 all suggest an increasing support for cultural liberalism, but there are also signs of enthusiasm for hypernationalist rhetoric and a vociferous yearning for a strong and decisive leader. At the same time the new voter demands that the benefits of economic growth must reach all Indians -- the majority of whom are young, and the majority of whom are poor.
As a member of Parliament, I am struck by the fact that a majority of the voters in every Indian constituency are, by global standards, poor. The basics — food, clothing, shelter, roads, electricity, drinking water, jobs--dominate our politics. This is why my party has focused on inclusive growth--the combination of economic development and social justice--as the lodestar of its work.
If this is important enough when voters are poor, it is deeply significant when they are both poor and young. Young people in India are now asking that their voices be heard, that their issues be addressed and that their roles be recognised.
They demand changes from our education system, which will have to cope with hundreds of millions of young people who no longer intend to be farmers and peasants, but will want the education that will equip them to lead viable urban lives. As AAP realised, they demand cheaper and more accessible living facilities – a demand which will multiply exponentially as new infrastructure is built and as urban dwellers seek electricity, water, drainage, roads, telephone connections and mass transit. Today, 600 million Indians, overwhelmingly in rural areas, are not even connected to the electricity grid. Tomorrow they will be. And as in Delhi, they will clamour for lower tariffs, free water and better services.
If, say, 300 million Indians were to move from the villages to the towns in the next two decades or less, can we absorb all of them, educate all of them, employ all of them? Our challenge is to connect millions of citizens in a functioning democracy to their own government: not just to announce entitlements that will be showered upon them by a munificent government, but to provide opportunities that they are expected to grasp for themselves, and to create delivery mechanisms that ensure that these opportunities and entitlements are not just theoretical, but real and accessible.
As young India grows into and demands change, our national politics is undergoing a vital shift as well. I believe that a major reason why my party won the last General Elections is that our political leadership was able to delink the national polity from the incendiary issues of religious identity and caste denomination that other parties had built their appeal upon. Instead, we put the focus on what the people needed--more development, better governance, wider socioeconomic opportunities. AAP has built on our example.
To woo the new voter, we need to devise creative, ambitious responses to connect our young people to the opportunities the 21st century offers. In my visits to the poor and dispossessed when I am in Thiruvananthapuram, I am acutely conscious that the opposite is still the reality for millions of my fellow Indians. They face exclusion and disconnection for a variety of reasons: their place in the traditional social structure, their caste, their poverty, but also because our country has not been able to build the physical means--the roads, the highways, the power-transmission lines, the telephone systems, the schools--to connect them. India’s most powerful young leader, Rahul Gandhi, rightly speaks of two Indias--one connected, one not. Establishing the connection between the two Indias is vital to our country’s place in the world, and vital to create an India ready to fulfil its huge potential.
When we succeed, we will be connecting 500 million Indians, over the next two decades, to their own country and to the rest of the world. Half a billion villagers will join the global village. The transformation of India is an exciting prospect in the early 21st century--and young new voters will drive us to it.
(The writer is minister of state for human resource development.)