“Forever Young?”: What Pulled Down Youth Participation In Indian Governance?

Posted on February 15, 2013 in Specials

By Arjun Shekhar:

Though I never got around to actually conducting it, for a long time I carried around in my head the transcript of an imaginary interview I would have with M.S. Gill, the 73 year old ex-minister of (Sports) and Youth Affairs in UPA II. It began with my asking him this question.

“Sir, how are you able to connect to a constituency which is half a century less than you in age?”

There were many replies I concocted on his behalf to this ticklish question but the one I liked best was this: “Men will always be boys at heart. Don’t judge a book by its cover; I’m forever young!” 

In a way, he is absolutely right. Why should age be a marker for what is essentially a bunch of psychological qualities bunched under the term youth hood? Why should people be excluded from the epithet of young just because they have crossed a certain age? Aren’t ‘old’ and ‘young’ just words after all? For instance, if we take mental and physical energy as key differentiators of what it means to be young, then many ‘young’ people would be disqualified. On the other hand, many ‘old’ folks, Mr. Gill is a case in point, could pass off as quarter of their age.

But are energy and such other qualities the markers of youth hood? Isn’t this a stage of psychological development? How does it differ from other stages of human growth before and after it? What is unique about being young?

While there isn’t a definitive answer from the psychological field, here are some differentiators that our research has led us to suggest. We believe it’s a time for making first impressions; also, a time for experimentation in the real world; a time for understanding the connection between self and the common spaces in society. In sum, youth hood, we believe is unique in being a special age and time for an individual’s identity quest. As an adult, you have already made many choices, your identification with a certain way of life has become a habit; you are not ready to try new identities as easily.

And so, as an older person you don’t feel anywhere near as undefined as a youngster who is still searching. Which is why, I feel, M.S. Gill, may he stay forever young, was the wrong choice as the youth minister, for how could he really know what young India wants? How could he decide on youth policies? His heart may have been young but his mind was deeply wired with the impressions that had been made by the context of the times when he was growing up. .

Moreover, due to the symbolic shift from print to image, the world has transformed steadily since the last two decades of the previous century like never before. Margaret Meade in her famous treatise on the generation gap has said,”…there are no adults left who can help the young interpret their experience because they don’t know how…”

M.S. Gill only represents one end of a continuum of choices made by the elders in Indian society since Independence. Here is a quick recap of that story. I’ll be focusing on what’s not in the plot of the story you think you know. There are some startling insights you may have missed in your reading of the history of independent India as written by the elders. I will use facts, not interpretation, to show what went wrong.

It’s well known that young people came forward in droves to participate in the political arena after their youthful energy had routed the British empire and the new ship called India was all set to launch into the oceans of the world. They came as crew for the new vessel; as many as 26.3 % of the first Lok Sabha in 1950 were young people between the age group of 25 to 40 years. This representation by youth swelled to 32 % in the second Lok Sabha.

Those were the days when the heads were held high, the days when politics hadn’t become a four letter word. Those were the days when the mind was without fear, the days when cynicism hadn’t ravaged the country side. Those were the days where the clear stream of reason flowed in the Indian Psyche, the days when the dreary sands of habit hadn’t crept into the young people’s heart.

How did it all change? How did the youth representation dwindle down steadily to reach the abysmal 6.3 % it is in the current Lok Sabha? How did the young people decide to give up their voice? When did the crew become passengers? This mystery remained unsolved for a long time; it was not clear what really happened back then to change the habit of revolt the youth had acquired during the freedom movement.

What is well accepted is the fact that since the 60’s, when the youth in the rest of the world were rising up in rebellion against the old order, Indian youth were being lulled back into the four hundred year old slumber (not counting the millions of minor mutinies that still simmer here and there) from which they had awoken to claim the country’s freedom.

One of Gandhiji’s little known exhortations provided us the clue to unravel the mystery. Shortly after India attained independence, he said, “It’s time the youth of this country go back to their studies and careers now.” He might as well have said, “Thanks for your energy that helped topple the British but now run along sonny, go play with your books, we have a country to run.”

Following this lead, we researched further into the healthy looking statistics of youth representation in the first and second Lok Sabhas. Quick calculations of the age of the first cabinet showed up the underbelly of the beast. The average age of the first cabinet turned out to be 52 years (remember, there were 26.3 % Members of Lok Sabha between the ages of 25 to 40 in the first Parliament). Only one minister — Jagjivan Ram who was 39 days short — was between the ages of 25 to 40!

Do you see now how the youth voice was drowned? How the crew was turned into passengers? The immense energy of young people helped us to get freedom; many of them were the natural choice of leaders selected by the public. But the elders, with all due respect to them, succumbed to the age old tradition of denying young people a right to govern their own future. “Representation is alright; but sorry, governance is an adult’s job.”

Denied real power, as young people went back to their “studies and careers”, political affairs went off their radar, except for a few blips during the 70’s (and as noted in some pockets even now mutinies rage). Constitutionally speaking, the participation of the young people has deteriorated dramatically since the second Lok Sabha: representation in the latest Lok Sabha has gone down to 6.3 % and the average age of the cabinet has risen to 62 years (though the latest reshuffle has brought it down marginally).

In this neo liberal and post ideological age, commentators lament the cynicism of young people and low voter turnouts. Almost every day, some politician or civil society activist urges the youth to do their bit for the country as if it’s their duty. They are reminded that as citizens they are expected to put in their drop in the ocean. And yet, the elders have only themselves to blame for the low interest of youth in politics. What do you expect will happen when you approach an ocean with a spoon? They deserve the drop they got. May the minds of our elders remain full of reason, may they rule every season; may their hearts remain tough, may they forever guard their turf; may their song always be sung, and may they remain Forever Young!

This article is a part of the 5th space series on Youth Ki Awaaz. 5th Space is an initiative to facilitate young people to expand beyond the typical 4 spaces of career-edu, family, friends and leisure by exploring the 5th space, a journey from self to society and back.