At each point of immense disillusionment with the political class and when the political leadership fails to deliver and live up to its mandate, there is often a loud and expectant call by the people for a ‘change of guard’, bringing in the ‘youth’, and getting the ‘next generation’ to take over. Each time the existing power and political structure falters or becomes oppressive, the common man demands a ‘new face’, a younger political star; as if youth in politics is the panacea to all of the nation’s troubles.
This ‘youth’ in politics, however, is often over-rated and the immense faith in it, misplaced. And there is perhaps no greater a striking example of this trend in South Asia than in India, where the younger generation of politicians is often a by-product of family dynasties. The Indian political leadership often disappoints, fails to deliver on even basic aspirations and resorts to re-enforcing political stereotypes, including that of arrogant and corrupt politicians. During such political lows, the ordinary people call for change and repose faith in the new brigade. However, no ‘young’ politician in India in recent times has lived up to expectations, ushered in any positive change in a sustained manner or brought in the much awaited new order.
The young brigade of Indian politics has been disappointing, to say the least; the most obvious example being Nehru-Gandhi scion and heir apparent of the grand old Congress party—Rahul Gandhi. Gandhi came in with much promise, talked about a whole new political culture and seemed keen on bringing in a new tomorrow. However well meaning as he may be, Rahul Gandhi has failed on each of these counts. The Congress party is no more democratic or tolerant than it used to be; its outlook and policies hardly fresh or vibrant, and its politics still very predictable.
Gandhi, who did offer a spark of hope during the 2009 Lok Sabha election, failed to bring any sustainable change or speak authoritatively on any issue. The 42-year old has chosen to remain in the backdrop when it comes to raising a voice that matters, or contribute substantively to the government (headed by the Congress) policies or strategy, reluctant to take on any real accountability or responsibility—while someone else keeps the prime minister’s seat warm for him. He seems to have made a habit of embarking on a path and then abandoning it mid-way, getting distracted by a newer, more exciting venture—much like an enthusiastic but immature 18-year old.
Gandhi, however, is not alone. The young crop of union ministers in the country, who inspired much hope and excitement when they finally stepped into positions of authority, has remained nothing but silent spectators and casual bystanders. Milind Deora, Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Agatha Sangma and RPN Singh, to name a few, are perfect examples of this passive bunch of younger leaders. These bright young minds choose not to take ownership of ‘politics’ and ‘politically demanding situations’ as it were, instead preferring to be known as suave technocrats who are politically clean and devoid of any political shrewdness. While it may be argued that the older crop’s refusal to give way has tied their hands, it certainly cannot be true in Rahul Gandhi’s case, who himself ought to have ensured greater and active involvement of his generation of leaders.
Even in cases where the new generation has shown promise and taken over, the old order remains unchanged. Omar Abdullah became the youngest chief minister of strife-ridden Jammu and Kashmir in 2009, amidst immense hope and enthusiasm. What followed were years of chaos and mishandling of government affairs—clearly the result of an inexperienced, but more importantly, politically ignorant yet arrogant Abdullah.
When Akhilesh Yadav became the chief minister of India’s most politically crucial state (Uttar Pradesh) earlier this year, it was touted as the best thing to have happened to the state in recent times; Yadav’s campaign showed much promise of a fresh order, of eliminating and denouncing all that has been wrong with the state and steering in a new dawn full of aspirations. Barely two months into his tenure, however, and the fabric seems to be tearing apart. His party—the Samajwadi Party, known for its ‘goondaraj’ seems to be back to its old ways, despite the younger Yadav’s assurances of eliminating all lawlessness. Political patronage and regressive policies seem to have got the better of Yadav’s youthful energy and progressive promises.
The problem with these younger generation politicians is that they are young, but not restless enough to want to bring in any significant change. They are happy protecting their own turfs and images, and are reluctant to get their hands dirty in the muck of India’s famously grimy politics. They are articulate, smart and well educated, but perhaps lack the political perceptiveness and practical knowledge of electoral politics. And even those who are more adventurous, daring and willing, fail to bring about any meaningful churning.
This is certainly not to say that the younger brigade of politicians is unwelcome or not needed; of course, politics can do with as much freshness as possible, but this is to point out that the faith in a new order and hopes pinned to it can be highly misplaced and disappointing.
A young leader may well be the game changer but overall, the emphasis on passing on the baton to a new generation (and the new generation itself) is overrated, while expecting it to undo all ‘wrongs’ of its older lot is unwise. In this context, it is imperative to understand a few essentials. One, the younger crop of political leaders is a product of the same socio-political culture and it is both unfair and irrational to expect them to be a complete digression from the existing norm.
The younger crop of political leaders is product of same socio-political culture and it’s unfair to expect them to be a complete digression from the norm.
Interestingly, most young politicians play the ‘youth card’ during elections, promising to bring about some change given their younger outlook, but underneath, their aim is ultimately to enter the same political system and extract the same gains as the older lot.
Two, political dynamism is not a function of age. An older politician could be as, or even more dynamic as his next generation. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar did not have to be a 30-year old to give Bihar the massive makeover. Former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati was not particularly ‘young’ when she changed the face of Dalit politics by engineering a brilliant social dynamic to capture power in her state. Youth does not automatically guarantee political vibrancy or the yearning for change. Politics needs freshness—not of age but of ideas.
In times of social and political troughs, the ‘younger’ generation of politicians in India in recent times has not been the one to step up and transform the situation. More often than not, they have behaved more like corporate executives who go about their assigned tasks in a robotic fashion, showing little political initiative or skill. Unless Akhilesh Yadav does change the face of UP, Rahul Gandhi turns out to be a brilliantly forward looking prime minister, or the existing bunch of young (state and union) ministers initiate major policy reforms, the hype around ‘youth in politics’ will remain just that—hype.