A Younger Generation Changes the Face of India's Legislature

The Congress party's Rahul Gandhi, right, at 37 the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, and Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani attend the swearing-in of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 76, for a second term.
The Congress party's Rahul Gandhi, right, at 37 the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, and Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani attend the swearing-in of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 76, for a second term. (Associated Press)
By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 23, 2009

NEW DELHI, May 22 -- Like the country as a whole, India's politicians are getting more youthful. In the national elections that wrapped up last week, 27 percent of those voted into office for the first time were 45 or younger, putting a different face on a legislature long identified in popular culture with potbellied senior citizens.

"We are a young country today. I am not surprised that our youth voters are impatient to change the old ways of doing politics," said Meenakshi Natrajan, 36, a newly elected lawmaker from the Congress party who defeated an 82-year-old, eight-term incumbent. "I got a lot of support from the young, first-time voters in my constituency. They want me to work on improving education and employment opportunities."

Of the 543 elected members of Parliament's lower house, 147 are 45 or younger. The growing number of young faces in Indian politics marks a gradual but definite generational shift in the country at large, dubbed "Youngistan" by advertising and marketing gurus targeting youthful consumers.

According to census data, about two-thirds of India's 1.2 billion people are 35 or younger, and half are 20 or younger. It is estimated that by 2020, the average age of an Indian will be 31, compared with 37 for China and 48 for Japan. In the recent elections, more than 20 percent of the 700 million eligible voters were 35 or younger.

On Friday, the Congress party's leader, 76-year-old, Oxford-educated economist Manmohan Singh, was sworn in for a second term as prime minister, along with 19 ministers whose average age is 64. To some observers, those numbers are a sign that change has not yet risen to the top leadership.

"Will the Congress party give effective responsibility to the young leaders and appoint them as ministers? Despite all the talk of youth, India's grand old party still rewards age over energy and new ideas," said Ramachandra Guha, a political historian with the New India Foundation, a Bangalore-based research group. "There is a natural conservatism in the Congress party that still leans toward gerontocracy."

A Congress party member said Friday, however, that some younger leaders may be inducted into the coalition government in a second round next week.

Singh told party members this week that young people "will not tolerate business as usual." He added: "They expect us to work with renewed energy. They expect the government to cater to their aspirations. They expect a more efficient government."

Although Rahul Gandhi was not among the cabinet members sworn in Friday, Singh attributed the Congress party's large youth vote to the 37-year-old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which has controlled the party for decades. Young people were inspired by the rising new star, Singh said.

Natrajan, who was elected from the water-starved rural constituency of Mandsaur, in central India, was handpicked by Gandhi to run for Parliament this year. "It was Rahul Gandhi who opened the gates of politics for the youth," Natrajan said.

Gandhi, a second-term lawmaker who is expected to be nominated for the prime minister's post in the next national elections in 2014, has so far focused on transforming the idiom of the 124-year-old Congress party into the language of the young. In the past two years, he launched a massive online membership drive and set up a call center for young people wanting to direct questions to the party. He also visited college campuses and twittered actively even as he traveled to remote, impoverished villages to better understand the age-old problem of caste discrimination.

Gandhi is treated like a rock star by India's news media, which report what he wears, the books he reads, the parties and cricket matches he attends. On Friday, two English-language newspapers, the Hindustan Times and the Times of India, ran stories asking women why they find him "hot" and what they thought a date with him would be like. Young politicians such as Natrajan are part of what is called the Rahul Brigade.

The India Today newsmagazine wrote in its current issue, "This is the era of Rahul Gandhi, where to be young is to be politically correct."

Congress is not the only party that has sent young people to Parliament. The shift is visible across the political divide. Newly elected lawmaker Janardhana Swamy, a 41-year-old engineer who has worked with Sun Microsystems, Cisco and Dell, returned to his native India from California to join the Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

"It is a tragedy that we do not see many educated young professionals in Indian politics," he said. "That is why I came back."

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