All in the mind

The focus on youth obscures the challenges of crafting a forward-looking politics.

In Rampur on Wednesday, Rahul Gandhi assured his audience that the next government would be a "yuvaon ki sarkar", a government of the young and for the young. This was clearly meant as a promise of better things to come. Yet, in India's politics, the categories of old and young, and the value judgements they invite, have time and again proved to be meaningless.

One of the dominant assumptions about young leaders is that they tilt against the status quo. But most mid-level young politicians are inheritors whose vocabulary may be superficially different from those of their powerful parents, but whose early experience and political instincts are entirely conditioned by this fact. The graphs of the chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh and J&K, Akhilesh Yadav and Omar Abdullah, have offered sobering evidence that young leaders do not inevitably guarantee progressive governance, that they can end up being hypercautious practitioners of a politics they had no hand in inventing. Rahul Gandhi himself is yet to demonstrate, first, whether he has a coherent vision of governance and politics, and then, if it is substantively different from that which is associated with his party's "old guard". For new ideas to travel up in a party, it needs to have open ladders of advancement, a way for members to mobilise around a platform, a policy. Youth is often conflated with change, and young people are seen to be mascots of the future, but novel or risky ideas can come from anywhere, from experienced administrators as much as from energetic new entrants. Many not-so-young chief ministers have shown the determination to uproot old dysfunctions, and improve governance Nitish Kumar being a striking example.

This focus on youth, as a stand-in for forward-looking politics, obscures the real challenges of revitalising parties and governments. For instance, it is often pointed out that young politicians lay stress on technology, without considering the uses they put that technology to, or what social ends they value. The real test, for a "yuvaon ki sarkar", is in how it answers to the needs of this overwhelmingly young country, in terms of schools, skills and jobs. The actual age of those delivering this change is immaterial. To paraphrase Gandhi himself, youth is just a state of mind.

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