The generation gap of governance

How can an overwhelmingly young India be well served by its ageing political leaders?

The UPA government has touted its cabinet reshuffle as a much-needed infusion of youth and vibrancy. While it is easy to get caught up in government talking points, the facts speak otherwise: as India's population is getting younger, its political elites are bucking the trend. India is increasingly exhibiting all the hallmarks of a gerontocracy — a polity in which leaders are significantly older than the people themselves. This has potentially troubling implications for its democracy.

First, consider a few facts about India's ruling class. Prior to the latest reshuffle, the median age of cabinet members stood at 65 years. Post-reshuffle, the median age of the new cabinet stands at, well, 65 years. True, some younger MPs were brought in as ministers of state while others like Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia were given weightier portfolios. Yet these young MPs still lack cabinet rank. The overall age demographic of the cabinet, the apex executive body in the country, was left unchanged.

As the Economist reported several months ago, India is an outlier in this regard; it has one of the highest discrepancies between the median age of its cabinet and that of its population. This is perhaps not surprising, given how rapidly many Western countries are ageing. Yet, even when compared to Brazil and China, India's age ratio of ruler-to-ruled stands out. What is more, the age disparity in India's leadership is only increasing over time. According to data collected by PRS Legislative Research, in India's first general election in 1952, 20 per cent of members of Parliament (MPs) were over the age of 55. In 2009, that percentage more than doubled to 43 per cent.

In the face of ageing politicians, India's population is getting younger. Over the next several decades, India stands to benefit from what economists refer to as the "demographic dividend". Between 2010 and 2040, one-quarter of the increase in the world's population aged 15-64 will take place in India — that is roughly 300 million new working-age adults. This demographic shift will shape Indian society in ways foreseen and not.

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