India has the world’s youngest population and its oldest active politicians

Indias quarter age crisis just kicked its perpetual middle age crisis
Voices Opinion Monday, November 09, 2015 - 19:49

Two election results came out last week in India, which have gone against the grain. One in the populous state of Bihar where 66 million people or the entire population of France was eligible to vote. This included 18 million people under 30. The other was a local panchayat election in Kerala that touched a community of 8,500 people in Kizhambbakam, Ernakulam district. Both electorates had a connected message for politicians – local and hyper local accountability of leadership matters. In both cases, the losing side said it was time to introspect which is shorthand for devising plans to regain power, not people’s confidence.  By 2020 India will be home to over 400 million young people and the median person will be a 29 year-old city dweller. The country’s leaders are currently pushing 60, 70 and even 80 and for most, it has been a long and lucrative road to fiefdom. There are two and half to three generations between the young and the old which would not have been a problem if the old and elderly had moved on instead of hanging on to power by hook or by crook.

India’s quarter-age crisis is palpable (I hope the term will catch on) and it wants education, employment and healthcare now and rightfully so. And they want it by hook or delivered by crooks and the immediate accountability they seek is one they can measure by anyone who delivers. People power (and awarness through mobile phones that makes literacy less relevant) is now the greatest leveler in India.  There is enough global data to show that a gainfully employed community is a peaceful community where neither caste nor religion can play spoiler.

In Ernakulam, the Anna-Kitex Group of Companies (among the state’s largest) used its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds to field the winning candidates. For many companies, CSR is the proverbial fig leaf to hire friends and family to organise feel-good events when books close for the financial year end. There are however, many companies that invest in communities they live in. Not every company is intrinsically corrupt and not every politician is a thief. But the deadly combination of corruption and inefficiency is what India’s 500 million youth who must be employed and companies that must create jobs for them will kick.

The winning combination in Bihar has a felon former Chief Minister lalu Prasad Yadav and almost three out of four legislators who will take oath of office have criminal records. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar who scored a hat trick has never hidden his ambition to lead India one day and will unify all forces against Prime Minister Narendra Modi whose coalition also has criminals and thieves. All political parties pick candidates based on caste and religion and a commitment to develop their constituencies, in that order. Engaging unemployed millions in a conversation on clean governance while doing little to weed out the rot has resulted in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) looking like any other poltical party, a far cry from people’s expectations which gave them that resounding victory in May 2014. If this is what they want, then the road to 2019 which is routed through many state elections, could be as rough and rude as Bihar.

Humility and swift course correction will serve the Narendra Modi government well. Make in India and ease of doing business in the country are two of the cornerstones of the present government.  For that to make sense, the manufacturing sector has to take off first to serve the Indian market, potentially the world’s largest. Currently, everything from television sets to fire-crackers are imported. For the last Ganesh Chaturti, I bought a Ganesha statue with an iPhone6 made in China. If the share of manuacturing has to move from the current 17 percent of GDP to 25 percent in ten years, the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have to become the backbone of the economy. For that to happen, skill sets are crucial. For the moment, India has no standards on skill development and every ministry has its own schemes and twitter handles ! The Ministry of Labour has the Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs), the ministry of Human Resource Development has schools and colleges, states have their state boards and state skill boards. A pathway that connects India’s vocational systems is also non-existent. Turf battles between uncooperative ministries must be ended. The public-private model has some answers none of which will work if egos come in the way. Institutions in a democracy are like departments in a company -  they have to pull in the same direction.

The Ernakulam vote is as much about ease of doing business as the many components of Make in India. It has been criticised by Kerala’s left parties who rightfully worry about money power purchasing votes and influencing policy. The company has been quoted as saying that they want to bring the best amenities to the village and their work was hampered by political parties across the board.  All eyes are on them and their performance and this could well be a valuable addition to the public-private partnership model. Read our story here.

Election funding is one of India’s worst kept secrets and least addressed as well in any relevant manner. To enter this debate, one way forward is to look at people’s voices and government’s choices as concentric circles without being shrill and stupid.  If I want better garbage clearance in my neighbourhood I may vote for people who deliver that service irrespective of my political inclinations. This can be extended to the district, state and maybe the national level for which there needs to be a basic level of education. It is futile to speak about conflict of interest without engaging with it in a democratic manner. If we trust local companies for services they provide and they seek our votes to engage politically as well, I see possible relief from the deafening nonsense from politicians who take money from companies while pretending otherwise. If we can appoint heads of companies to become Rajya Sabha members, what is the harm in engaging with them for the Lok Sabha elections? We will never know how much money changed hands but the farce of no money changed hands will be over-enabling the conversation to progress. This is a raging debate in Switzerland where CEOs of companies are ministers and conflict of interest issues are squarely placed in the public domain by parties with limited access to resources. The modern world’s oldest democracy has a federal system that closely resembles the Indian one and the world’s largest democracy can learn a lesson or two about the importance and limits of such a conversation.

Robber barons precede democracy in most countries, but the revese is the case with India. Scratch the surface and anyone who engages with the state apparatus will tell you how entrenched and structural corruption is. Unlike many countries where illegal monies have to be paid to break a rule, Indians have to pay to make rules work with no guarantee that the work will be done. There is no way to measure accountability and working with private sector-funded candidates is an option that should be explored with all the checks and balances in place. People are the best checks and balances as both the Bihar and Ernakulam poll results have shown. Not engaging with young people who bring in new perspectives and breathe new life is a sign of fear and intellecual decay. India’s quarter lifers are calling the bluff. More power to them.