Demographic changes are transforming the developing world, and India is no exception. As the 2014 elections approach, India's large youth population has come under scrutiny. It is expected to play a pivotal role in determining the outcome of the largest democratic elections in history.
According to the last census, carried out in 2011, more than 70 percent of the Indian population, or about 550 million people, were below age 35. By 2020, the median age for India will be just 29 years old, according to a recent report by the UN. That will make India the youngest nation in the world, with more than 64 percent of people in the working age group.
India's rapid population growth has long been a subject of debate. For the better part of the 19th century, it was considered to be one of the country's major liabilities. The population burden presented challenges such as overcrowding, malnutrition, and need for public education, none of which the government adequately addressed.
But the evolution of consumerism and the services sector brought about a change in perspective. India's large population was recast as an asset, rather than a liability -- a potent consumer base and a cost-effective labor force for businesses around the world. This young and growing population helped to sustain average GDP growth of 7.7 percent over the last decade, despite the challenges posed by the global financial crisis.
A growing population can sometimes lower GDP on a per capita basis; in India, however, the increase in the labor force has driven the GDP higher, especially in the last decade. Per capita GDP has grown from $687 in 2004 to $1,107 in 2013. With countries such as the United States, China, and Japan aging rapidly, India will have the opportunity to leapfrog other countries in terms of growth.
Battle of the bulge
Recent economic growth has left India's youth hungry for more opportunity and dynamism, and caused a shift in public discourse. In a political system that often panders to caste and community, especially in the rural areas, India's youth have pushed the agenda for the upcoming elections toward their own concerns, of which development is chief.
The younger generation wants better employment and educational opportunities, and they want them soon. According to a survey released by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, only 10 percent of MBA graduates from Indian universities are able to find employment straight after completing their program. And even among those who find jobs, many aspire to better careers. India's youth expect a dynamic government that can respond to these needs.
Among the many changes these new voters are pushing for is a more inclusive political dialogue. The rise of social media and other technology has changed the way Indian youth expect to relate to their leaders. Social media is helping to bolster India's democratic values, by bringing mainstream media and political parties under scrutiny and providing a more people-centric approach to governance. This is one of the most intriguing and positive developments in India in decades, laying the foundation for plurality and transparency in public discourse.
Some politicians are taking to social media aggressively in an attempt to woo new voters. Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat and the prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, and Shashi Tharoor, a parliamentary member and the minister of state for human resources development, have several million Twitter followers each. Both Modi and Tharoor use Twitter to share details of their political meetings on a minute-by-minute basis. Modi has also used innovative techniques such as Google Hangouts and "3D election rallies" (in which a three-dimensional projection of Modi addresses campaign crowds) to boost his reach among youth.
A focus on battling corruption has gone hand-in-hand with the emphasis on technology and transparency. Indian youth have played a role in promoting the implementation of Aadhar, a biometric ID number, to eliminate intermediaries and streamline the public distribution system. They are also entering politics more directly. Young voters were an important contingent of the anti-corruption movement, led by activist Anna Hazare, which created waves in India in 2011 and 2012. The offshoot of the movement, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), recently plunged into electoral politics in an aim to cleanse the system.
The AAP's experience so far demonstrates both the exuberance and impatience of Indian youth. Led by Arvind Kejriwal and fueled by youth support, the newly formed AAP performed well in the Delhi state elections in December, yet the government it formed lasted a mere 49 days. Kejriwal then resigned in February citing a lack of numbers to pass his signature Jan Lokpal Bill, which would create an anti-corruption ombudsman, in the Delhi legislature.
The downside to the youth movement is that many young people seem to have excessive expectations. Young Indians are barely willing to wait for things to happen; they want immediate results. Even within its 49 days of governance, the AAP experienced a dip in popularity among youth. Without the patience to push for change through a democratic process, the risk is that some Indian youth may quickly become disillusioned with politics.
Seizing the day
In the 1990s, Indians often opined that the youth were electorally irrelevant, with small overall numbers and little interest in public affairs. That situation has clearly changed. India's youth are its largest age group, and they are increasingly conscious of public affairs through technology and social movements, such as the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement. They are willing to be active participants in the democratic process; they want India to be a vibrant participative democracy, not a hierarchical society ruled by elites and dynastic monopolies.
This change in demographics presents a vital opportunity for India. The country has often lacked the ability to implement the grand visions advocated by its politicians and failed in providing dynamic mechanisms of governance. The new electorate, however, has brought an infusion of positive energy into the country that could help to overcome these challenges. Indian youth have become a potent electoral force, both demographically and ideologically.
Legislators need to nurture the raw exuberance of India's youth by providing them with career opportunities, skill development programs, and a robust economic vision that can carry them into the next decade. If they fail to do so, the result will be more political gridlock and economic stagnation. To ignore how the aspirations of India's youth are redefining politics would be not only naïve, but potentially detrimental to India's fortunes for years to come.
Sriram Balasubramanian is a writer and journalist. Follow him on Twitter at @Sriram316