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The diminished politics of demographic deficit

  • Published at 11:56 pm February 21st, 2020
Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez
US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez REUTERS

More power to the millennials

You may not like the UK’s eccentric, rightward political skewing, but there’s plenty to appreciate in its relatively inclusive democracy. A record 34% of members of parliament are women. Of these, 104 represent the Labour Party, which now has more female than male representatives.

A full 10% of MPs are from minority ethnicities, including an unprecedented number of South Asians: At least 32 have ancestral roots in India and Pakistan, and four in Bangladesh. Tulip Siddiq (aged 37), Rushanara Ali (44), Rupa Huq (47), and Apsana Begum (29) -- all from Labour -- additionally illustrate the UK’s openness to young leaders. 

We all know how different the situation is back home.

It is of course true that India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka have all elected women prime ministers. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the first non-hereditary female head of government in modern world history when she took office in 1960. 

But our countries are nonetheless deeply resistant to meaningful change. Sclerotic patriarchy predominates, no relief in sight.

There are real costs to this socio-political paralysis. Every study on gender representation in leadership concludes the same way: Women in power act in more collaborative and bipartisan ways, manage responsibilities more democratically, and focus better on addressing injustices.

The World Economic Forum puts it plainly: “Electing more women in government not only promotes gender equality and strengthens democratic institutions but also makes real and substantive contributions to government spending and population health.”

But it’s not only a matter of men and women. Another crucial element of 21st century leadership is making space for the all-important millennials, where the South Asian record is even worse. 

These young people, born between (roughly) 1980 and 2000, are the largest single generation in the history of each of our individual countries. They already dominate the economy, so keeping them powerless is hugely detrimental. 

It’s an upside-down paradox. As you go up the age pyramid the percentage of the population goes down, but the number of political leaders goes up. 

Here too, the UK offers alternate paradigms. The average age in Boris Johnson’s cabinet is 47.7 years, the youngest since WWII. Robert Jenrick, the secretary of state for housing, recently turned 38. 

The wunderkind Chancellor of the Exchequer (equivalent to finance minister) Rishi Sunak, whose ancestral roots are in Punjab (and whose name is always prefaced in India by “the son-in-law of Infosys founder, billionaire Narayana Murthy”) is 39, as is the Attorney General Suella Fernandes Braverman (whose family comes from Goa). 

Out of 28 ministers, eight are women, including the home secretary, 47-year-old Priti Patel, who is Gujarati. Add the business secretary, 57-year-old Alok Sharma (born in Agra), and you can understand why Conservative Party Chairman James Cleverly proudly touted “this is the most desi government in British history.”

But back in the Desh, is it plausible that a 39-year-old man and a 47-year-old woman could rise to two of the four most powerful “Great Offices of State”? It seems improbable, despite the occasional historical aberration. 

In India, in fact, female participation in the workforce is in steep decline. According to Pew Research Centre, the country ranks amongst the 10 lowest in the world, with its 25.9 median female share of the workforce.

This creates a huge drag on economic potential. According to the most recent report from McKinsey Global Report, simply granting equal opportunities for women on the job could catapult the Indian economy by 18% in the next five years. 

But equally damaging are the effects of having only the same tired, predictable, entrenched generational and gender lobbies prevalent in the public sphere. 

We know what that has led to in South Asia, which is why close attention is merited to the case of Nadia Whittome. At 23, the MP for Nottingham East is the UK’s youngest sitting lawmaker, and already an impressive beacon for progressive policies.

None of the South Asian media has claimed Whittome as our own, which makes no sense because her (estranged) father is Punjabi and her mother’s family are Anglo-Indians who migrated from Kolkata, where they used to belong to the Communist Party. 

This unofficial “Baby of the House” is an irresistible star in the making, very much like fellow-millennial Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US, both of them fully committed to social justice and the climate emergency. 

Whittome told Time Magazine: “We know that the crises we’re up against are huge in scale, and that the solutions to them need to be equally bold and implemented urgently. The question isn’t what year we’re going to decarbonize by, it’s what are we going to do to decarbonize by 2030.” 

When’s the last time you heard any South Asian politician speak with such urgency about the biggest problem facing the world today? 

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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