Never before in the history of Indian democracy has a person not even old enough to contest an election challenged the country’s prime minister. That too, on his home turf.
However, the BJP can take small comfort in the fact that Hardik Patel, born on July 20, 1993, is one year shy of the minimum eligible age for contesting elections to the state assembly. Though there is no upper age limit for prime ministership in the constitution, Narendra Modi, now 67, declared an upper limit of 75 years for his cabinet in 2014.
With more and more young leaders beginning to show political promise, is it not time to bring the age for contesting elections down from 25 to 21 or even 18 years?
Patel is not alone in the category of such aspirants. There are several others like him on different campuses. Young leaders exhibiting more political maturity than politicians double their age. Though Kanhaiya Kumar and Shehla Rashid are in their late 20s now, both of them burst into national prominence when they were below the age set for aspiring legislators.
Besides, except in the United States, most major democracies either have 18 or 21 as the minimum age for contesting elections for parliament or provincial legislatures. For example, the minimum age in the UK is 18 (reduced from 21 in 2006). In France, the minimum age to contest for the lower house is 18 and for the upper house is 24. In Israel it is 21 years ,while in Germany and Australia 18 years. In Indonesia it is 21 years for the Lower House.
In France and Iran, one can even become president of the country at the age of 18 and 21 respectively.
However, the minimum age for entering the US Senate is 30, while in the House of Representatives it is 25.
Three decades back, India passed a constitutional amendment to bring down the age for exercising adult franchise from 21 to 18. Scotland has even allowed 16 year olds to vote.
No party – more so the BJP – should have any objection towards a move to lower the age for legislators as they all believe in the philosophy of ‘catch them young’.
When the constitution was drafted seven decades ago, literacy levels in India were much lower than now, there was an acute shortage of skilled manpower and the polity was dominated by veterans.
The scenario started changing gradually and the late 1960s and early 1970s threw up several student leaders.
The Nav Nirman Movement of Gujarat which started in December 1973 and the students movement of Bihar that followed in March 1974 were spearheaded by many leaders who were not even 25 then. Jayaprakash Narayan entered the scene a bit later.
A large number of young leaders were thrown into jail during the Emergency. Thus they acquired political maturity even before the age of 25. So during Indira Gandhi’s years too, like now, students came to the forefront when the established opposition failed to deliver.
Most of the leaders in present day politics in these two states – Gujarat and Bihar – are the products of those very movements.
Until a few decades back, 25 was too old an age to be selected for the civil services. It is only much later that the age was raised to 30. So if we had many district magistrates and superintendents of police who were not even 25, why can a person of the same age not become a legislator or a parliamentarian?
If John Keats, who died at the age of 26, could produce immortal odes, Mark Zuckerberg launch Facebook at the age of 20 and Malala Yousafzai, while still in her teens, be a Nobel peace prize winner, why can’t young India have elected representatives under 25? After all, 50% of India’s population is under 25.
Note: In an earlier version of this article it was mistakenly stated that Scotland had lowered the age qualification for eligibility to stand for elections to 16. While 16-year-olds were allowed to vote, an aspiring legislator must be at least 18.