A top performer at high school, Hari Bahadur, tells his parents that he is joining politics. A recently graduated medical doctor, Amrita, also decides to enter politics. Guess what the reaction of their parents and family would be? Has any one of us seen or heard of parents who want their children to join politics—perhaps with the exception of the children of politicians? I certainly have not.
Our Constitution defines youth as those between the ages of 16 and 40 years, and this population constitutes almost 40 percent of the total population. However, only five percent of youth represents 40 percent of the population in the federal parliament of Nepal. In contrast, more than 13.5 percent of parliamentarians globally are youth. Thus, despite the huge contribution of youths in bringing fundamental changes in the country—establishing a federal democratic republic, secularism and proportional representation etc—the proportion of youths in Nepal’s parliament is significantly low.
Why are youths not in politics? Or why are there so few of them?
There could be several factors, but primarily four stand out: a) Performance of governments, leaders and political parties; b) social norms and practices; c) constitutional and legal provisions and d) media.
First, the problem starts when the youths do not actively participate in mainstream politics. Those who participate are mere “active followers”, devotees or “honest and loyal soldiers” of one or some of their senior leaders. Senior politicians are smart enough to make them Jhole and use them as a ping-pong ball to maintain syndicate politics. It is not easy for newcomers or youths to join politics until they become a Jhole. There is a competition of who wants to be the best Jhole so that they can receive rewards for their devotion. It is not that the syndicate is unbreakable. There were opportunities in the past to break it. When political parties got divided into multiple smaller constituencies, most youths followed the division rather than uniting against such dividers and asking them to leave the respective parties.
We see a lot of news congratulating youth entering into leadership positions, but we have failed to understand that tokenism does not create opportunities for the 40 percent Nepali population. Some youths and the new generation do genuinely believe in new political parties. They have participated with enthusiasm, but have ended up in a confused situation, when their trusted leaders have started voicing against the gains of federalism and secularism in Nepal. It is such actions that may confuse today’s youths, prevent them from joining politics and reinforce their belief that “politics is a dirty game”. No game is dirty. It is the players who make the game dirty.
Second, politics is seen by many as a dirty game. Our politicians are smart enough to establish this narrative in our social norms and practices. However, there is a lack of understanding of politics on its own. The perception is that politics means violence, election, power, position and corruption is a stereotype. There are several factors that contribute to such an insight due to limited understanding of politics, its usefulness and purposes, and its implication and effect. In addition, our social norms and practices never promote the youths. If any youths criticize seniors’ ideas, opinions, or actions, the most common phrases used to castigate them are Khukuri Bhanda Karda Lagne, or “how many Bhotos we have changed”, or Bau Bhanda Choro Janne.
Third, constitutional and legal provisions also appear as hurdles at times. We have two issues in our legal requirements; a person who gets citizenship at 16 can only vote at the age of 18. A person who can vote at the age of 18 years can stand in the local election only at 21 years. However, the person has to wait to reach 25 years to stand for provincial and federal elections. In addition, one has to be 45 years old to be part of constitutional committees. It clearly shows that the ones who finalized the Constitution always planned for their retirement. One of my friends mentioned that the constitution favours the elderly, not the youths. The provisions above prove that my friend is correct.
Senior politicians tend to make ‘Jhole’ cadres out of smart devoted youths. Among the youths, there seems to be a competition as to who can become the best ‘Jhole’ so that they can receive rewards for their devotion.
Fourth, the media plays a significant role in any transformation, and it has a vital role to bring youths into politics. The problem is that they are not fulfilling their fundamental role of responsible journalism. An ordinary citizen in Nepal can figure out which political party runs which media house by just reading a headline. Almost all media are loyal or mouthpiece of political parties, and they are disseminating narratives of various syndicate politicians to maintain their power base. It should be pointed out that the media hardly promotes youth voices and their profiles in our country.
What’s the solution?
The situation as described above has to change and it can be changed. Here is how.
First, the youths have to understand that their duty to the country is not over after ten years of armed conflict and subsequent democratic changes that were put in place in Nepal. As the saying goes, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
First of all, it is necessary to break the syndicate of senior leaders. The youths of these political parties should unite, continue their movement inside their party and fight for their equal representation in leadership and positions. Moving away from being a Jhole to an active politician is necessary for a paradigm shift. Soon to be held convention of one of the major political parties in Nepal is an opportunity for potential young leaders to lead that party. Politicians and ordinary citizens must understand that politics is not only about elections, party membership, parliamentary membership, power and positions. Politics is a continuous process and should apply in development, education and socio-economic uplifting of the country. Do your healthy politics where you are. A country as well as political parties should invest in finding good leaders. When every citizen and youth practices healthy politics for development, social welfare and social work, the country may find great politicians and leaders. After all, leaders are born from people, not from Mars. The time has come for every youth political cadre of political parties to fight for equal representation. When the Constitution asks for equal representation, why can’t the constitution of political parties ensure equal representation of leaders from youth representing diversity and gender?
Youths need to learn and have a field to practice their knowledge and skills. Therefore, senior leaders have a significant role in mentoring capable youths. Spend time to mentor them to make a strong leader rather than a Jhole. To make politics a healthy game, a constructive force for social order and progress, we must prevent it from going into the hands of the senseless—the people that only see politics as a means for financial gains. Therefore, good and intelligent people should keep their interests and be involved in politics.
Second, it takes at least three to four generations to change behaviour and practices. However, better late than never, all elderly and parents should encourage youths to raise their voices and participate in politics. Give your kids an option of becoming a politician after graduation. Some may take up the opportunity that comes to them and some may not, but if two percent of parents ask their smart children to join politics, it will change a lot in the long run.
Third, our constitution requires an amendment. It is only possible when all political parties agree on it. Therefore, the youths of Nepal need to raise their voices for this amendment.
Finally, responsible journalism is a mantra of transformation and plays a vital role in bringing youths into politics. Media needs to let the public know the challenges and opportunities for youths. Instead of highlighting headlines by age, it can reflect what the youths can do and share good practices from around the world.
Tap the opportunities
The provinces and local level government structures provide a platform not only for youths participation at these levels but also a chance to build leadership competence for advanced politics. These levels provide youth opportunities through which political leadership can mature and become established. At these levels, youths can link politics with their local needs, goals, problems, and resolutions and make politics a local social phenomenon that matters. They can make a big difference. This, perhaps, is the most beautiful facet of federalism. The country adopted the National Youth Policy in 2010. Its implementation lies in the hands of youths. The main goal of National Youth Policy is “to make the qualitative role of youth and capacity inherent in them for building a prosperous, modern and just Nepal, while integrating the youth in the mainstream of national development, through meaningful participation, capacity and leadership development.” It is an opportunity which should not be missed.
Famous painter Pablo Picasso once said, “youth has no age.” Famous mathematician Pythagoras said, “The beginning of every Government starts with the education of our youth”. Therefore, the youths today need to learn to think critically and comprehend local needs to make politics a positive force of change as expected and dreamed of by the public. Show your accountability and responsibility in every opportunity at home, workplace, community, public spaces, and social media and during elections. Change starts with you! The first thing is to stop yourself from being coached and look for being mentored. It also requires courage to say ‘NO’ to remnants of outdated perspectives or ideologies of senior leaders. Political experience cannot evolve overnight and it requires a lot of learning and practising. Create a group, accept constructive criticism, learn from others, innovate and improvise methods applicable to a local context. Humility and a commitment to service are enduring characteristics of leaders. Understand that people measure every leadership’s accomplishments. The public of Nepal expects brave leaders that can take a stand and make good judgments for the public which may pit them against senior leaders.
The provinces and local level government structures provide a platform not only for youths’ participation at these levels but also a chance to build leadership competence for advanced politics.
The next generation leaders should be responsive to public needs, communicate clearly to the public at large and be honest politicians. Such politicians should engage with all stakeholders, even the opposition. Go to schools or colleges, go to offices and your contemporary communities, societies, oppositions and go to old homes or communities of retirees. Each generation brings its strengths to how they see the problem/s. Any promising next-generation leader would inevitably encounter threats from within their fraternity and senior leaders. Therefore, one’s individual behaviour and character should be scrutinized regularly. Be mindful of reading people’s non-verbal behaviours and intuitively sense the motivation of others. Communicating frequently and establishing rapport with others, expanding the network beyond your group and ideology, being transparent, honest, sincere and accountable to the public and finally maintaining this image is a key to success.
(My thanks to Pragati Ghimire, Sareeta Shree Gewali, Gajendra Budhathoki, Rekha Thapa, Prakriti Bhatarai and Rajeshwore Khanal for the panel discussion in “Youth in Politics : How Can We Increase Youth Participation in Politics in Nepal?”held on 26 September 2021. Many thanks to Niraj Dawadi for inputs.)
Dr Nirmal Kandel is a medical anthropologist based in Geneva, Switzerland.