Age And Politics
The recent interactions of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with a select group of Editors have led to many political speculations. Is he asserting? Is he sending a veiled threat to Congress President Sonia Gandhi that he and some of his best ministers such as P Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal cannot be humiliated by her acolytes? Has he dared to tell Sonia and her son Rahul Gandhi that they cannot give too much importance to their Jhollawallah advisors, who, in the name of human rights and environment, are hell bent upon ruining the security atmosphere and economic growth of the country?
Knowing Manmohan Singh’s history as an academician, civil servant and politician, it is really too much to believe that he is on a confrontationist mode. However, one remark of the Prime Minister to the Editors is interesting. He, apparently, said that he would like his cabinet to be little younger before the next session of Parliament. The apparent suggestion is that he would like younger ministers in his cabinet which has the likes of Pranab Mukherjee, SM Krishna, who are touching their 80s. In fact, Singh himself is also in his late 70s, assuming that his official birth certificate truly reflects his age, something which, at the time of these leaders’ birth, was rare.
The Prime Minister’s remark has rekindled the debate whether it is being too late for “young” Rahul Gandhi to succeed Singh and lead the country. In fact, for some years now, the age factor in India has been attracting attention. One of the campaigns against the National Democratic Alliance in the last parliamentary polls was that it was led by octogenarian LK Advani. The media hyped this factor against the BJP. I think that was rather unfair, given the fact that Advani’s rival—Manmohan Singh—was not young by any stretch of imagination. But the perception, and this matters ultimately in politics, continues to be that the BJP has an ageing leadership in contrast to that of the Congress which has Rahul Gandhi.
This argument gets strengthened when one sees that four leading nations of the world with a rapidly ageing population are now being governed by leaders below 60 years of age—Barack Obama in the United States, Dmitry Medvedev in Russia, Nicolas Sarkozy in France and David Cameron in Britain (last fortnight he became a father again at 42). Recall that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair had also fathered a child while in office.
In contrast, India has had only one “young” Prime Minister—Rajiv Gandhi, who was just forty-plus when he assumed office. His grandfather, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had entered office in his late 50s and India, by and large, has had septuagenarian and octogenarian Prime Ministers—Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Narasimha Rao, AB Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh.
Should “old” leaders run a country like India, which is increasingly becoming younger, with an age-group of 20 and 50 years now constituting over 60 per cent of the population? Certainly, it is a legitimate question but given the global experience one cannot arrive at a definite conclusion or an answer. Take, for instance, the Western world. It might have a Cameron or Obama or Putin, but the fact remains that it has also had the likes of highly effective septuagenarian Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroder, the French President and the German Chancellor respectively. It will not be out of context to recall that Ronald Reagan took the oath of office in his seventies and went on to become, arguably, one of the most powerful Presidents of the US.
It is equally legitimate when some others point out that age has nothing to do with politics. Many political stalwarts such as Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965), Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970), Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969), Nelson Mandela (b. 1918), Mao Ze Dong (1893-1976), Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) and Tito (1892-1980) have contributed much for the cause of politics, with different strategies and outlook.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “I’m saving that rocker for a day when I feel as old as I really am.” He was elected President in 1952 at the age of 62 and left office in 1961 at the ripe age of 70. Importantly, if one looks at the makeup of those who shape policy nationally, including the US Congress or Supreme Court, there is ample evidence that age is not a deterrent. Not long ago, the Americans had a Senator in 98-year-old Strom Thurmond. Similarly, the Chinese and Russians, until recently, were, invariably, led by the octogenarians.
Clearly, age does not matter in politics so long as one is healthy, active and performing. Political leadership is not necessarily about physical prowess, youth or age but about what one has in one’s head and one’s heart, and about competence, good judgment and integrity. After all, running a government requires the ability to constantly draw on past experiences and administrative skills built over a sustained period of time. If Pranab Mukherjee is considered the ablest minister in Manmohan’s cabinet, it is essentially because of his knowledge accumulated over several decades in dealing with crisis situations.
There is one important aspect when one talks of the young leaders in India. Unlike the Western countries where young leaders have attained their position by sheer hard work and talent (be it Obama or Cameron or Blair or Putin), here in India almost all the so-called young leaders belong to important political dynasties. They are inheriting the political mantles of their respective families on a platter. The result is that after getting elected, almost all of them have failed to deliver goods. How many times do you remember our young parliamentarians making a mark through their speeches and interventions in the Parliament?
Similarly, one does not discover any great talent in the workings of all those young politicians who have managed to become ministers at the Centre or in the States. Prafulla Mahanta became a Chief Minister of Assam at a very young age of 34 amid great hopes. But his government was a total failure in detecting the illegal immigrants, the plank on which he had attained his celebrated status. In fact, his regime was tainted with serious scams and corruption charges.
Rajiv Gandhi became a Prime Minister at 40 but, in retrospect, it must be admitted that although he was a wonderful human being and man of good ideas, he literally struggled to lead the country and mishandled the issues pertaining to Punjab, Sri Lanka, Muslim women and Ayodhya, not to speak of the Bofors scandal.
Take now the case of Omar Abdullah, the young Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. No one doubts his oratorical ability, but what about his administrative capability? It is under him that Kashmir is literally burning and he just does not know what to do.
And finally, a word about Rahul Gandhi. He may be extremely popular. He makes all the right noises in gatherings at campuses. He earns tremendous goodwill when he visits the houses of Dalits and Tribals in the country. But what exactly have been the concrete results? Does India know what its “Prime Minister-in-waiting” thinks about the vital problems confronting the country—rising prices, corruption, internal security, terrorism and external enemies?
The moral of the story is that competence, rather than age, should be the yardstick in judging our generation-next politicians.
By Prakash Nanda