I have long lamented that unlike in many other fields, politics in India hardly reflects our youth demographic. The image of the leader is almost always that of an older person, deemed rightly or wrongly to be wiser than a younger one. I think this explains why many leaders have simply refused to cede ground to younger and more dynamic ones, firm in the belief of his or her own indispensability and perhaps superiority. I am glad to see the mould being very slowly cracked open in Uttar Pradesh, not the most likely place for this to happen.
In a head-on confrontation between an aging leadership and a younger one, Akhilesh Yadav seems to have won the day and on the dais with him is the young Congress vice-president. To give both credit, though they are products of dynasties, neither of them seem the least bit inclined to prompt their own. I am hopeful that the same meritocracy which is expected of you and me will permeate into politics under younger leaders like these.
Both these leaders were lucky in that they were able to cut their teeth early in politics. But the same cannot be said of younger people in other parties. The leaders of many of them seemed to think themselves as almost immortal and so did not put in place plans for any second rung of leadership. When they passed on, their parties found themselves adrift as was seen in the case of the AIADMK.
While J Jayalalithaa was alive, no one in their right senses would have dared to suggest any succession plan to the empress of Poes Garden. But she, a product of the encouragement of a benign mentor MGR, did nothing at all to nurture a capable second rung of leadership, leaving the party to fall back on a person whose claim to fame until her death was that she ran Amma’s home. The chief ministership went by default to a man whose sole qualification was his abject loyalty to the late leader. Surely a party with more than one crore members has competent younger people who could have filled the breach.
Similarly, apart from a somewhat dodgy nephew, the stormy petrel of Bengal politics Mamata Banerjee seems oblivious to nurturing a younger set of leaders. The few she has are in no way capable of taking on the challenge of running the fractious state. The only saving grace perhaps is that her party faces no real opposition in the foreseeable future. In Odisha, do tell me if you have heard of any young leader who could step into Naveen Patnaik’s shoes. He does not seem to have encouraged anyone to be a deputy of any consequence, taking all decisions himself.
Even the late Bal Thackeray whose party is a family firm, passed on the mantle to his son far too late leaving the young leader facing resistance from within after his passing. Apart from his nephew, no one worth the name was allowed to come up and take over some of the party’s functions. The aging tiger relied on his tried and tested friends to run the party before handing it over finally to a largely untested son. To come back to UP, there was nothing to stop Mulayam Singh Yadav, still to be referred to as neta, from helping his son create a bright new cadre for the party. Instead, he did not get away from an aging and discredited cohort who finally were not able to help him get the better of his son.
The party which is routinely accused of dynasty is the Congress, but significantly, I find that it has a very strong second rung of leaders in their forties who have not only proved themselves electorally but also have some measure of administrative experience. It is a pity that the Congress is not doing more to showcase these leaders more proactively.
I only hope that Akhilesh’s example will encourage younger people in other parties to demand what is their right, their place in the sun before it is too late. We in India are obsessed, I hope less so now, with age. The US has had presidents in their late thirties (Kennedy) and forties (Clinton and Obama), the UK (Tony Blair and David Cameron), Canada (Justin Trudeau). Yet apart from Rajiv Gandhi we have not really seen this happening in India. We talk a great deal about moving away from the old shibboleths of politics, with its wearisome caste-class equations. But for this to happen, we need fresh talent, new thinking, innovative ideas.
To its credit, the BJP has not promoted dynasties in any major way, but it too has done nothing to encourage a real second rung of leadership. Those few who have been given positions of power like Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra are considered more creatures of the Centre’s making than leaders in their own right. Given the commanding influence that Narendra Modi has on the rank and file of his party, he could easily ask the party to begin to build up talent in their thirties and forties for leadership roles.
Age should not be considered such an advantage as to blot out the chances of younger people. Our politics is in dire need of a breath of fresh air, something that younger people with their energy and dynamism will bring in. I never thought I would ever say this, but UP seems to have become a game changer in a most positive way.