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A house full of elders

India has one of the youngest populations in the world, yet is saddled by leaders aged well over 70. This leads to killjoy rules imposed on half the population that is below 26, writes Arvind Kala.

india Updated: Nov 03, 2006 00:56 IST

Compared to the world’s developed nations, India presents a peculiar paradox. Rich nations have greying populations and young political leaders. India has a young population but ageing leaders. John Kennedy was 43 when he became President of the United States, Bill Clinton was 46, George W. Bush 54 and Tony Blair became Britain’s Prime Minister at 43. In contrast, Manmohan Singh was 72 when he was sworn in as PM, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was 75 and PV Narasimha Rao 70. This is ironical especially because India’s population is far younger than that of the US and Europe. Should India not have younger political leaders to reflect its demographic profile?

In fact, it’s exactly the opposite because India’s political parties have no true inner democracy. Thirty-nine-year-old David Cameron became leader of the Conservative Party in Britain not because he was a party boss or because of his birth. He was elected by 164,000 voting Tory members who chose him over a rival to lead them to victory in the next election. Young leaders emerge in the West because voting members are themselves young.

India would also have successful young politicians if regular party elections allowed party members a free vote to replace one leader with another. Since parties don’t have this inner democracy, a clever party leader can perpetuate his leadership for decades because there’s no mechanism to remove him.

This explains the dominance and political longevity of India’s top politicians. They include Vajpayee and Advani of the BJP, Parkash Singh Badal among the Akalis, M. Karunanidhi of the DMK, Bal Thackeray of the Shiv Sena and even Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party. All of them are over 75, except for Mulayam Singh, who is over 70 but less than 75.

India’s communist parties are the only ones with younger leaders, thanks to their being chosen by party members who are themselves young. A second exception to old-age political success are Sonia, Rajiv and Indira Gandhi, though their early political rise stemmed from their lineage, not from their young age. Barring them, the Congress is also dominated by 75-plus elders like Arjun Singh, Narayan Dutt Tewari or Bhajan Lal.

The US gets its presidents largely from the 50-59 age-group. In contrast, of India’s 13 Prime Ministers, four were 75 and over, and two were between  70 and 75.

Sadly, old leaders set a don’t-do-this-don’t-do-that tone in the government that inflicts huge harm on the Indian economy. Hit hardest by this mindset is Bollywood, the world’s only thriving film industry apart from Hollywood. Fifty per cent of India is below 26 and it is this age-group that flocks to Hindi movies. But what ‘sexy’ scenes they see or don’t see is decided by a scissors-bearing censor board headed by an ageing actor, thanks to which movie releases are held up, blocking hundreds of crores in invested capital.

Thanks to old leaders, a killjoy culture pervades every level of the Indian administration. In Britain, people bet on what name David Beckham will choose for his kid and  who’ll be the next James Bond. In cricket-crazy India, one can legally bet on a horse but not on the performance of Sachin Tendulkar. Old-time mindsets see betting as a vice. Developed societies see it as entertainment.

Gerontocratic leaders inspire a wet-blanket State. A Briton can cross into France and bring back 210 kilolitres of beer without paying duty. In India, a person can be prosecuted for crossing from Delhi to Haryana with more than one ‘unopened’ bottle of whisky. National holidays are big days for making merry in Western societies. But India bans alcohol sales on celebration days like Independence Day, Republic Day and Gandhi Jayanti. An 18-year-old can lawfully drink beer in a pub in Britain, but a 24-year-old in Delhi is forbidden from being served at a bar. In short, our politicians — largely over 60 years old, who form only 7 per cent of the population — inspire killjoy rules that affect 500 million Indians below 26, whose number equals the entire population of the US, Germany, France and Britain.

India’s median age is 26, which means half of our population is below that age. Japan’s median age is 42, in Italy it’s 41, 36 in Britain and 35 in the US. Despite their older populations, these societies not only elect leaders younger than India’s, they seriously consider allowing 16-year-olds to vote. Britain allows a 21-year-old to run for an MP’s election. But India requires a candidate to be 25.

Most countries have far younger leaders in their 50s. There are almost no leaders in their 70s. Ronald Reagan at 69 was the oldest US President. Far older than him have been  Indian leaders like Morarji Desai at 81, Charan Singh at 77 and I.K. Gujral at 78.