In the din of Parliament, it was a despairing sight: the once mighty George Fernandes struggling to take his oath as a Rajya Sabha member. He couldn’t speak, could barely walk, this was a lion in the winter of life being almost pushed to perform one last time on the big stage. He was ill but was being asked to defy age and poor health. The question that many of us who had tracked the controversial but charismatic politician could ask was: is this how a senior public figure must fade away?
Fernandes, after all, is a life story that few Bollywood scripts would be able to match. The teenager who was sent to a seminary to train as a priest, but then rebelled and became a trade union activist. The young man who came to Mumbai with eight annas in his pocket, slept on the pavement and then built a workers’ movement that would bring the country’s commercial capital to a halt. The politician who became ‘George the Giant Killer’ after he defeated Mumbai’s reigning political badshah S.K. Patil in the 1967 elections. The ultimate anti-establishment hero during the Emergency, it was the image of Fernandes in chains that became symbolic of the political repression of the period.
Through all the twists and turns, Fernandes enjoyed the arclights, relished a challenge, took pride in being perhaps the last political iconoclast (who else but Fernandes as the country’s defence minister would have allowed his official residence to be used as a home for Burmese and Tibetan rebels?). And yet, today, at 79, Fernandes is being reduced to a pathetic lonely figure, a cruel reminder of how nothing is permanent in life.
Bihar Chief minister Nitish Kumar has hinted that the decision to make ‘Georgesaab’ a Rajya Sabha member was a form of ‘guru-dakshina’ to a mentor. Admirable sentiments, although only a few months earlier, Kumar had refused to give a Lok Sabha ticket to his ‘guru’, saying he was too ill. Are we then to understand that the Rajya Sabha is an retirement home, much like the Raj Bhavans? Do politicians have a retirement age, or are they expected to soldier on till the very end?
Indian politics (like much of our society) is trapped in a ‘Bhishma Pitamah’ syndrome. The idea of a pater familias who will be our compass through life is a powerful one; we expect our elders to offer wisdom gleaned from experience. But an over-emphasis on age is also proving debilitating to a young society. In our search for Bhishma-like figures, we are preventing the next generation from questioning the status quo.
For example, take the Left. Part of the problem is that there has been little attempt to allow newer voices to emerge. A Jyoti Basu could perhaps have continued as West Bengal CM and politburo member for an eternity, because there was a lurking fear within the Marxist ranks of what life would be like without him at the helm. Eventually, the patriarch opted out himself, but how many others are willing to say goodbye?
Family-run regional parties, driven by the cult of personality, are prone to being unable to shake off the burden of age. An octogenarian Karunanidhi must stay on, even if he is confined to a wheelchair, out of concern that his ‘retirement’ from politics will spark off a succession war. A Bal Thackeray must still be the face of the Shiv Sena, even if he is too weak to campaign, because he alone commands the authority to hold the party together.
Even the BJP and the Congress are facing a similar predicament. The BJP’s failure to effect a generational transfer of leadership is partly because the party has been so dependent on the A.B. Vajpayee-L.K. Advani duo for more than four decades that it cannot quite come to terms with a situation when they are no longer around. Vajpayee’s health has reached a stage where he can only hold a symbolic value for the party. Advani is a remarkably fit 81, but his decision to retire at the end of the year has once again left the BJP struggling to identify a leader who can carry forward the Hindutva torch.
The Congress, on the other hand, may have identified Rahul Gandhi as their next generation leader, but the formation of the Manmohan Singh Cabinet only confirms the compulsions of having to accommodate political “seniors”.
If it was the image of an ageing Arjun Singh that haunted UPA-I, this time it’s 77-year-old S.M. Krishna who is struggling to cope up with the demands of a high-profile ministry. This is not to suggest that the answer lies in a radical generational shift in our politics. Many of our ‘young’ MPs are still beneficiaries of being members of political dynasties, and have not earned their spurs in the rough and tumble of public life. Give me a ‘wise’ Pranab Mukherjee any day over some of our camera-friendly but still raw young MPs.
The real solution lies in moving away from a feudal attachment to age to a modern commitment to ideas. Choose MPs, ministers, indeed, any professional leader, on the basis of their ability to generate new thoughts and implement them successfully, irrespective of their age. A Fernandes will be remembered because he gave the trade union movement in the 60s a certain dynamism and spirited leadership. A Fernandes will not be remembered because he chose the sinecure of a Rajya Sabha membership despite failing health.
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN Network