The battlefield of 2009, claim political pundits, will pitch youth against age, the new against the old and India’s future against her past. In an overwhelmingly young country that is bustling with energy and is adamant about taking a seat at the global high table, strategists in the Congress believe that Rahul Gandhi’s 37 years will sparkle in comparison to L.K. Advani’s 80 years and more.
Of course, it’s not fully clear yet that the next election will be Rahul’s Big One. Much will depend on the outcome and if it’s a coalition formation like the present one, Manmohan Singh may well be back as Prime Minister again. And next year, this time, Singh will be 76 years old.
Even so, there’s no question that as elections approach, the Congress will stomp onto the playing field with a swagger that belongs only to the young. It’s also true that the formal elevation of the younger leaders within the party has infused it with a new energy and exuberance that has made an already dispirited Opposition nervous.
Old-timers within the Congress are getting nostalgic about the 1980s when Rajiv Gandhi lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 years and held out the hope of a New India. And the new entrants to the party’s decision-making circles finally have a sense of purpose.
At one level, it’s natural to intuitively equate youth with progress. In a world where Bill Clinton was only 55 when he left office after two terms as President and Tony Blair just 54 when he resigned as Prime Minister earlier this year, it’s only in India that at 50, politicians still get to call themselves young and aspiring.
So, the Congress has been clever (albeit, belatedly) to try and create a distinct identity for itself by dragging in its many talented younger politicians from the margins. The next step, before the elections are announced, would logically be some drastic cobweb cleaning for the union cabinet.
But here’s a question that the party may want to seriously ponder over. Is age the only marker of modernity? Surely smart politics isn’t just about people; it’s about ideas. In other words, what is more likely to dazzle India? The biological fact of being a below-40 politician, or the ideological inspiration that could come from a thought process that is innovative and forward-thinking?
Just by itself, with nothing else to recommend it, youth can end up being entirely inconsequential, even naïve, unless it represents something that makes it stand apart.
Till recently, perhaps, the people most bored with the phenomenon called ‘Young MPs’ were the young MPs themselves. In private conversations, most of them would concede that after the initial catapult into the political mainstream, their youth had dissipated into a cliché of the seminar circuit and a staple of television debates. Their interventions in Parliament were rare, and when they were allowed to get in a question or two, they almost always faithfully echoed the party line. If my generation, and those younger than me, looked towards the ‘Young MPs’ to speak for us, to give our dilemmas and debates a voice, that almost always never happened — at least not officially.
The structure of our polity has demanded that they blindly inherit conventional wisdom, rather than be given the space and width to evolve a new way of thinking. In short, from afar at least, our young MPs appeared to be exasperatingly conformist.
Fortunately for them, appearances aren’t always what they seem. Those of us who have had the chance to get to know and meet the younger politicians in more informal settings and conversations are aware that many of them are buzzing with opinions and ideas that are unique to their generation. Rahul Gandhi, Milind Deora, Jitendra Prasad, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Priya Dutt — if you go down the roster of younger names within the Congress, you can see that they have much more in common than just their age.
They are all from roughly the same socio-economic background; they have all had global exposure in education and work, and they are all stubbornly individualistic, very opinionated, and in some cases, even endearingly eccentric.
What a pity it is that outside the power circuit of politics and journalism, their voters may never get to see this side. What’s even more tragic is that many of them seem cynically convinced that the very idea of creating an ideology that can be ‘owned’ by India’s young, is a concept thought up by an elite English press that doesn’t know the first thing about realpolitik. It’s almost as if they are apologetic for the worlds they come from and diffident and defensive about how they really think. So, whether it’s the inflammatory issue of reservations or the debate around Aids and legalising homosexuality, or the more sensitive question of whether religion should influence government policy, how many times do you remember any of the young MPs making a statement that stood out as their own?
Rahul Gandhi, who will lead his colleagues into the next election, remains famously reticent and shy — so most of his voters don’t even know what he really thinks. The one time his view publicly asserted itself against the establishment’s orthodoxy was on the issue of private universities in India and the need for corporate investment in higher education. It was an issue on which he passionately clashed with the Marxists and held his own. And no matter, whether you agreed with him or not, it was a provocative, contemporary opinion that got you thinking, at the very least. But for the most part, other than generic press statements made by him on the election trail in Uttar Pradesh, most of India — especially most of young India — can claim no knowledge or access to what Rahul Gandhi really thinks. He remains determinedly enigmatic, which can be charming from afar, but only up to a point. After that, argumentative Indians will demand to know what makes him and his workmates different from the rest.
The Congress’s motley crew of bright young men and women can be its natural advantage in 2009. But if, and only if, the voters get to know them beyond the magazine cliché of laptop savvy, glib under-40s. The party needs to unlock the cage and set the young and the restless free. Otherwise their age, and their exuberance may well end up being entirely irrelevant.
Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7.