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More wheelchairs please

What is it about Indian politics and age? And why are we so suspicious of any generational change on the political scene? Vir Sanghvi ponders. Write to author

india Updated: May 02, 2007 17:11 IST

Tony Blair will be 54 when he steps down as Prime Minister of Britain, a few months from now, after a decade in office. If he was a member of an Indian political party, he would be regarded as a bright, young thing, a rising star, who would be ready for the top job 20 years or so from now.

To put the age issue in perspective, consider this: David Cameron, leader of the Conservative party and a potential Prime Minister of Britain after the election that follows Blair’s retirement, is the same age as Rahul Gandhi.

Nobody says that Cameron is too young for office. Nobody says that he has still to prove himself. And nobody regards his ‘immaturity’ as a political issue.

Contrast that with the manner in which we treat Rahul: as a young man with a few bright ideas, who needs to roam the dusty streets of middle India for another decade till we are ready to take him seriously.

What is it about Indian politics and age? Why are we so unwilling to take our politicians seriously until they approach an age at which most other professionals would be contemplating retirement? And why are we so suspicious of any generational change on the political scene?

Some of the reasons are historical. The politics of independent India began with the generation that had won us our freedom. Almost by definition, these were people who had been around for so long that they were — at the very least — into advanced middle age by the time they were finally elected to high office. Jawaharlal Nehru was already 58 when he became Prime Minister and he continued in office for another 17 years. If he had not died as Prime Minister, he could have remained at South Block for another decade.

Morarji Desai was 51 and was considered one of the youthful members of the Congress party. He kept at it till he finally became Prime Minister in 1977, at the age of 81. Nobody thought it at all odd that an 81-year-old man should crave so desperately for high office or that his two rivals for the job (Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram) were also in their 70s.

It is partly as a consequence of our experience with the freedom struggle generation of politicians that we associate high office with advanced age. Till recently, it was tantamount to sacrilege to suggest that any politician from that generation was over the hill and should have had the sense to retire when he could still move without the help of a walking stick. Take Panditji, for example. Few people will deny that he was probably the greatest Indian of the 20th century with the possible exception of Mahatma Gandhi. And yet, there’s no doubt that by the 1960s, he was a tired old man whose body was unequal to the rigours of high office. For instance, when he visited the United States to meet President John F Kennedy he seemed so visibly unwell and out of it, that Kennedy lamented that the Nehru he admired and had so looked forward to meeting was not the man he welcomed to the White House. And who is to say that Nehru’s famous misjudgements over China were not influenced by his advanced age?

Part of it is also that Indians require leaders to be wise rather than dynamic. In most democratic countries of the world, voters look for energy, drive and other evidence of dynamism. In India, however, we look for sagacity and the wisdom of years. It does not matter to us if a candidate for high office is unable to stand on his own two feet and any number of heart bypass operations, removed kidneys, damaged lungs and failing joints will not dissuade us from believing that the experience of decades is an essential prerequisite for occupying the top jobs.

This is true of all leaders, in all political parties (with the possible exception of the CPM where the geriatrics were put out to pasture a few years ago but Harkishen Singh Surjeet lasted in his job till he was 89 and Jyoti Basu stepped down at the age of 86), in almost every state of India.

Take the BJP for example. It is now staggeringly obvious that if elections are held on schedule, and either LK Advani or AB Vajpayee is put forward as a prime ministerial candidate, then we are looking at a PM who will be in his late 80s while still in office. And yet, the party has made no attempt to empower a younger generation. Moreover, every opinion poll suggests that voters still regard Vajpayee as the best potential Prime Minister in the party, regardless of the state of his knees or his advancing age.

The present government is no exception. Some months ago, when I interviewed Sonia Gandhi, I asked her whether she intended to change the party’s slogan to “Congress ka haath, walking stick ke saath”, given the age of the Cabinet. She laughed easily but did not provide any definitive reply. Instead, she seemed to suggest that Cabinet posts were awarded on the basis of experience and years of loyalty to the party. If this meant that younger MPs were left out — and she specifically included Rahul Gandhi in this category — well, that’s just the way it was going to be.

But apart from an undue reverence for age, there is also another factor at work. Indians are torn between two contradictory impulses. At one level, we long for change. In few other democracies does anti-incumbency play as large a role as it does in India. But at another level, we are also deeply suspicious of any kind of change and long for continuity.

It is this paradox that accounts for our passion for dynastic politics. We want the generational change but we also want it in a context we are familiar with. So, if we are to elect a new politician, we would prefer if he came from a family that we know. This impulse extends across all layers of our society. It explains why when our doctor retires, we consult his son. Or why the best kind of servant is the son or daughter of somebody who has worked for the family for years. Or even, why nearly every movie idol is the son or daughter of some other movie idol.

But our problem is that even when we opt for dynasty, we still remain suspicious of youth. Take the contradictory manner in which India responded to Rajiv Gandhi. We elected him by a landslide because we so desired the change he represented. Yet, the moment he was in office, we sneered at his inexperience and waited for him to slip. Older politicians, more worldly-wise in manipulating the system, exploited our suspicion of youth to build up a public sentiment that regarded him as naïve, over-eager or unable to open his mouth without putting his foot into it. In some small way, that same syndrome extends to Rahul Gandhi. Even as we admire the Congress for finally allowing some generational change, we wait for Rahul to stumble, secure in the knowledge that he will commit the mistakes of youthful enthusiasm.

It is this paradox that determines the contours of Indian politics. It explains why senior politicians will always be geriatrics. It accounts for the lack of dynamism in our polity. It leads to the almost complete absence of new ideas in Indian governance. It makes us overly dependent on the politics of dynasty. And yet, it leaves us strangely suspicious of youth, always preferring the jaded cynicism of age to the vitality — and minor misjudgements — of the younger generation.

That’s why we will never have a Tony Blair. That’s why David Cameron would only have become general secretary of the Youth Congress if he had been an Indian politician. That’s why Bill Clinton — who, by the way, is younger than Mick Jagger — would have got no further than BJP spokesman for another decade or so.

So, the next time you complain about the absence of freshness or vibrancy in our political system, don’t blame the politicians.

Blame ourselves.