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Home / Columns / Old before their time

Old before their time

If we go by their recent actions and comments, India’s young leaders seem to inhabit a past that is retrograde and warped. Quite simply, youth has failed to be a marker of modernity in our politics. Barkha Dutt writes.

columns Updated: Aug 03, 2013 03:09 IST

Will the statistician’s delight — 65% of India’s population is under 35, half of the country is younger than 25 — be the politician’s nightmare? Very unlikely.

Despite all the laments at a doddering polity and notwithstanding much hand-wringing over the fifty shades of grey on the political palette, the colourlessness of those younger has made the difference between white and black, old and not-so-old, irrelevant.

Quite simply, youth has failed to be a marker of modernity in our politics. There has been no generational shift of ideas and no new language for how power is articulated in the system.

There has barely been even an attempt at doing things differently. So, when timidity meets entrenched, immovable, vested interests, the result is: status quo.

There may be more iPad wielding, Twitter-loving netas today than before, but the trappings of trendy technology do not disguise meekness of thought and action. Imprisoned by the compulsions of parliamentary democracy or the restrictions of party whips, young politicians have mostly failed to throw the shackles off.

Instead of the individualism or even zany eccentricity that we would have hoped to see in those who have age on their side, we have ended up with cookie-cutter responses manufactured on the political assembly lines.

Uttar Pradesh’s youngest chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav, for instance, has spent a week justifying the ham-handed ouster of an upright bureaucrat who sought to clean the underbelly of the state’s mining mafia.

In her 20s, the aptly- named Durga Shakti Nagpal was an officer who should have evoked a young leader’s affinity instead of his antagonism. But in a display of brazen indifference to popular anger, the state’s ministers have tripped over themselves to be downright offensive about a young woman.

Ostensibly, she has been shunted out for bringing down the wall of a mosque. But a district magistrate’s report rubbishes the state government’s claim by making it clear that no demolition took place; nor was there any pre-existing built religious structure on the public land.

Akhilesh’s political colleagues now want a case registered against Durga’s senior for daring to disagree with them. The cynical calculation, of course, is that media judgements are irrelevant to the arithmetic of the Samajwadi Party’s vote base.

Since the controversy erupted there hasn’t been one statement from the CM that is forward-thinking, progressive or in keeping with how you would expect a 30-something man to respond. It’s a far cry from the change Yadav was expected to usher in when he was elected.

Reporting on his election trail at the time, I had genuinely believed that there was a whiff of freshness about him. He’d worked hard to build a mass base in a style that was his very own — low key, earthy, even humourous. He may not have succeeded in keeping out candidates with criminal records/charges from getting tickets, but I thought being at the helm of government would give him a confidence that he may not have felt as a mere candidate.

The exact opposite has happened. In office, Akhilesh’s young years have had no impact on his governance decisions. Distributing free laptops is not enough to stake a rightful claim to new-age politics. You could put his uninspiring performance down to inexperience or the crushing weight of the party patriarchs. Either way the hype around UP getting itself a GenNext leader has proved to be just so much hoopla.

If Akhilesh has been underwhelming for perpetuating an old-style politics, think of his main rival from the state’s election battlefield. Remember, an apoplectic Rahul Gandhi tearing up his opponent’s list of election slogans, committing himself only to promises he could keep? The end results defied the party’s assumptions and since then there has been an inexplicable and odd opacity around what the Congress vice-president will do next.

His party has invested its future in him, urging Rahul to make a bid for the top job. But, apart from the one-off interactions with college students and more recently, corporate chieftains, no one knows what Rahul thinks on issues critical to contemporary India. That a young man in his 40s, who could potentially lead the country one day, would be so averse to sharing his opinions on foreign policy, the economy or social fault-lines like caste and gender is not just peculiar, it is unacceptable in a vibrant democracy.

His silence during the protests against sexual violence in the national capital was especially voluble. It was after all a moment when one would have thought young politicians would join young protesters on the streets and make common cause.

Yet, just like the Samajwadi Party in UP, Rahul appears to have decided that the media emphasis on a more communicative, open political style is a rarefied, elitist concept that will have no bearing on election results. In other words, another ‘young’ leader is behaving just like the older ones in his party- opting for an archaic, old-style, emotional distance between himself and the people. That Rahul is younger than Manmohan Singh has made no visible difference in the expression of the Congress’ politics.

Increasingly, it seems, India’s future politicians inhabit a past that is retrograde and warped. Whether it’s Nitesh Rane, the son of a Maharashtra Congress minister who describes himself as a “youth leader” but thinks nothing of maligning Gujaratis on his Twitter page, even asking them all to get out of Mumbai or Aditya Thackeray, son of Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, whose first major political project was to push Rohinton Mistry’s book out of Mumbai University’s syllabus, it’s evident that present day politics will continue to perpetuate the past. Whether a politician is 86 or 42 years old is clearly inconsequential.

As George Bernard Shaw once lamented, youth has been wasted on the young.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal