Justin Trudeau to Jacinda Ardern: Younger politicians are taking over the world
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Justin Trudeau to Jacinda Ardern: Younger politicians are taking over the world

Summary: A new generation of leaders seem able to tap into disaffection, promising change and speaking to the concerns of the excluded. What does the future hold for India?

opinion Updated: Oct 26, 2017 17:57 IST
Canadian PM Justin Trudeau and Jacinda Ardern, the new Prime Minister of New Zealand.(HT)

Jacinda Ardern is the new Prime Minister of New Zealand. With sharp communication skills and spending pledges she fashioned an astonishing turnaround for the Labour Party in the elections after it was floundering at 26 percent two months ahead of polls. At 37, Ardern joins the cohort of relatively young politicians, between 35 and 55, who are in positions of power or are aiming for it across the world.

Barack Obama at 47 initiated this youthful surge in politics not long ago in 2008. Justin Trudeau is the most prominent recent example of this trend, becoming the Prime Minister of Canada in 2015 at the age of 43 and immediately emerging as a symbol of liberal politics. He has embraced Syrian refugees, relaxed immigration rules, appointed an ethnically diverse Cabinet with an equal number of men and women and made Rolling Stone wonder if he is “the free world’s best hope.” Emmanuel Macron of France got a lot of attention this year storming his way to the presidency as a 39-year old who upstaged his old boss President Francois Hollande and heading the movement En Marche.

There are others. Marine Le Pen, Macron’s opponent from the right, is 49. Jagmeet Singh in Canada, a 38 year old Sikh lawyer, recently became the first non-white politician to head a major political party in the country. As leader of the “left-leaning New Democrats”, he is expected to be a “force to reckon with” when competing against Trudeau in 2019. In the UK commentatorsare beginning to speak of the Scottish Conservative Ruth Davidson (38) as a possible successor to Theresa May, even ahead of the bookies’ favourite Boris Johnson. Frauke Petry (42) was instrumental in the strong performance of right-wing Alternative for Germany, which won nearly 13% of the vote and 94 seats in Parliament. Petry has since quit AfD and is now facing perjury charges but may well remain a major player in Germany’s politics. Ksenia Sobchak (35), journalist and daughter of Vladimir Putin’s late mentor Anatoly Sobchak, is running for the presidency in Russia, although her candidacy is seen as Putin’s attempt to split the opposition.

Across the Atlantic, there is a generational change in the US as well. The Indian-origin Nikki Haley (45), currently US Ambassador to the United Nations, is speculated to succeed Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and definitely seen as a contender for the Republican nomination. The Democrats in turn have three younger political stars –Senator Cory Booker (48) of New Jersey, California Senator Kamala Harris (53) and Kirsten Gillibrand (50), the senator from New York – who often come up in discussions about the 2020 election.

It is difficult to see a common thread in the rise of these politicians as the political contexts in which they thrive are vastly different. They do not converge ideologically for sure. Ardern is an unusual Labour politician, one who favours increased social spending while seeking curbs on immigration. Ruth Davidson has described herself as “drippingly wet, pro-immigrant lesbian Scot.” Macron, a former civil servant who worked for an investment bank and a Socialist president, is a “centrist.”

One can speculate on the reasons for their rise. The post-2008 economic downturn has been socially disruptive and created an appetite for strong leaders who can cut through institutional processes and deliver the will of the people. There are also, paradoxically, anti-political currents that exist in society alongside fatigue with old elites who represent discredited establishments. It is fashionable, for instance, for young people to hate politics and yet have strong opinion on politicians. Younger

politicians seem to be able to tap into disaffection with process; they promise change, expound on the “audacity of hope”, operate with an attractive idiom of inclusion and speak to the concerns of the excluded. They represent a break from the culture of spin that the older set of politicians have built their reputations on – and the overexposure they suffer as a result.

India is seeing a similar churn as well. The most obvious is Arvind Kejriwal (49) who emerged as a social movement figure and used the India Against Corruption platform to carve a political career for himself quite unlike regional heavyweights like Mamata Banerjee or Akhilesh Yadav. The Aam Aadmi Party’s national prospects remain uncertain but Kejriwal has, under tremendous pressure from the Centre, managed to retain a strong following among a section of professionals and the urban poor.

Rahul Gandhi is 47 and just two years older than Trudeau and a year younger than Booker. He is definitely coming into his own following his recent US tour, the striking campaign in Gujarat and the feisty turnaround on social media which is forcing the BJP to respond to him on a daily basis. Nitish Kumar’s decline and Kejriwal’s quieter profile in recent months has allowed Gandhi to emerge as a figure in his own right and this momentum will perhaps allow him to present himself as an alternative to Modi.

Further afield, there is the emergence of other young leaders like Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mewani as compelling representatives of their constituencies, with Mewani’s promise extending well-beyond Gujarat. Kanhaiya Kumar’s impressive run of speeches across the country suggests that he remains a formidable, if underrated force, in shaping public opinion.

What then of the BJP in all of this? Opinion surveys and social media chatter suggest that PM Narendra Modi continues to be very popular amongst the youth in India. But questions of transition won’t be far from the minds of party and Sangh leaders as personalities and brands take years to develop. The question remains as to who are the young BJP leaders with the national visibility and potential to head for bigger things. Someone like Devendra Fadnavis (47) works for the RSS on paper but his reach is restricted to Maharashtra. Smriti Irani (41) has the brand recognition but lacks an independent base while her stint as human resources minister was forgettable.

Which leaves Yogi Adityanath (45) as the BJP’s next big young hope for the future. His claims are undeniable. The chief minister of a state with a population that is more than three times that of Gujarat, he holds an office that allows him to develop his own patron-client network and he is a hardline Hindutva figure who currently appears to be more committed to the BJP’s cultural agenda than its economic one. He has broken out of his redoubt at Gorakhpur and is now campaigning in other states like Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, perhaps not unaware of the opportunities it can open up. If he can balance his ideological rhetoric with more business summitry and posh developmental jargon, then there’s no telling what the future holds. With a measure of modest reinvention, he can be India’s future.

First Published: Oct 26, 2017 13:09 IST