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Indian politics : a crisis of leadership

Wednesday 27 April 2005, by KHARE*Harish

The fashionable anti-politician liturgy has found so many takers because our old leadership no longer seems to connect with the young.

A FEW years down the line any serious observer of Indian politics is bound to ask the question: why was the Bharatiya Janata Party in its silver jubilee year ceding so much space to George Fernandes? Why indeed? The observer would note that within days of launching with much fanfare a nationwide celebration, the BJP has remained quite content to let the president of another party - even if an important ally - occupy centre stage.

Instead of renewing the much-neglected bonds between the leadership and the cadres, and instead of redefining its ideological profile so as to bring it in tune with the temper of the 21st century, the 25-year-old party is happily stuck in squandering all its energy and goodwill in reclaiming Mr. Fernandes’ "honour."

This BJP infatuation with Mr. Fernandes is only one of the many manifestations of how the Indian polity continues to remain hostage to the whims and fancies of men who are in their 70s. Perhaps one of the reasons why Mr. Fernandes has cast such a spell on the BJP is that the party’s top leaders themselves - Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani - are in their 70s and share similar memories.

Come to think of it, most of the political leaders - that is those who occupy the leadership slots in political parties and call the shots - are in their 70s. This age profile necessarily induces a certain kind of leadership performance, mostly the debilitating kind.

K. Karunakaran, for instance, at the ripe age of 87, is out to have his way in Kerala, even if it means destroying the very party he helped build up. Chandra Shekhar, once a Prime Minister, remains the perennial `third front’ prime ministerial aspirant and is available to any group which wants to unsettle a settled dispensation in New Delhi. Bal Thackeray in his 70s continues to keep the Shiv Sena firmly pegged down to a raw assertiveness.

And though the Congress remains a party of relatively young political activists, it too continues to feel the need to propitiate Narain Dutt Tiwari and Arjun Singh despite the very obvious wear and tear of advanced age. Outside the political parties structure, Ashok Singhal, Acharya Giriraj Kishore and K.S. Sudarshan continue to make their presence felt, at least in the BJP.

The Indian system does not countenance any kind of generational purge. The 1984 change that brought in the young Rajiv Gandhi and his young team remains an exception to our determined fascination for the old.

We take comfort that we are an old civilisation and it is part of our great cultural asset that we know how to tap the wisdom of the old. We insist that the young must wait in line for their turn and while they are waiting they must be respectful and reverential towards the old.

We feel slightly disoriented when young leaders from outside - a Bill Clinton, a Tony Blair, a Pervez Musharraf, a Wen Jiabao, a Condoleezza Rice - visit us, showing up our own leaders to be old, slow-moving, stuck in an obsolete worldview, untutored in the realities of a new world order. But once the young visitor leaves us, we very quickly revert to rhetoric and machinations to keep the young out and down.

It is not that there is a dearth of young or youngish leaders. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has just undertaken a generational change; octogenarian Harkishan Singh Surjeet and Jyoti Basu have opted out in favour of younger faces and young blood.

Parties such as the Congress and the BJP too can boast of a very large number of young voices. Arun Jaitley, Pramod Mahajan and Rajnath Singh of the BJP, and Sonia Gandhi, Ahmed Patel, Ambika Soni, Ashok Gehlot and Digvijay Singh of the Congress are only a few names that come to mind.

Other parties too have youngish leaders: Jayalalithaa (AIADMK) Ram Vilas Paswan (Lok Janshakti Party) Nitish Kumar (Janata Dal-U), Mamata Banerjee (Trinamool Congress), Lalu Prasad (Rashtriya Janata Dal), Mehbooba Mufti (People’s Democratic Party), Omar Abdullah (National Conference), and Mayawati (Bahujan Samaj Party).

This crop of leaders can be defined by its pragmatism, an almost wilful ahistorical approach to men and matters, a healthy tendency to forgive and forget. The young can be counted upon to understand when they have been beaten and to come to terms with better adversaries or with changing times. They are not stuck in bitter feuds of the past. Nor are they desperate to start another war immediately because they know age is not against them.

It would be unfair to suggest that all young leaders are practitioners of expediency or lack inner convictions. Sitaram Yechury, Prakash Karat, D. Raja, Vaiko, Narendra Modi, Uma Bharti, Praveen Togadia are all leaders who take pride in their ideological partisanship. They provide a healthy antidote to vendors of expediency.

How can a polity undertake its basic task of relating itself to the expectations, aspirations and dreams of an increasingly young Indian society if the leadership perches remain firmly in control of old leaders who refuse to let go? What can be done with leaders who cope with a post-Soviet Union, globalised world where trade and commerce do not respect national borders, but revert to memories of the Emergency and pre-Emergency politics and disputes when it comes to the domestic arena?

It is not that the old cannot ipso facto lead. History is full of old leaders who have undertaken the role of transformational leadership. Den Xiaoping was in his 70s when in 1978 he became the supreme leader and presided over China’s transformation into a superpower. Ayatollah Khomeini was 78 years old when he returned triumphantly to Iran to lead and consolidate the Islamic revolution. At home, the Mahatma was into old age when he galvanised the nation into the Quit India movement.

Need to let bygones be bygones

The problem with most of our old leaders is that they wallow in the bitterness of the past, and continue to fight battles which they lost in their youth, or want to re-act the skirmishes they won. In the name of history, they frogmarch the young into bitter and counter-productive partisanship.

Leadership is all about getting people to work together, to induce them to overcome their petty differences and to forget their past grievances against one another. Leadership is about making things happen by inviting citizens to transcend their self-interests and instead to tap their collective energy and creativity in the service of the larger good of the community, society and nation.

The past is not without its uses. Every society and every nation needs its past, its historical memories to inspire the citizen, to summon the populace to work and sacrifice for the restoration of a glorious past. Charles de Gaulle, for instance, argued: "France cannot be France without greatness." He invoked history and memories to inspire a demoralised France into working for restoring national greatness.

By contrast, our present day leaders invoke memories to divide the present and the future generations into needlessly antagonistic camps; they inject the young with their bitterness, impose their selective memory and elevate their individual likes and dislikes into a collective thought process, curdling harmonious impulses.

There is a mismatch between the aged leadership and the young Indian society. Leaders and followers are supposed to be engaged in a dynamic relationship, mutually influencing, in pursuit of a shared purpose. The fashionable anti-politician liturgy has found so many takers because our old leadership no longer seems to connect with the young.

None of the leaders can claim to represent the interests, values and aspirations of the young. They can no longer even persuade, leave alone inspire. Who among our senior political leaders can hold the attention of a college audience? Certainly none of those who strut the national stage as our saviours. None of them can be made out into a role model even by the most skilful of spin-masters.

Yet none in the older generation of leaders would want to be reminded of the ancient Indian civilisational prescription of vanaprastha (voluntary self-exile). The next great reform in the polity that demands immediate attention is loosening of the grip of the old on the political leadership space.

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