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Ageing politicos : Patronage based geriatrics


In the west, some moved into politics from social service. It did not happen in India
RANJIT BHUSHAN | Issue Dated: December 28, 2008
Tags : Vinay Lal | top-notch politicians | geriatric | patronage networks | biradri | jati | ethnicity | linguistic affiliation | Rahul Gandhi | Motilal Nehru | Kanshi Ram | Governor of Texas | Barack Obama | Jimmy Carter | political family | Congress | prescience | Tom | Dick and Harry | display of power | Mahabharata | Bhishma | Drona | Hindu-Brahmanical tradition | behind-the-scenes maneuverings | Bhakti tradition | warrior ascetics |
Ageing politicos : Patronage based geriatrics Vinay Lal

Professor of history at the University of California,

Los Angeles (UCLA)

Top-notch Indian politicians are essentially geriatric. There are, I suspect, several reasons for that. Indian politics is largely based on patronage networks. It takes a good deal of time to cultivate these networks – across biradri, jati, ethnicity, linguistic affiliation, class, and so on. Of course, it is not the same for a Rahul Gandhi, who, we may say, inherited networks across four generations of politicians in his family, going back to the time of Motilal Nehru. A Dalit politician like Mayawati, who at a little more than 50 is younger than most other national politicians, has nonetheless also relied upon patronage networks, and in her case one has to think of Kanshi Ram.

Political networks are very intricate, and it takes a long time to become familiar with how the system works and to be able to work the system to one’s advantage. It is more or less the same in the US; nevertheless, I think Indian politics is more reliant upon patronage networks. Unlike George Bush, who was the Governor of Texas – but cannot be described as having had to work his way to the top – there are many others who have had to work their way up the political grease pole. Now that the world is celebrating Barack Obama as a young president, it would be instructive to remember that Jimmy Carter was not much older, about 50 to 51, when he assumed the US presidency.

India has in some ways become intensely political. There has been a grassroots upsurge with the entry of Dalits and their participation in large numbers. Things have changed here. In the old days, politics, as seen by the middle classes, was a profession for all those who could not make it anywhere else in life. You entered politics when you could not do anything else – or, to be more precise, anything else that was more respectable. The other point to remember, though this will appear to contradict what I said earlier, about the higher average age of politicians is that politics is something like an afterthought, something you do after you have exhausted other possibilities. People opt in for politics when most other options or careers have been utilised. It is thus only at a late stage that politics becomes an option. Unless you are related to a political family, you are unlikely to find any major young politicians in the country.

We in India have not yet abandoned the idea that, in politics as in other domains of life, at some point one must retire and pave the way for the young. So no one is willing to give up his position of power. Incredible when you think that Gandhi himself was not even a four anna member of the Congress for the last two decades of his life, but rather worked, so to speak, behind the scenes. What Gandhi understood, with his usual prescience, is that power is more effectively exercised when it is not visibly on display, or not exercised in an official capacity. By way of contrast, every Tom, Dick and Harry in Indian politics wants to flaunt his power, moving around with commando guards and masses of security men. It is a manifest display of power. Of course, retirement is the last thing on their minds. I wonder how many of our politicians really know the Mahabharata. Those who dispensed political advice were the elders, but it would be difficult to describe Bhishma or Drona as flaunting their power.

India has a very strong education sector and younger people have largely chosen to drift into various other occupations and professions. In the US, Europe, and UK, some people moved into politics from what might be described as related social service sectors. Obama was a community organiser; that has been one avenue into politics, but this is less the case in India. There may be some other reasons why the young have not gone into politics in India.

Is the Hindu-Brahmanical tradition apolitical? Not so. It would be wrong to conclude that. To be sure, the exercise of power in that tradition has a different history. This tradition is not averse to the exercise of power, unlike what some people imagine, but here too we can speak productively of behind-the-scenes maneuverings. More often than not, power is not meant to be displayed. Here the Hindu tradition may be distinguished from Islam and Sikhism, which do not differentiate between temporal and political authority. The Bhakti tradition may seem to be divorced from politics, but this reading has little resonance once we understand that it was a mode of resistance to established hierarchies. India has also had warrior ascetics, a category which suggest that there has been a tradition of political Hinduism.

Is there, then, a contradiction here? Why are younger people resistant to the idea of joining politics? Partly because politics is still viewed as something not quite respectable. Despite the early euphoria induced by Independence, by the late 1950s and 1960s it had become quite clear that the dawn of freedom as imagined by a lot of people had not improved the lot of the poor.
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017