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Retire @ 60

 

Even our youngest parliamentarians are old enough to be youthful ''uncles''. Why is there so much fuss every time someone in his or her thirties becomes a minister, asks Priyanka Rai
Issue Dated: December 28, 2008
Tags : youngest parliamentarians | youthful uncles | Priyanka Rai | political geriatrics | Manmohan Singh | venerables | Human Resource Minister | Arjun Singh | Defence Minister | AK Antony | Home Minister | Shivraj Patil | Foreign Minister | Pranab Mukerjee | Shibu Soren | VK Malhotra | Bharatiya Janata Party warhorse | fanatics | Shastri Bhavan | consternation | majestic passing out parade | National Defence Academy | Khadakvasla | Ram Prakash Gupta | antiquated | doddering old men | US treasury | Timothy Geithner | Federal Reserve Bank of New York | Paul Volcker | strategic thinkers | Shiela Dikshit | key portfolios | PC Alexander | Natwar Singh | physiological facts | vested interests | sartorial matters | Rajiv Pratap Rudy | National Secretary of the Communist Party of India | Vijay Lakshmi Nanda | entrenched political class | Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi | naked fakir | Satyagraha | Quit India movement | Sir Winston Churchill | Second World War |
 
Retire @ 60 The November 27, 2008, the high-level all party meeting to discuss the biggest terror attacks on Indian soil in Mumbai was a sight to behold. In attendance were India’s leading political geriatrics. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 76, chaired the meet. Other venerables: Human Resource Minister, Arjun Singh, 78, Defence Minister AK Antony, 68, then Home Minister Shivraj Patil, 73, and Foreign Minister, Pranab Mukerjee, also 73. Between them, the five clocked a marathon 378 years.

At the same meeting, 64-year-old Shibu Soren, Chief Minister of Jharkhand, snored softly as the clock struck 12. Soren naturally found the late night meeting quite a bit of an effort. VK Malhotra, the 77-year-old Bharatiya Janata Party warhorse and ousted party nominee for Delhi’s chief ministership, just strolled out because he was too tired. It is a moot question as to what would have happened had he become Delhi’s Chief Minister and there was a terror attack in the dead of the night!

As a sharp counterpoint, the terrorists causing mayhem in Mumbai the same evening were a bunch of superbly fit fanatics who did not sleep a wink during the 60-hour ordeal. Naturally, there is no comparison, only a contrast.

In Delhi’s Shastri Bhavan, the best kept secret is out in the open: Human Resource Development Minister, Arjun Singh, hardly attends office as he is too unwell to preside over regular meetings, so he has gone one better: he runs his office from home. In May this year, Defence Minister, AK Antony, caused considerable consternation as the theoretical head of India’s defence establishment, when he fainted during the majestic passing out parade ceremony at the National Defence Academy (NDA) in Khadakvasla, Pune.

In the 1990s, the BJP installed a retired geriatric, Ram Prakash Gupta, to head Uttar Pradesh, ignoring his sterling qualities: an antiquated and forgetful nature. Gupta, who was in his eighties, had once demanded of a Cabinet colleague to know who he was and why he was hanging around the chief minister’s office!

So well! While nearly 40 per cent of voters in India are in the 18-year-old age group, many Indian politicians are doddering old men. Many of the country's topmost positions are held by people aged 60-plus. Of the 31 Cabinet ministers, nine are in their seventies, 15 in their late sixties and three in their eighties. Only four ministers are in their forties and fifties. They do have wide experience. But what good is that when it cannot be made use of? Retire @ 60 This is not to say that politicians need to have a retirement age; just that they should be able to function while they are in saddle. According to one survey, the average age of Lok Sabha is 53.

Barack Obama is America's President elect, and he is just 47. He is right now busy picking his team. And the man he has chosen to run the US treasury, Timothy Geithner, is his own age and heads the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. But to tackle the worst economic crisis in 80 years, Obama has recalled Paul Volcker (81), who, a full generation ago, had tackled the mid-80s' economic crisis in the US.

And the media has welcomed the choice, with SunTribune.com commenting: "Nobody knew whether his strategy would work. It certainly caused widespread pain. But by 1986, double-digit inflation was gone… Now Volcker is back… and if the president-elect follows his advice, there could be pain again and no doubt many protests but also the possibility of long-term benefits."

Indians have voted for the same thing: young dynamic leaders at the forefront, mature advisers to back them with wise counsel and the patience that comes only with age. As the TSI-ICMR survey shows, while 87 per cent believe experience plays a vital role in making a successful politician, 82 per cent still think that younger leaders would run the country a whole lot more efficiently. (See box). Retire @ 60 Human resource experts around the world have set the most exacting standards for CEOs. The qualifications are tough – they must be dynamic, visionary and strategic thinkers, able to handle high pressure situations, take risks and make fast and correct decisions. But what is required of politicians in executive positions in a complex country like ours – with such a diverse culture and so many different beliefs – is an even bigger challenge. Yet how many of our oldies qualify?

Delhi's Chief Minister, Shiela Dikshit, however, finds such reasoning specious. "You cannot equate politics with the corporate sector. In politics, even if you are 40, the public may send you packing if you are not working. Besides, a doctor or lawyer works for as long as s/he can, and much the same holds for politicians. It will not do to have a retirement age for politicians."

But this is not how it works in most other countries. The leaders of Russia, Japan – indeed even Pakistan – are all young. George Bush was in his fifties when he became President. Bill Clinton was 52 when he retired after ruling the US for eight years. And Tony Blair took over as British premier in his early forties. Contrast this with our own leadership. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister at 72 and all key portfolios are being managed by people in their eighties and seventies who, most of the time, appear ill and tired. Remember Atal Behari Vajpayee's famous knee problems?

Maharashtra Governor PC Alexander had a distinguished career as a bureaucrat. He 'retired' officially more than 25 years ago. But since then he has been the secretary and right hand man to two prime ministers, India's high commissioner in Britain, and Governor of Tamilnadu. At age 81, he became a Member of Parliament! Natwar Singh too joined politics after retiring from the post of foreign secretary. Retire @ 60 How does one account for this paradox then? One is too old to work in the bureaucracy, but not too old to hold a major political portfolio! Neurologists say it is possible at age 75 to have an IQ of 100 and yet be able to give the correct answers of only half as many questions as at age 21.

Of course, retirement ages have been mandated for a purpose. A man of 60 may be in full control of his faculties, and yet lack the energy and zest for work of somebody half his age. You simply cannot get around these physiological facts. The reaction time slows down and various "vested interests" come into play. As one psychiatrist said of Shivraj Patil's repeated changing of suits after the Delhi blasts this year: "He is a narcissist obsessed with sartorial matters, unmindful of the country's safety!"

Officially, almost no young politician takes the retirement issue up for discussion. BJP spokesperson Rajiv Pratap Rudy, himself in his mid-40s, is one such. "Technically speaking there is no such provision in the Constitution. The age of an individual cannot define the limits of his contribution in politics. Each must decide for himself or herself how much work they have the energy to do," he says. D Raja, National Secretary of the Communist Party of India, agrees: "Politics is not like other professions. Politicians know when they should retire."

Says sociologist Vijay Lakshmi Nanda: "It is the job of the political parties to choose and raise the right kind of people. It is their job not to select and represent too old and inefficient representatives. If all the candidates are old, who are we going to vote for? The problem is the right kind of people are not reaching there." In most cultures, the young prefer to stay away from politics.

This is due to several factors – a major one being that there is no effort by the entrenched political class to engage them. After the late Rajiv Gandhi, it is only his son Rahul who has brought back the issue of youths' involvement in active politics into the public domain. Like his father, he too believes in the power of the youth and is convinced that only the involvement of the young in politics will usher in real change. Rahul has repeated this in almost every speech: "I am here to open the door for the youth." And he blames his own party for not allowing them to come forward, thus effectively arresting its growth. During his recent visit to Punjab, he wanted to see new faces. But when he arrived most of the state leaders who had lined up were oldies. This so disgusted Rahul that he reportedly announced the names of youth leaders all by himself. Let the older politicos work as think-tanks and guides for the young: no more! It is sometimes argued that even old politicians can deliver and have vision and courage like Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The frail "naked fakir" – as the British called him – had the vision and guts to undertake something that is today a globally revered model: Satyagraha. In 1942, at age 73, he sent out the Quit India movement call, braving, along with his unarmed countrymen, the batons and bullets of the British Police. That was also when Sir Winston Churchill, then 65, was leading Britain through the Second World War. And both Gandhi and Churchill won their wars.

But those were exceptions. For every Gandhi and Churchill, there are hundreds whose old age simply does not let them function efficiently. But this has not prevented a large number of them to carve out powerful political fiefdoms that have room for them only – and certainly for no youngster. Politicians need to take a leaf from our super senior cricketers – two of whom have retired for the good of the game. They need to do the same for the good of the country. They must ensure that India is never found on a weak wicket.
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017