New Delhi: Congress is in dire need of a young leadership, or so deem many of its own members. But for the party that’s now fighting for its survival, the list of probables to take over the reins still has names like Mallikarjun Kharge, Sushil Kumar Shinde, Ghulam Nabi Azad and frontrunner Motilal Vora.
What’s common among them? They’re all above the age of 70, with Vora leading the pack at 90.
Veterans like Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh and Karan Singh have spoken about the opportunity to pump in fresh blood after Rahul Gandhi’s resignation as Congress president — with leaders such as Milind Deora and Jyotiraditya Scindia finding a mention.
As debates around the issue circle back to the question of ‘retirement age’, politicians are unable to agree on whether age really makes a difference.
Across India’s political landscape, party leadership is dominated by people well above the retirement age in other areas of work. The CPI(M)’s V.S. Achuthanandan (93), the JD(S)’s H.D. Deve Gowda (86), the SAD’s Parkash Singh Badal (91) and the Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav (80) still play an active role in politics.
The only party in which leadership seems to be getting younger is the BJP. The ruling party has a policy that no one above the age of 75 should hold an administrative post in Central or state governments. The party’s decision to not give an election ticket to anyone above 75 for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections was seen as controversial, as it precluded veterans like Murli Manohar Joshi and L.K. Advani from contesting, but the party position was firm, said BJP chief Amit Shah, now Home Minister.
BJP spokesperson Shazia Ilmi speaks to ThePrint about how the BJP is encouraging young leadership. “It’s not just that we have a very active and vibrant Yuva Morcha, it’s also that there is a freshness in the way our policies are made, implemented and communicated.”
According to data released by PRS Legislative Research, the average age of MPs in the 17th Lok Sabha is down to 54 years, with 12 per cent of the MPs below 40. Compare this to even 2014 (average age of Parliament: 56) and 2009 (average age of Parliament: 58). Some of the younger MPs who have been in the news lately are 26-year-old Chandrani Murmu of the BJD, the TMC’s Nusrat Jahan (29) and the BJP’s Tejasvi Surya (28).
Romanticisation of youth for the sake of it
Yogendra Yadav, psephologist, academic and national president of Swaraj India, tells ThePrint that merely demanding young leadership for the sake of it is silly. “To assume that just because someone has thick hair, they must be a fountain of fresh ideas and a new outlook and wisdom — is baseless. Yes, we do need fresh blood in politics, and being young is a virtue — provided that that youth is reflected in one’s attitude.
“Also, very often what is pushed forward in the name of youth is just dynasty. Tejashwi Yadav, to my mind, is much older than Lalu Prasad Yadav, because he has not overcome the limitations of his father’s worldview (on caste, for example), and unlike his father, he is not connected to the people, so he has no fresh ideas.
“Jyotiraditya Scindia and others of that ilk in the Congress — what is so fresh about their attitude? Now, Kanhaiya Kumar, for me, is real youth, because he’s bringing in a fresh attitude and energy, some new ideas and hope — that is what we should be celebrating about youth,” says Yadav.
Ilmi agrees. “Young ideas, newness in how you think — these have nothing to do with age. The Congress idea of young blood is dynasts like Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot, who are bringing with them the same old ideas of dynastic succession, the same old policies and the same old way of doing things.
“Times are changing rapidly, India is changing rapidly, and political leaders needs to adapt.”
Youth vs experience
More than half of India’s population is under 35, and by 2021, it is estimated that India will have the youngest population in the world. In that situation, doesn’t it make sense that leadership should represent the electorate?
Yadav agrees that politics needs unconventional, out-of-the-box thinking and that there is a greater chance that that will come from younger people, but that it cannot be an assumption.
He also argues that demands for reducing the age of leadership displays a lack of understanding the value of experience.
“Politics is essentially a cognitive activity and requires enormous skill and experience. I once asked my political guru, Shri Kishan Patnaik, about the ideal age for a politician. Without batting an eyelid, he said, ‘500 years’. And that has an element of truth, you know, because the kind of demands politics makes on you, the skill it needs — it’s difficult to acquire that in one lifetime,” says Yadav.
Retirement age – aye or nay?
In India, the minimum age to be elected as a Lok Sabha MP or an MLA or the prime minister is 25. Yet, while India has been an independent country for more than 70 years now, Narendra Modi happens to be the first prime minister who was born after Independence in 1947, and there has been no such President yet. So the question remains, should there be a retirement age for political leadership?
“For active politics? Yes there should be,” says Ilmi. “It’s difficult to prescribe rules for it, though, as one might be 80 and perfectly sound of body and mind.”
Pawan Khera, national spokesperson for the Congress, believes “there’s space for all age groups in politics. It’s pointless creating another identity-based polarisation.”
“Whether in politics or in journalism, there should not be a fixed retirement age. Let people work for as long as their minds and bodies allow them to work,” adds Khera.
Yadav, while agreeing that politics needs genuinely young blood, believes that a legally mandated retirement age would be foolhardy and silly.
“In a democracy, it should be left to the people whom they elect. They should have the right to elect a 99-year-old, an idiot or a scoundrel, if they believe it to be in their best interest. Electing idiots is bad. But making a rule to prevent people from exercising their right to elect idiots would be worse.”
Jyotiraditya Scindia agrees. He tells ThePrint, “One can’t impose any rules such as a retirement age in a democratic setup — the people must decide. Of the people, by the people, for the people.”
‘No retirement age, but maybe reservation for those under 30’
Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, has a slightly different take. “In principle yes, all politicians should know when the time has come to gracefully step aside and make way for fresher blood,” he tells ThePrint.
“But my experience with arbitrary age cutoffs, as a senior manager at the UN, was that many people were unproductive well before they reached retirement age, whereas others were at the prime of their performance when the calendar forced them to quit. The same is true in politics, too.
“I would rather let the public decide who they want to represent them, which they can do by voting in a younger candidate — at which point the superannuated politician will get the message.”
He adds that he would rather take “proactive steps” to encourage younger people to get into politics, “such as by lowering the age of candidates for elective office, or even reserving a certain number of seats in Parliament for people under 30”.
“When younger people get in, they will inevitably crowd out the older ones. As with the law of the market, the logic of the electoral marketplace will settle the issue, without the artificial imposition of a retirement age.”