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This is NO country for young men

Last updated on: June 27, 2013 09:47 IST

This is NO country for young men

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New Delhi's political space is surprisingly empty of young leaders eager to compel attention or lead from the front, says Sunil Sethi

As political leaders go, Goa's Chief Minister, the 57-year-old Manohar Parrikar, is an unusual specimen of the species. He might be the only Indian Institute of Technology graduate among India's chief ministers past or present, is a former classmate of Nandan Nilekani's, and is the sort of well-mannered host you can expect to observe social niceties.

But he didn't realise just what he was getting into when, at the BJP's conclave in Goa in May where the party's woes between Narendra Modi and L K Advani erupted, he declared that political leaders should retire at 65 -- or at least stop taking decisions.

His remarks were construed as a slight against Advani, who is 85, as opposed to Modi, who is a mere 63.

Parrikar had a hard time wriggling out.

"And will he quit politics at 65," went the loud asides overheard at the conclave.

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Image: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, BJP leader L K Advani


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This is NO country for young men

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Parrikar has a point. Despite its ever-growing 'youth bulge', this is no country for young men. The prime minister is 81, a wee bit younger than the BJP stalwart whose political pique stemmed as much from thwarted ambitions for the top job as from his egotistical attempt to call the shots.

Heads of government in advanced countries and democracies are getting progressively younger. Barack Obama is 52 and David Cameron is 46.

Whatever else Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, President Francois Hollande in France and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may or may not have in common, they are all 1954-born, coming up for their 59th birthday this year.

And China, where the authoritarian writ of the party is supreme, chose Li Keqiang as its new premier in March. He is 57.

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Image: Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron with US President Barack Obama
Photographs: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

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This is NO country for young men

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With gallows humour, the American wit and writer Dorothy Parker once quipped that there were only two ages of man: "You can be either young -- or you can be dead."

New Delhi's political space is surprisingly empty of young leaders eager to compel attention or lead from the front. When anger boiled over in the streets following the gang rape last December, an agitation fuelled mainly by young protesters, not one was visible.

The BJP's confusion over its choice of candidate for prime minister in 2014 leaves another key question unanswered: will the Congress party field Rahul Gandhi?

Despite his ascent in the party hierarchy as organisational point man, the 43-year-old heir apparent has no track record in administering public office; Indira Gandhi, by contrast, had become information and broadcasting minister at the age of 47.

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Image: Rahul Gandhi
Photographs: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

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This is NO country for young men

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With the exception of Jyotiraditya Scindia, not a single member of the so-called 'Rahul brigade' (Sachin Pilot, R P N Singh, Jitin Prasada, Shashi Tharoor et al) holds Cabinet rank; they merely serve as probationary ministers of state. Political leaders in their age group elsewhere are running countries, not ministries.

An entrenched gerontocracy also commands key positions in policy making.  Civil servants are meant to retire at 60, exit gracefully to babysit grandchildren, grow roses or write unreadable memoirs.

In New Delhi, bureaucrats long past their sell-by dates, such as T K A Nair, Naresh Chandra, N N Vohra and Vinod Duggal, to name just a few, continue holding office into their seventies. They claim to make the rules, but only to bend them.

The judiciary has been pondering the question with keen interest and setting its own benchmark. It has been trying to better Manohar Parrikar's standard, and even better it. In 2010 the Constitution was amended to raise the retirement age of high court judges from 62 to 65, on par with Supreme Court judges. Now there is a demand that judges of the apex court should serve till 70.  

In a bitter twist on the famous verse from W B Yeats, the contemporary black American rapper known as Ice Cube has an expletive-filled lyric, much of it unprintable, the riff of which goes: "No country for young men/ No, no, no, no/ It's just a ball of confusion/Your world is just an illusion..."

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Image: Manohar Parrikar
Photographs: Wikimedia Commons

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