July 22, 2002


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Admiral (retd) J G Nadkarni

Plagued by gerontocracy

Konrad Adenauer was a respected leader of Germany. A mayor of Cologne in his younger days, Adenauer was resurrected by the Allies after World War II and became Germany's first post-war Chancellor in 1949 at the ripe old age 73. He remained chancellor for the next 14 years and seemed to go on and on despite his age.

When a contest was held by Britain's Manchester Guardian during that period for the most incredible headline, the winning entry was: "Adenauer dead."

Many octogenarians ruled the world in those days. Adenauer's contemporary, Winston Churchill, became prime minister for the second time when he was 77 and retired only after he was 81.

Those days are slowly beginning to vanish. Today most of the world is full of youthful leaders in their fifties and some even in their forties. John F Kennedy talked about the torch passing on to a younger generation in his inaugural speech. Bill Clinton put in eight years as his nation's leader and still retired at 53. George W Bush is not much older. Britain's Tony Blair regales his people with his youthful exuberance.

This is the communications age. Unlike just fifty years ago, people see their leaders practically every day on television. They want them to be handsome, youthful and dashing. Leaders abroad spend an awful lot of time nurturing their youthful get-up-and-go image. George Bush dares his staff to beat him at jogging. President Putin is seen practicing martial arts and some others take time off for skiing.

Alas, not in India. We have far too much respect for the experience and wisdom of the elders to ask them to step down. Physical fitness does not command much premium in this country and so it will be difficult to get a jogging prime minister or an athletic President here.

Maharashtra Governor P C Alexander had a distinguished career as a bureaucrat. He "retired" officially more than 25 years ago. Since then he has been the secretary and right-hand man to two prime ministers, India's high commissioner in Britain, Governor of Tamil Nadu and has had a record breaking stint of eight years as Governor of Maharashtra. He has served his country in all areas with distinction for over 50 years and deserved to retire in peace. He has now filed his papers for a seat in the Rajya Sabha at the age of 81.

Practically every profession and service has a retiring age depending on its requirements. In the Army, most jawans have to retire after 15 years service at the age of about 35. The Army is a fighting service and the fighting ability of a person begins to wane after 30. Most of the jawans martyred in Kargil were in their early 20s. The services have little need for pot-bellied 50 year olds.

In the corporate world employees normally retire at 60. By that time the employee has given enough time to the company and has earned his pension. He can devote the rest of his life to family, friends, relaxation and recreation. Old age is for golf, crossword puzzles and tending roses.

The only people who do not seem to retire in India are politicians and bureaucrats. One is touched by our politicians' desire to serve the people for ever. Except for Presidents, who retire after completing their term, no other political leader in India is ever known to retire. Most of them carry on for ever and die in office.

For bureaucrats, retirement after 60 is becoming a farce. Most of them hardly skip a beat before taking up their next assignments as ambassadors, advisors, governors in the World Bank or if they happen to be out of favour, in the UPSC or some commission or other. It is as if the government feels somehow guilty asking its employee to retire and feels compelled to look after his welfare thereafter. Apparently there is a tremendous dearth of young talent in this nation of one billion that we have to keep these people in their jobs well after they retire.

Quite obviously, retirement ages have been mandated for a purpose. Even if one is in full control of one's faculties, no one expects a man of 60 to have the same energy and love for work as someone half his age. Most importantly one is expected to make way for juniors who will stagnate if the top does not vacate the chair. In a country like India where employment and promotion are especially difficult, the line must keep moving.

A few years ago the services decided to extend retirement age by a couple of years. For a while this created chaos, with many able officers qualified for promotion having to retire, while the seniors held on to their chairs.

There are some very cogent reasons why a nation yearns for youthful and progressive leaders. We are today living in the age of technology, of progressive ideas and new economics. Old leaders have fossilised ideas and concepts. It is difficult for them to grasp the march of technology. Young leaders think of missiles, rockets and supersonic planes. Old leaders think of rath yatras. Young leaders think of computers, internet and broadband. Old leaders think of introducing astrology as a discipline. Young leaders can best cope with the twenty-first century. Old leaders are rooted in the twentieth.

In the age of television, people are hardly likely to be inspired by an old man who climbs a dais with the help of his aides. American President Ronald Reagan was indeed quite old when he became the leader of his country. But even at that age he had the youthful looks of a forty year old. His popularity was in no small measure due to his actor's ability to communicate over the TV screen. Be honest. If you wanted to enthuse the people of this country through the media, would you rather have Narasimha Rao or Amitabh Bachchan?

Our elders are at present debating legislation as a result of the Election Commission's directive on the eligibility of candidates. They have already rejected the sensible suggestion about educational qualification laying this country open to being called a nation of illiterates led by illiterates. They might during their deliberation consider imposing an age limit beyond which the people of this country could do without the services of its selfless politicians and bureaucrats.

Admiral (retired) J G Nadkarni

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