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India's disappointing young leaders

July 22, 2010 16:43 IST
'We came... confident that the new order was about to be established; we left it convinced that the new order had merely fouled the old.'

It is fairly common in India to bewail the persistence of the old order in politics coupled with a fervent hope that everything shall improve if only the (relatively) young take over the reins.

Given the dynasty that passes for democracy in India these young shall, probably, be second generation (at least) politicians.

In fact, just take a look at the list of chief ministers of India right now. No fewer than three states -- Orissa, Maharashtra, Jammu & Kashmir -- have chief ministers whose fathers were themselves once in that office. Two others -- Punjab and Tamil Nadu -- have fathers as chief ministers and sons as deputy chief ministers.

So, how is the 'new order' personified by these men performing?

It is, perhaps, unfair to judge M K Stalin and Sukhbir Singh Badal just yet since they are yet to ascend the thrones prepared by their doting parents. But what of the other three?

Naveen Patnaik's is a political success story, having won multiple mandates from the people of Orissa. But what of Ashok Chavan (Shankarrao Chavan's son) in Mumbai, and of Omar Abdullah (son of Farooq Abdullah and grandson of Sheikh Abdullah) in Srinagar?

On the face of it Ashok Chavan and Omar Abdullah are poster boys for the new order of Indian politicians, suave, educated, and fluent in English. (This last is essential if you wish to cultivate the media in Delhi!) The chief minister of Maharashtra holds an undergraduate degree in science topped off by an MBA; the chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir studied commerce at Mumbai's Sydenham College. More important than any education qualifications is the priceless asset to which they owe their current offices -- the backing of the leader of the Gen Next in the Congress.

It is no secret in Delhi that an older generation -- Vilasrao Deshmukh and Farooq Abdullah -- was in the race for the chief ministership. Rahul Gandhi's support for the younger men reportedly tilted the scales. When you look at the state of affairs in Maharashtra and in Jammu & Kashmir they scarcely make the case for the Congress yuvraj's faith in the 'youth' policy.

Ashok Chavan's government seems to be floundering even as Maharashtra, once the engine of the Indian economy, slips behind its ;more enterprising neighbours. It followed the Shiv Sena-Maharashtra Navnirman Sena line in insisting that Mumbai's taxi drivers know Marathi, and then hastily withdrew its own order.

It has blundered into a turf war with Karnataka over the status of Belgaum and, simultaneously, into another with Andhra Pradesh over the status of the Babhali project on the river Godavari. In each instance the new order has had to be bailed out by the old, meaning the ministry led by the septuagenarian Dr Manmohan Singh.

Belgaum and Babhali may hog the deadlines but they are little more than symptoms of deeper problems. Industry and agriculture alike are stagnating in the state, hit by a variety of infrastructure deficiencies with electricity and water chief among them.

There simply aren't enough job opportunities for young Maharashtrians, ploughing the ground for chauvinism. And Ashok Chavan simply does not give the impression that he has any solutions to the problems facing his state.

Up in the north Omar Abdullah's post was never going to be a bed of roses thanks to Islamabad's meddling and New Delhi's mollycoddling, both going back over several decades. But surely he could have had few illusions about the task when he pipped his own father to the chair? At any rate let us admit that the current unrest in towns across Jammu & Kashmir has left the young chief minister cruelly exposed.

Omar Abdullah took office with a reservoir of goodwill but it began to evaporate in the heat of the Shopian incident. How did Neelofar Jan and Asiya Jan die? No matter how the ladies met their end on the night of May 29-30, 2009 all that is certain is that the case was mishandled by the Omar Abdullah government to the extent that the truth may never emerge -- or be believed even if it is unearthed.

It has been downhill since then, culminating in the stone-throwing that plagues the state today.

(If he did not realise anything else, surely Omar Abdullah knew it is never a good idea for a chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir to squabble with the Union home minister. So, why was it necessary to publicly rebuff P Chidambaram's suggestion that the chief minister inspect some of the violence-struck areas in person?)

When people talk hopefully of 'youth' or a 'new order' they are probably not just referring to the calendar alone, they are using those terms as shorthand for new ideas, a fresh approach, a willingness to do things differently.

The fact that Messrs Chavan and Abdullah have a few fewer wrinkles may make them more telegenic but it does not make up for the lack of experience and, possibly, even ability.

And the fact that both these chief ministers owe the office in large part to Rahul Gandhi places a large question mark over the judgment of that Gen Next leader too, does it not?

(Not that it is relevant but the quote at the beginning was British diplomat and politician Harold Nicolson's verdict on the Paris Peace Conference of 1919; that particular 'new order' resulted in the horrors of an even greater war one generation later.)

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T V R Shenoy