It was reality TV of the political kind. On the night of the Jammu and Kashmir election results, Farooq and Omar Abdullah were both pitching for chief ministership on live tv. The father was more direct, claiming that he was the natural choice for the job. Son Omar, a little less obvious with his ambition, warning that this time his father would have to deliver unlike previous occasions. When persistently asked if he was giving up his claim to the top job, Omar replied: “I am only 38. Even if I don’t become the chief minister, I will still be only 44 in six years.”
Did that mean he was happy to allow his father to be cm, “Look, who am I to decide? But there is many a slip between the cup and the lip,” said an increasingly irritable Abdullah Jr. In the event, there was a slip: by dawn, the father had paved the way for the next generation of Kashmir’s most famous political family to take over.
One will never know what really transpired through the night. But it would be fair to say that the ascent of Omar to the post of cm has been universally welcomed. This has less to do with any great faith in the younger Abdullah’s administrative skills, which remain largely untested, but more to do with just the idea of a young politician finally being given a position of responsibility. Farooq Abdullah’s previous tenures as J&K cm were controversial. But he was a larger-than-life political figure in the valley, his charismatic presence sometimes compensating for a lack of focus. While Farooq might have had the support of the traditional National Conference leadership, he missed out this time on the one quality that Omar was offering: a certain fresh-faced innocence of youth.
That, for once, the rules of age in politics were rewritten is itself refreshing. For the last few years, there has been an intense debate, sparked off by the media, over how a young country needs a more youthful leadership. Analysts have pointed out the dichotomy between a country where 60 per cent of the population is under 35 years and yet only three members of the union cabinet are born after independence. Infosys guru Nandan Nilekani in his book Imagining India focuses on the so-called ‘demographic dividend’: how India has the largest productive working age population between 15 and 50 and how this massive workforce will propel the nation forward over the next two decades while the country retains this advantageous demographic ratio.
Unfortunately, politics in India has never quite benefited from the ‘demographic dividend’. In fact, youthfulness has traditionally been considered a liability within a feudal political order, which appears to revere grey hair as a sign of ‘wisdom’ and ‘learning’. A septuagenarian in civil society is a senior citizen, approaching the sanyasashrama stage of life. In political India, by contrast, the 70-plus neta is still very much a grihashti, the ambitious head of a political family, still aspiring to lead the nation. The younger politician is expected to be a patient follower, waiting his turn, not demonstrating any undue haste to move up the party hierarchy.
At one level, this attachment to old age in politics is understandable. The Vajpayee-Advani duo, for example, has provided a great deal of stability to the BJP, much in the manner that the Nehru-Gandhi family is a glue that binds the Congress. The demands of a political party are very different to a corporate. Holding together a vast and diverse political outfit requires more than just an impressive management degree or computer training. It requires a certain emotional connect at a personal level that often only those with many years in public life are able to provide.
It is no surprise that even in regional, family-run parties like the Akali Dal and the DMK, octogenarian leaders like Parkash Singh Badal and M. Karunanidhi are preferred to their sons by the party cadre. The fathers are seen to symbolise comforting values, the sons are considered less reliable.
Moreover, running a government requires the ability to constantly draw on past experiences and administrative skills built over a sustained period of time. The reason, for example, that 74-year-old Pranab Mukherjee has been so successful as a cabinet minister is because of knowledge accumulated over several decades in dealing with crisis situations. Again, as Sheila Dikshit’s success in Delhi with the younger voter showed, it’s not age alone that determines voter preferences, but a certain youthful and energetic mindset that is responsive to new ideas.
Part of the problem lies with our so-called ‘younger’ leaders who haven’t quite delivered when placed in the hotseat. Rajiv Gandhi, for example, became pm at 40. While he undoubtedly brought an infectious energy to the office, he also struggled to come to terms with complex issues like Kashmir, Punjab, Sri Lanka and Ayodhya. Prafulla Mahanta was the country’s youngest cm at 34 years, but the enthusiasm he inspired among an entire generation of Assamese youth quickly evaporated amid serious corruption charges. The 2004 general elections saw a number of young MPs make their debut. But a majority of them have been confined to becoming posterboys in elite gatherings instead of becoming symbols of genuine change and empowerment.
India’s Obama generation of leaders needs to realise that they need to do more than just be tech-savvy and well-groomed if they are to make a genuine impact in public life. Barack Obama’s success so far has been based not just on his youthful appeal, but also on his inspirational ideas and vision for a new America in areas as diverse as race and global warming. Why haven’t we seen more of our younger political leaders offer new ideas, take up challenging projects, attempt to move politics away from the status quo? An Omar Abdullah may soon find that an increasingly demanding voter in a complex state like J&K will expect more from him than just a telegenic appearance and powerful oratory. As my Facebook friend, I wish Omar well in the hope that in his success could well lie the political redemption of India’s generation next.
Post-script: it has been suggested that it was Rahul Gandhi who finally swung the chief ministership in Omar’s favour. In this big election year, is it a sign of things to come?
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-Chief, IBN Network