Feb 6, 2009

India - Younger India;greying politicians

What’s common between Kerala’s Chief Minister, Mr V. S. Achutanandan, and the Union Minority Affair’s Minister, Mr A. R. Antulay? Both the politicians created embarrassment for their parties and the common ailment that afflicts them is their age and long stay in politics.
India is the only democracy where there is a stark contrast between the average age profile of the citizens and that of politicians at the helm. While 70 per cent of India’s population is below 40 years of age, 80 per cent of India’s politicians are over 70 years.
Senior politicians in different parties have acquired larger-than-life images, simply because of their length of stay and not for any sacrifices made by them. For fear of losing power, such politicians never allow their junior colleagues to take centre-stage in their own organisations and governments.
Our Constitution makers, guided by the fact that there is no age limit in the Westminster model, did not prescribe an age limit for politicians to hold office. But, by convention all mature democracies have assiduously promoted younger leaders, generally in their early to late forties, in preference to older politicians.
Tony Blair was just 43 when he assumed the office of prime minister in 1997 and Bill Clinton was just 46 when he was elected president of the US in 1992.
These two examples are not exceptions to the rule, but rather the general norm in the West. The US President, Mr Barack Obama, is just 47 and one of the reasons voters elected him is because his rival McCain, at 72, was considered too old for office. Fix retirement age
Notwithstanding public disdain for older politicians, established parties are generally in no mood to select younger people to run for office.
The younger leaders are, in fact, at the mercy of their seniors, for being given any responsibility and, hence, cannot raise their voice against them, even when they may personally endorse the public mood. There is, however, a case for fixing the retirement age for occupying party posts and constitutional positions.
First, a person’s ability to judge and respond quickly degenerates with age. There is also the the overall lack of fitness, higher prevalence of serious diseases relating to heart, kidney, lungs, brain, and so on. In the Indian context, older leaders carry two serious disadvantages.
Leaders, over the years, become more and more greedy and second, they carry a lot of baggage. Greed among Indians is in their DNA, right from the Mahabharata days. Duryodhana preferred fighting a Mahabharata war to parting with just five villages demanded by the Pandavas.
Greed among Indian politicians now manifests in many forms: an octogenarian leader in Haryana starts an entirely family-based party; an ex-Prime Minister remains active only to ensure that his two sons are chief ministers and important position holders in whichever party and government.
In fact, a new race has started within his family to grab public office by his two daughters-in-law. Another nonagenarian leader in the South wants all his children to occupy important public or party offices and for achieving such an objective, he is ready to break the party, which he has done on several occasions.
The situation is even worse, in some of the regional parties, which are tightly controlled by the families at the helm. Memberships of the legislature can be grabbed easily by the patriarch’s children and the real fight is then for ministerial berths in the coalition governments. Time for change
The older leaders choke fresh ideas and from election to election carry the same agenda at heart. This has created a huge gap between what the younger generation wants and what older politicians can deliver.
The biggest problem is for the political parties themselves. All major parties are facing serious problems with senior politicians and do not know how to get rid of them, since they refuse to leave active politics. They keep fighting for pelf and power, mostly for their children and other family members till the last.
A time has come to change the rules of the game in Indian politics for an emerging India, aspiring to become part of the developed world. Indian politicians need to be generous and they should look at role models elsewhere.
Our older leaders should be guided by people such as Nelson Mandela, who voluntarily demitted office of the President in South Africa. He could have easily remained President for life, but instead chose Thabo Mbeki to succeed him.
In the US, the 13th Constitutional amendment set term limits for the offices of the President and governors. This ensures that the leaders are not for life and the same leaders are not hanging around, whenever the party comes back to power. In the UK and other parts of Europe (except Italy), well established conventions have ensured that the defeated leaders do not come back in the next elections. Ditto for Australia, New Zealand and Canada, where sometimes leaders in the leading parties have come and gone at such speed that it is difficult to even remember their names.
Hindu philosophy divides human life span into four t ime periods. A 75-year-old, in his Vanprastha period (last stage) belongs to no one and is expected to devote himself entirely to serving the society. But that rarely happens in Indian politics. A case for age bar
Thus, there is a serious case for the age bar for public offices. But the most important question is who is going to do it. It is unlikely that the Government on its own will introduce an amendment to the Constitution to fix age limits for various offices.
Should the Election Commission take the initiative for amending the relevant provisions for fixing age limits for the party office bearers of recognised parties?
The maximum age limit for holding any office in the party should not be more than 75 years. This will be possible, if simultaneously, there is another amendment for term limits for holding various positions within the parties.
No person should hold office within the party organisation for more than 6-7 years. This will ensure that younger elements within the party get a chance and there is infusion of fresh ideas within the organisation.
The other issue of fixing age limits for offices in the Government could also be taken up before the Supreme Court, which through interpretation of the relevant Constitutional provisions within the framework of equality before law guaranteed under Article 14 of the Constitution could set age limits. A petition before the apex court is worth trying.
If the Election Commission and Supreme Court could initiate measures on the suggested lines, peoples’ faith in the political process would be restored and the larger public demand to have younger leaders at the helm of affairs may fructify. (The author is a practising advocate and President of an NGO, Innovative Radical Reforms Organisation. http://www.irro.org/. blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)