Sometimes, one wonders if the old Mughal technique of powerful princes imprisoning their Emperor-Dads and grabbing power is not a better way to ring out the old and bring in new ideas to governance.
In modern-day India, the thought processes on this score are ancient. The young are not leading, and the old are not retiring — or even receding gracefully into the background.
Whether it is politics of sport or even business, old is oversold. We respect age too much, and have been paying a price for it.
The country’s median age is about 26. Some 30 percent of the population is minor — below 14. And 95 percent of India’s population is below 64, but we are ruled usually by people well above that age.
Consider the number of above eighties in politics. LK Advani won’t retire, M Karunanidhi won’t retire, Parkash Singh Badal won’t retire, Jyoti Basu and VS Achuthanadan were CPI(M) Chief Ministers well into their eighties. The party’s General Secretary, the late Harkishan Singh Surjeet, did not yield to Prakash Karat till he was 89. Atal Behari Vajpayee retired as PM at 80 only because he lost an election. Manmohan Singh, who will be 80 in two months, won’t retire till 2014 — if even then.
Contrast this with David Cameron (he was 44 when he took over as British PM in 2010, Barack Obama (48 when he took over), and Vladimir Putin (48 when he first became president in 2000).
The late NT Rama Rao (“NTR”), founder of Telugu Desam, would have continued merrily well past his seventies but for a coup by his son-in-law N Chandrababu Naidu. Naidu did an Aurangzeb on him and seized power through an internal coup in 1995 — a year before NTR’s death.
Luckily, Mulayam Singh has given way to young Akhilesh much earlier, but apparently only because he fancies himself as a future PM in a Third Front government after 2014, or even before. He will be 75 if he gets to 7 Race Course Road in 2014.
On the other hand, the youth brigade is repeatedly failing us. Salman Khurshid’s interview to The Indian Express on Tuesday is a case in point. A Congress Law Minister could not have expressed Rahul Gandhi’s failure to lead in starker terms. Even after being anointed heir-apparent for years now, Rahul has failed to measure up on the leadership front, as Khurshid points out: “…he has not taken up the mantle or accepted a functional responsibility. He is so far not willing to accept the No 2 position. In such a situation, we have to wait. This is a waiting time.”
However, in all this waiting, the entire youth brigade of the Congress is being sidelined. Reason: Rahul baba cannot be upstaged. So the youth corps of Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Sandip Dikshit, and Milind Deora is busy doing little in UPA-2, instead of blazing a sizzling new trail.
The BJP has a raft of younger leaders, but the party stupidly fails to promote them. It is now hoping Narendra Modi will do the trick for them — but he is past 60. Energetic, but not exactly the fountain of youth. The rest of the top leadership — Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and Nitin Gadkari — is busy neutralising itself.
But the scene is not any better in business either. Ratan Tata is retiring at 75 — but he should have probably done so five or 10 years earlier and merely stayed on as a guiding spirit. Dhirubhai Ambani passed away relatively early at 70, but such was his importance that he failed to do the one thing that retirees should: hand over the reins when the going was good. Worse, he did not even leave a will. His sons had to fight to get their share of patrimony.
But unlike politicians, whose inheritors have not got their chances till late, in business, at least, the heirs have gotten their dues and their chances to shine. Where they have split from their fathers or gone their separate ways posthumously — the Piramals, Mafatlals, Ambanis, Singhanias, Birlas are some examples — they have usually fared much better despite the heartburn of separation. The Bajaj family and the RP Goenka group split more gracefully, and the results are there for all to see.
The upshot of separation and division has usually been growth and new ideas. And this proves the point that while the young may fail, it is usually not for want of trying.
But another group of India’s oldies — bureaucrats — seem never to want to fade away. Secretaries retiring from ministries end up as chairpersons of regulatory agencies or other quasi-government organisations (Recent examples: Rahul Khullar moved to Trai after retiring as commerce secretary, Ashok Chawla moved from the finance ministry to the Competition Commission of India).
In a recent series, The Indian Express found that “a disproportionately large” number of IAS and IPS officers obtained sinecures or even big-ticket jobs after retirement. Says the newspaper: “Details of nearly 90 such appointments made in recent years show these civil servants being parked as governors, information commissioners, and as heads or members of a slew of bodies such as the Union Public Service Commission, the National Commission for Minorities, Central Information Commission, National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission and the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT). Most of these posts enjoy the rank of secretary to the government of India or above. In the case of some officers, new positions have been created to accommodate them.”
Even judges seem to work forever. It is rare for former judges to lack a job after retirement. Former Chief Justice of India KG Balakrishnan was made head of the National Human Rights Commission, while Justice Markandeya Katju has been making waves as Chairman of the Press Council. Santosh Hegde was till last year the Karnataka Lokayukta. Former Supreme Court Justice GT Nanavati not only headed the commission to look into the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, but now heads the Gujarat probe into the 2002 riots. He is still at it, 10 years later. Justice MS Liberhan took 17 years to submit his Babri demolition report.
The Express report also found that out of the 133 independent directors appointed to the boards of 21 public sector companies, “at least 46 of them are former bureaucrats.” So much for their independence. They are merely serving the government they always served even after retirement.
When the old stay on for too long, they are likely to fail for want of better ideas, newer approaches to 21st century challenges. India is a young country, and the first reform we need to is to ask the old to retire gracefully to make way for new ideas.
Age needs respect, not jobs for life at the cost of the young and fit.