Editor’s note: On our Prime Minister’s 80th birthday, two Firspost editors, Lakshmi Chaudhry and Sandip Roy, face off on the pressing question of the day: should there be a mandatory retirement age for politicians?
Lakshmi Chaudhry: Goodbye to greybeards
Manmohanji is 80 years old today, and a sprightly 80 at that. For all the flak that he receives for his personality, no one complains about our venerable Prime Minister’s age. But maybe we should. Maybe it’s time to ask the pressing question: If there is a retirement age for citizens, why should our prime minister remain exempt?
Government employees are forced to retire at 60, while private companies extend the limit up to 70 for their senior-level executives. No one keeps them on even if they can still do their job. But our greying dinosaurs get to hang on forever, arguing age is no measure of their fitness to rule. M Karunanidhi is 88 and still playing the grand patriarch! LK Advani at 84 is dreaming of becoming the next Prime Minister. And neither democracy nor their party is any better for it.
MMS the octogenarian is a symbol of the white-beard problem in Indian politics. And here’s why.
For starters, older is not necessarily wiser, especially in Indian politics. The more time a politician spends in our corrupt system, the more time they have to accumulate unsavoury political baggage and debts. The old guard are also the fiercest defenders of the old ways of doing politics. An Akhilesh would most likely have a better shot at ushering in genuine change if his father was ineligible to be Prime Minster (or Chief Minister, at that). As things stand, his political career has become part-and-parcel of Mulayam’s big PM plan.
The long arc of the Indian politician’s career also gives him sufficient time to pass on the political baton to his heirs — or those of others, as in MMS’ case. Could Sonia have spent ever so long grooming her son without Manmohan to buy her time? Would Tamil Nadu be saddled with Alagiris, Stalins and Kanmozhis if Karunanidhi had been pushed off-stage nearly two decades ago? An age limit may not eliminate the dynastic impulse but will surely serve to curb it.
Besides, the presence of the so-called party elders allows grown men and women to pretend they are “young turks,” and spend decades making political hay in senior positions without the attendant responsibility. Here, I’m not just thinking of Rahul but also the likes of Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley.
The other white beard problem: It allows ageing politicians to exert a stranglehold over their own party, eliminating or sidelining younger contenders to their throne. Seniority is often a euphemism for entrenched power that has little to do with political merit. And there is no better example than Advani who won’t allow the younger guard to take their place at the helm, holding them hostage instead to his thwarted personal ambition to be PM. Like great banyan trees, political patriarchs often destroy all that dares grow in its vicinity — except, of course, for their chosen spawn.
Like everyone else, our politicians are elected to do a job. They ought to be subject to the same restraints placed on other employees. Age limits exist for a reason: to encourage the ascension of new talent, eliminate the potential for entrenched privilege, and ensure that the leadership reflects the changing times. All excellent reasons why it’s time to impose a retirement age for our political greybeards. Let them be governors, advisors, even presidents, hold ceremonial offices as reward for their long service. But the hard work of governing is best left to the relatively young.