The age-old dilemma

At 80, L.K.Advani, with more decades behind him, has become a prospective PM. And, people and paramatma willing, if LKA does make it to PMO (by which time he may be 82), what would it augur for a nation looking to leap into the future? Really, what kind of a leader should the country, be pitching for? Are age and youth valid criteria and if so, are there enough wise young men around to displace the grey eminences, if the latter are deemed political fossils? But importantly, in politics, at what age does youth turn grey? Or is there a political elixir that will restore the vigour of youth to frail frames?

A global scan offers some interesting enlightenment. UK’s Gordon Brown, 56, USA’s George Bush, Jr, 61, Pak’s Musharaff, 63 and France’s Sarkozy, 52 are all incumbents. Australia’s new PM is only 50. Benazir and Nawaz Sharief at 54 and 58 respectively, Obama at 46 and Hillary at 60 are prospective national heads. The political careers of Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin officially ended at 54, 53 and 55. Traditionally, Communist regimes were notorious for immortal leaders. Cuba’s Castro has consistently missed his meetings with his Maker and continues as the official President, aged infinity. His brother Raul, who is just a few years younger, (infinity-minus) is the de facto Prez. But elsewhere in Red regions, the elders are withering away with younger comrades sidelining the ‘left-overs’ from past politburos. (does anyone remember our own Surjeet?) Russia’s Gorbachev was a pioneer at 54, though that famous bald patch belied his comparitively young age. Now, even China boasts of a virile political generation. Venezuela’s Chavez, at 54, is now a Leftist mascot. Clearly, modern politics is dominated by the middle-age, milestones in life equi-distant from both cradle and grave!

India’s experience ever since independence has been mixed. Mahatma Gandhi’s was a moral leadership; he would have failed in power politics because he set difficult, often unwieldy, standards that would have left him with nil cadre. In any case, at 78, he was at twilight, when freedom dawned at midnight. Fifty-Eight -year old Nehru fitted the PM bill to a T, with his charisma and eloquence marking him out as the most popular political leader of modern India. He carried on till death at 75 and would have signed off in glory, with image intact, had not the 1962 Chinese aggression intervened. As PM of a nation at war, he cowered, cringed and cried. Either, age dimmed his courage or he never had it in him in the first place.

Instead of spear-heading a fitting and fast military response, he sobbed on national radio over the ‘Chinese betrayal’, which decidedly sapped the morale of the Indian forces, nay the whole country. In sharp contrast was Winston Churchill, who as war-time PM of Britain made a bombed-out London literally rise from the ashes with his indomitable spirit and sheer verbal acumen. His steely nerve in the face of utter destruction ultimately won the war for his country. Our Nehru lost the battle in the mind itself.

But N’s doughty daughter Indira Gandhi was made of different mettle, though from the same kettle. She became PM at 46 and took on the old guard, dubbed as the Syndicate, from the word go. The Congress split in 1969 into O and I, ie, Old and Indira, the divide as much generational as it was personal and political. Authoritarian to boot, (as author of the Emergency), Indira was also a leader beyond compare, commanding the fear and respect of friends and foes alike. She was hailed during her time as the ‘only man in her cabinet’ and credited for creating not just history but even geography by carving out Bangladesh from Pakistan. One can’t think of any other PM who would have mustered the guts for an adventure like Op.Blue Star. The Janata regime was a downright geriatric goof whose members squabbled like kids.

Rajiv for all his seeming goodness and gentlemanly demeanour was less of a leader. Lacking both the eloquence of Nehru and the rabble-rousing repertoire of his mother, he was most uninspiring. His prepared speeches were laboured and it needed even more effort to listen. Indeed, becoming PM at 42 with over 400 MPs in LS was not the beginning as many believed but the peak. In just five years, he frittered away a mammoth mandate that even his grandpa never dreamt of. ‘Weepy’ Singh, who succeeded him was the pied piper – a leader who led the country to near-doom. Mandal, Mandir, J&K etc are some of his lethal legacies bequeathed in just 11 months of rule. Had he lasted longer, there would have been no country for anyone to lead!

PM PVN was a boon from the blue. This multi-lingual scholar offers a wonderful study in contrast with Rajiv. While young R was touted as the leader who would walk the nation into the 21st century, it was actually the 70-plus PVN who reset the nation’s pace and direction and launched its economic resurgence. While Rajiv faltered and grew weary and weak at every step, a doddering PVN seemed to gain a spring in his gait every year. He remains the best brand ambassador for the ‘old is gold’ school. If Rajiv’s failure and death put paid to youth-talk in Indian politics, the tragic exits of several young leaders — Pilot, Scindia, Ranga Kumaramangalam and Pramod Mahajan, all in their fifties, has left voids in the Cong and the BJP.

PM Vajpayee was more a leader of a coalition than leader of a nation, but still Advani may have some lessons to learn from his bachelor friend, on managing restless allies, not to speak of ambitious party peers. And LKA will likely take on Rahul, the only youth allowed to run for PM in this far-flung land. It would be interesting to see if the battle-scarred rath would beat the brat in the race to Race Course Road. We will leave out Manmohan because he does not lead but only fawns and follows. Sonia is a leader because the Congmen claim so! In any case, she has reportedly renounced … for now.

Down in TN there are leadership issues too, rather, ‘issues’ for leadership. Of late, 85-year-old K has been harping on youth taking over. The youth he refers to., and prefers too, is obviously Stalin, who at 54 is now busy holding a youth conference. So what if Stalin is himself a biological grandfather; for the doting dad he is still the rising son. Elsewhere, in Kerala, a ‘youthful’ Karunakaran, nearing the nervous nineties, is talking of rejoining and even rejuvenating the Congress! Now, that is vintage old whine, pardon, wine.

But are we any wiser on the matter of young vs old vis-a-vis PMs, past, present and prospective? Or on the qualities of an ideal leader, young or old? The law says he must be old enough to vote and common sense dictates that he must not be too old to walk & talk. Our take? Let’s grow old looking for him!

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Jawahar T R