The Soviet collapse probably did it. Or why would a diehard communist like Indrajit Gupta, who had been bred in the best traditions of gerontocracy, suddenly revise his opinion on the subject in its entirety?
Not long ago, this one-time general secretary of the cpi and a home minister in I.K. Gujral's United Front cabinet had said in his characteristic halting manner: "We are an old nation, and there is a feeling that only old and experienced leaders should be put at the helm." That today, however, seems to be an old story. What with comrade Gupta (81), seated in his MP's suite in Western Court, emphasising with great ardour that a nation so overwhelmingly young, with over 82 per cent of its population under 45, should not continue to entrust its affairs to an overpoweringly geriatric leadership.
That, however, doesn't mean that Gupta has a patient ear to lend to the young leaders who crib and protest about the unfairness of waiting till they are 70, only to reach the top. He snaps back: "Who is stopping the young? Why don't they come forward?"
The fire is dying out in this veteran parliamentarian. "I've been to this Parliament on one or two occasions, but I can't hear anything at all, even with my hearing aid. So I've stopped going," says the lungi-clad, ailing Gupta, again lapsing into rumination, his eyes fixed far away.
He suddenly comes back: "Politics is not a profession, it should not be treated like other jobs. For instance, ageing surgeons or locomotive drivers undergo a gradual impairment of their normal faculties - lapses in concentration, for example - posing a risk to others. That is why those type of professions need a retirement age. But in politics, it is up to the party members. They should decide when a particular individual is liable to make mistakes."
But far from feeling that it's time to let go of ageing leaders like Gupta and Jyoti Basu, the communist parties are clinging even more tightly to their octogenarian helmsmen.
But age has not blunted Gupta's ability to see both sides of an argument: "It is a self-perpetuating cycle. The party leadership has no young people, so it's the old who decide for themselves whether they should retire or not." Besides, his revised opinion does not completely reject the "merit of age and experience". Says he: "Even young people feel that since the old have more experience, they should be allowed to perform. Otherwise why do we keep getting elected?"
Even Congress veteran Vasant Sathe, who recently upset his ageing party colleagues by suggesting that they retire from active politics and instead play an advisory role more suited to their advanced years, is conscious of the crucial importance of age and its twin, experience. "So what if Atal Behari Vajpayee is 76 years old? He is indispensable for the bjp, who else is there who can hold the current government together?"
Union parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan has another explanation as to why second-rung leaders should not dare challenge the leadership of Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, who is only three years the prime minister's junior: "The Indian psyche venerates age. As long as Bhishma is leading, no other Kaurava can lead. It is only when Bhishma sleeps on a bed of arrows that the other Kauravas take charge." His reasoning is in complete harmony with the logic of Hindutva and its conservative ideology and politics of traditionalism.
Aproper understanding of this "Indian psyche" may have eluded Congressmen when they ousted two of their ageing presidents in quick succession, but then one can argue where else can members of a national party elect an 81-year-old, Sitaram Kesri, as the aicc chief. And where else can the name of 79-year-old P.V. Narasimha Rao still do the rounds for the top post in the party? But then this is not something alien to the way the Congress moves - a member, unless he or she is from the First Family, has to be over 50 before he can shed his youthful image, and over 70 to be considered a senior leader. Take Narain Dutt Tiwari (78), K. Karunakaran (82) or Vijayabhaskara Reddy (80).
And though the Congress might have developed gerontocracy into an undying tradition, other parties in the country are no different. The cpi(m) is another example. It has the likes of Harkishan Singh Surjeet (84), Somnath Chatterjee (71) and, of course, the irrepressible Jyoti Basu (86) occupying the upper echelons of leadership. It's mother-party and ally, the cpi, fares no better. Apart from Gupta, there was Geeta Mukherjee, who died a sitting member of the Lok Sabha at 76.
At 77, Ram Prakash Gupta is not just a senior bjp leader, but chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Avers he: "Age earns respect and that is why in a democratic country like ours we have so many elderly politicians." And Gupta is not the only chief minister to stand by these beliefs. He probably has company in 76-year-old Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi, West Bengal's Jyoti Basu, Kerala's E.K. Nayanar (81), or Punjab's Parkash Singh Badal, who at 73 is almost young by comparison.
Of course, some parties do have younger leaders, but that is not because older leaders have generously made way for their juniors. It's because these parties are relatively young. As Mahajan explains: "Advaniji and Atalji were young leaders of the Jan Sangh when the party had just got started. As founders of the bjp they have aged with the party." And if Laloo Prasad Yadav is a mere 52, the rjd can rest assured of his continuing at its helm for another 20 years.
"It's not cricket," agrees Sathe (75), "where even a Sunil Gavaskar has to retire, but in politics the only retirement is death."
It is not as if there is a dearth of younger politicians. The average Indian MP is still relatively young. In the first Lok Sabha the average age of members was 46.5 years. In the 11th Lok Sabha it had actually dropped to 45.22 years. Most ministers of state in Vajpayee's council of ministers are in their 40s. Yet, the top leadership remains firmly in the hands of a gerontocracy.
But younger leaders are getting increasingly impatient with their doddering seniors. The only reason why they make it to the top is because of the time they spent building up a national personality. Says Congressman Prithviraj Chavan: "Only national personalities have a chance to become major leaders. In order to build a national personality, it takes years. So do we wait till we are 70 to acquire that stature?"
Chavan's demons are out in the open when he says: "To win elections you have to be involved with local issues, so when do you have the time to develop a national vision and become a national figure?"
At 50, Chavan is nearing retirement age as defined by Bill Clinton, but in Congress politics, even with the advantage of having two parents who were senior Congress leaders and ministers in previous governments, he is yet to acquire the national stature which will give him a fighting chance for leadership in his party. It's different for leaders like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, says Chavan, because they come from homogeneous societies, with powerful electronic media. "It's much more difficult for a young leader to become nationally known in India, and if you start positioning yourself as a national leader, you will lose out at the ground level."
Therefore, in Chavan's opinion, the only way for young leaders to come up "is when they are actively inducted and promoted by the party, given positions of authority and safer seats to contest, besides monetary and other help."
Omar Abdullah is one of those fortunate leaders. At 30, he is not only one of the 10 youngest members of the 13th Lok Sabha, but also the youngest minister in Vajpayee's ministry. Prominently displayed in his office room are three portraits he presumably owes his ministership to: Mahatma Gandhi, Atal Behari Vajpayee and his grandfather Sheikh Abdullah. But he still chafes under the limits imposed by a leadership which is two generations above his own. "Here people think that age is synonymous with experience," says the young BCom graduate who is now the deputy commerce minister. "But that's not true. How many senior ministers are there who know anything about their ministries?" The rhetoric is politically absolutely correct but then it was not youth that helped Abdullah acquire the position that he currently holds. For him, success has been more a matter of lineage and where he comes from.
And Abdullah's stars are really to be thanked. For if lineage got him where he currently is, advancing himself by proving his worth has been facilitated by the fact that he is working under a senior and experienced minister like Murasoli Maran "who gives me so much leeway that in seven months I've been to 12 countries". Others, he points out, have not been so fortunate. Says he: "Certain cabinet ministers are not willing to give their junior ministers a chance. A lot of competent young people just fall by the wayside because they are not given a chance to prove themselves."
So, it's a catch-22 situation - the young are not given a chance because they have no experience and because they have no experience, they can never acquire it. So, it was not Shahnawaz Hussain's youth that effected his induction into the current council of ministers. As the only Muslim member of the bjp, a ministerial berth was assured for the 31-year-old protege of Uma Bharti. But his lack of advanced years may have something to do with him being given the junior-most portfolio in the Union ministry of food processing.
Chavan feels that it's the youth itself that's to be blamed for this sorry state of affairs. Says he: "There is a lack of confidence in the younger generation - its ability to handle responsibility." But to him the coming of age of the young Indian politician is imminent and inevitable. He believes that increasing political maturity would make politicians and people realise that the task of governance is getting more difficult. The mind has to be agile. As you age, your attention span is attenuated, your ability to work is also affected by health problems. Avers he: "The most productive years are from 40 to 60 or 65 years. If you enter the national arena only when you are 70 years old , it's unfair not only on the party, but also the people you represent and fight for."
The young, restless politician in Abdullah is sarcastic and vituperative when he says: "There is a mindset here that age is a natural qualification for a senior position. But age brings more than wisdom. Our seniors are not willing to learn from anyone's experience, not even their own."
For instance, there are simple ways for better communication and access, like e-mail between the trade missions and answering mail on the Internet instead of the laborious file work used in Abdullah's ministry. "But these things my seniors won't know or want to use," he says.
The emergence of a young leadership is something that the India of 21st century can look forward to. Avers Chavan: "Older people are not capable of appreciating the challenges of the century, let alone meeting them. With globalisation of trade and finance, you need younger leaders. Besides, with a young electorate, you need leaders who have a rapport with them. The old can't be emotionally in sync with the young."
So, what keeps our human anachronisms ruling the roost alive in the Indian polity? For, the rapid technological changes that the new century and the millennium wrought on Indian politics should have made them redundant by now. The current preponderance of old leaders in various political parties of the country, according to former prime minister I.K. Gujral, is closely linked to the the lack of inner-party democracy here.
Says Gujral: "In the the US, the primaries throw up new leaders. But in India you get a break by becoming a chamcha of some prominent leader. Even the youth wings of political parties encourage the same kind of cronyism, which began in the 1970s under Indira Gandhi. The senior leaders keep an eye on their ever-increasing band of chamchas and the best among the latter are periodically obliged with a few crumbs thrown from the table." As sociologist Dipankar Gupta points out: "We in India do not elect representatives, we choose patrons. Once an individual takes over the leadership, it is impossible to displace them. No competitor is allowed to survive. Only sycophants thrive. In India anyone challenging the leadership would be declared a dissident and thrown out." Besides, as social scientist Ashish Bose puts it, no young man of some stature wants to join politics. "Those who do are capable of doing little else but take it up as a profession."
Rajiv Pratap Rudy, bjp MP from Bihar, agrees. Rudy entered Parliament at the age of 32. Now 37, he still has the candour of youth: "Most young people who enter politics are either social outcasts or sons and daughters of politicians. Merit has nothing to do with politics. No parents aspire for a political career for their children. First, you have to join the right political party, belong to the right caste, get the right patrons, then nurture a constituency and beg your party to give you the ticket. Even then the chances are that you may lose."
So, how does one settle the issue? Impatient youngsters believe that competition within parties for their leaderships should be on an equal footing by opening the doors to all and letting the fittest thrive in the struggle for survival. But then old orthodoxies die hard. Don't they?