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Ring in the new, IndiaFriday , July 15, 2011 at 00 : 09
If politics were to mirror celluloid, then clearly our netas seem out of step. A fortnight ago, two Hindi films were released: 'Budha Hoga Tera Baap' and 'Delhi Belly'. The first had the legendary Amitabh Bachchan trying to recreate the magic of the 1970s; the second was a multiplex movie with young actors designed for the MTV generation. Trade figures suggest that 'Delhi Belly' in its first week grossed twice as much as the Amitabh starrer. The main reason seems to be the demographic dividend: for a country where 60 per cent of the population was born after the original Amitabh hit 'Zanjeer', 'Delhi Belly' with its irreverent, almost blasphemous humour, has struck a chord with young India. Crude and crass it may be, but DK Bose is clearly the flavour of the season.
By contrast, the cabinet reshuffle (or political kho-kho as suggested by former Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh) which took place this week appeared to embody an older India. The average age of the cabinet ministers after the reshuffle is 65 years while 60 is the average age of UPA 2's Council of Ministers. While 14 cabinet ministers, including the prime minister, are in their 70s, just one - Kumari Selja - is in her 40s. A majority were born before India got independence in 1947. The average age of the ministers of state - normally considered a nursery for 'young' politicians -- is a rather 'seniorish' 54 years.
Of the three ministers of state under 35, all of them - Sachin Pilot, Agatha Sangma and Milind Deora - are the dutiful children of influential politicians. It would be fair to assume that had they not been blessed with a political surname, their chances of being made ministers would be dim. In any case, being a minister of state in an elephantine cabinet is more ceremonial than substantive. All this in an era where a 45-year-old David Cameron is shaping the face of Britain, while a 50-year-old Barack Obama is poised for re-election in the US.
The easy option would be to blame the ancient regime in Indian politics for the predicament. After all, it is the old guard in politics that zealously guards the principle of seniority, partly because of tradition, but also at times out of necessity. The value of grey hair cannot be devalued in government: politics is not a game of cricket where matches can be won and lost by young legs. Wisdom is a rare quality that can only be enhanced with the passage of time. Mastering the working of government requires administrative experience that can't be learnt in B-Schools alone. Give me a 76-year-old tried and tested Pranab Mukherjee as finance minister any day compared to a foreign-educated 40-something politician who may have the right vocabulary but can't deal with the complexity of governance.
Unfortunately, the so-called 'young guns' of Indian politics have done themselves few favours by remaining prisoners of their lineage but offering little else by way of fresh ideas. A number of them are democratic dynasts, sons and daughters of politicians who see electoral politics as an extension of their family fiefdom. Blessed with an exaggerated sense of entitlement, we rarely see them speak out in parliament, take up socially relevant issues or give us a sense of what they stand for.
If our young MPs claim to represent young India, then why don't we see them take up issues that directly impinge on generation next: jobs, education, corruption, environment, morality, AIDS, even gay rights. When the Article 377 judgment was delivered in the Delhi high court, we didn't hear a squeak from our younger MPs, almost suggesting an inner social conservatism that didn't quite match their outward 'liberal' appearance. When the Lok Pal anti-corruption campaign gathered momentum this summer, we again didn't hear from our young MPs, reinforcing a reluctance to publicly commit to a clear-cut stand on a contentious issue.
It wasn't always like this. The Nav Nirman agitation in the 1970s that eventually sparked off the anti-Emergency movement began on university campuses. Student activists then were unafraid in taking on the establishment and raising the concerns of the young. Many of them went to jail fighting state power. Today, the youth outfits of political parties are like glorified event managers: the BJP Yuva Morcha organized a high-profile Tiranga Yatra that had little to do with youth concerns while the Congress's NSUI seems happy enough to parade Rahul Gandhi at well-choreographed interactions in college auditoria. Where is the cut and thrust of new ideas that should shape the minds of a new India?
But all hope is not lost. At a recent Young Indian leaders' conclave, the Congress's 40-year-old minister, Jyotiraditya Scindia, delivered an impressive speech on the need for preserving the idealism of the youth. At the same function, one met some remarkable young men and women who have become true change agents. Take 32-year-old E Sarathbabu from Chennai. Growing up in a slum colony, he worked his way to IIM and then started a successful idli business that today employs several hundred people. He contested the Tamil Nadu elections, lost, but intends to fight again. The day the Sarathbabus are able to break open a closed and ageing political system, India will be a better place.
Post-script: Rahul Gandhi still stays away from joining the government. We are told that he feels he is not ready yet. When a youth icon doesn't want to take up a ministerial responsibility at the age of 41, is it any surprise that we have one of the oldest cabinets in the world?
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