It’s hard now to read an article about the future of India—especially those that focus on our so-called rise to superpower status—that does not make the point that we have a huge demographic advantage. India, we are told, is an old civilization but a young country. Depending on which set of figures you choose to believe, something like 60% of our population is under 30, or perhaps, even 25.
The idea of a vibrant young India, powered by the youthful energy of a new generation is an appealing one. In contrast, the countries of Europe are always portrayed as having declining birth rates and ageing populations. In five years’ time, we are told, such nations as France and England will consist of over-the-hill has-beens while bright, young things will have their hands on the levers of power in India.
I don’t question the statistics. And nor do I deny that the influence of a new generation is increasingly apparent. But are the young really on the verge of taking over?
If at 41, Cameron (left) can be a prime ministerial candidate in the UK, why is Gandhi, at 37, considered too young to be a cabinet minister?
I have my doubts.
A couple of weeks ago, London’s The Observer bragged about a generational change in the UK. Prime Minister Gordon Brown was increasingly being seen as too old and too tired to inspire the country. A new generation of political leaders was ready to replace the old. The Conservatives already had David Cameron. The Liberal Democrats are set to be led by the young Nick Clegg. And Labour has a successor to Brown in the youthful David Miliband.
The contrast with India is irresistible. In the week that the Observer article appeared, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) named L.K. Advani its prime ministerial candidate. If Advani ever gets to be prime minister, he will be more than 80 by the time he moves into Race Course Road. The present incumbent, Manmohan Singh, is in his 70s. His rivals for the job within the Congress (Arjun Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, etc.) are the same vintage.
In contrast, the allegedly “old and tired” Gordon Brown is only 56.
David Cameron, who may well defeat Brown at the next election, is 41. Which is almost the same age as Rahul Gandhi. And we regard Rahul as too young to become a cabinet minister.
The Lib-Dem’s Nick Clegg is also 40 and David Miliband, the potential Labour successor to Brown, is 42. All of these men are much, much younger than even the Young Turks of this ministry, men such as Jairam Ramesh. In the BJP, successors to Advani (the Arun Jaitley generation) are about the same age as Gordon Brown, and they’ll probably have to wait five years for Advani to retire. As one of BJP’s young generation joked to me, he felt like Prince Charles, in line for the top job only at an age when most normal people would retire.
But why stick to politics, a familiar whipping boy? The Observer argued that the media scene was also undergoing a generational change. The new Controller of BBC One, England’s top TV channel, is 40. James Murdoch, who has taken over his father’s media interests outside the US, is 34.
Is this as true of the Indian media scene? Rajdeep Sardesai and Barkha Dutt are young editors of TV channels. But most of their counterparts in the TV and magazine world are over 50. Both Prannoy Roy and Raghav Bahl are far older than Sardesai. On the entertainment side, Kunal Dasgupta (Sony) and Pradeep Guha (Zee) are in their 50s. Print does not fare much better; the vast majority of editors are my age (51) or older. Shekhar Gupta, at 50, is probably the most youthful, but N. Ram, Aveek Sarkar, Vinod Mehta, Aroon Purie, Prabhu Chawla, M.J. Akbar, Chandan Mitra and Mrinal Pande are all 50-plus. So are both of India’s most powerful press barons. Shobhana Bhartia, vice-chairperson of HT Media Ltd, Mint’s owner, is 50 and Samir Jain, owner of The Times of India, is probably three or four years older.
It is the same with business. Even if you take Ratan Tata (70) out of the mix, just look at the ages of the high-profile industrialists who have come to symbolize the new India: Nandan Nilekani, Mukesh Ambani, Anand Mahindra, Sunil Mittal, etc. They are all around 50 or more (the exception is probably Kumar Mangalam Birla, who is much younger, but he took over the family empire in unusual circumstances).
Oddly enough, even the film business seems resistant to the pull of youth. The younger actors (Viveik Oberoi, Shahid Kapoor, etc.) may come and go but the stars—the ones who still play youthful romantic leads—are all around 40 or more: Shah Rukh, Salman, Aamir and Sunny Deol. For every exception (say Hrithik Roshan), there’s somebody like Anil Kapoor, who can still get away with playing the leading man at 51.
So, what is it about Indians and age? Where are our David Camerons and our James Murdochs? Why do we encourage young people to rise only up to a point while reserving the top jobs for the older guys? Why is India’s Test cricket captain 37 and, therefore, ancient by sports standards? Why are we still so taken with the 35-or-so trinity of Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly? Why is it that in every field, from sports to media to cinema, the Indian first division is at least a decade older than the equivalent in any Western country?
I can understand ageing Europe clinging to age and experience. But surely a young country should be able to do more to encourage youth?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. My guess is that we define youth differently from the rest of the world. In the West you are ready for a second career when you reach 50. In India, that’s usually the age when you’ve only just reached near the top in your first career.
But isn’t it time we took demographics into account and recognized that an “emerging superpower” cannot be run by emerging pensioners?
In addition to Mint and Lounge, HT Media Ltd also publishes Hindustan, which is edited by Mrinal Pande.
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