In 1958, an anonymous article published in the Economic Weekly raised a minor storm. The unknown author speculated about what would happen after the demise of Jawaharlal Nehru. His prognosis was dark: “The prestige that the party will enjoy as the inheritor of the mantle of Tilak, Gandhi and Nehru will inhibit the growth of any effective or healthy opposition in the first few years. In the later years as popular discontent against the new generation of party bosses increases, they will, for sheer self-preservation, be led to make increasing attempts to capture votes by pandering to caste, communal and regional interests and ultimately even to rig elections.”
Generational changes in political leadership can be unsettling. It is now worth speculating whether India is ripe for a new generation of leaders. Most the current leadership in the major political parties is getting old. Political fatigue is quite evident if one looks beyond the manufactured excitement of television news. Even many of the relatively younger leaders cut their teeth during the Emergency years, nearly 35 years ago. Old age is not necessarily a negative. Neither Narasimha Rao nor Atal Bihari Vajpayee was young when they led their respective governments with great political skill. The former has been airbrushed out of history by the information commissars of the Congress while the latter has been forgotten by the Bharatiya Janata Party.
However, there is little doubt that Indian politics needs a dose of youth. India has one of the youngest populations in the world but also one of the most elderly political leaderships. Look at the vintage of our current netas. Manmohan Singh was born in 1932, Pranab Mukherjee in 1935 and P. Chidambaram in 1945. The 84-year old L.K. Advani still has an eye on the top job. Arun Jaitley is pushing 60. So is Sushma Swaraj. Prakash Karat is 63. The 40-year old Rahul Gandhi is still considered a youth leader, even though his father became prime minister at that age. Compare them with Barack Obama (born 1961), David Cameron (1966) and Angela Merkel (1954).
Another point of comparison is the leadership in Indian companies. Cyrus Mistry is 43. Mukesh Ambani and Sunil Mittal are 54. Anil Ambani is two years their junior while Anand Mahindra is two years their senior. Anil Agarwal was born in 1954. Even younger business leaders such as Rajiv and Sanjiv Bajaj are driving change in their companies. Most of the current crop of Indian business leaders was in their 40s when they stepped into leadership roles.
Around this time next year, China will have completed a leadership change that will see a fifth generation take over the reins of power, after the regimes led by Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Most of the new Chinese leaders who are expected to take over in 2012 have been born in the late 1950s. Also, many of the new leadership will either be princelings who have been born into the top echelons of the Chinese communist party or regional leaders who have already run large regional governments such as Guangdong.
India has seen three generations at the helm in the past six decades, with some overlaps. The first generation of leaders came up from the freedom movement: Nehru, Patel and Rajaji, for example. They were followed by the generation of Indira Gandhi, Ram Manohar Lohia, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Jayaprakash Narayan. The third generation could be said to have its roots in the Emergency years and then the early Rajiv Gandhi years: P. Chidambaram, V.P. Singh, Arun Jaitley, Lalu Yadav, Sharad Yadav, and Mulayam Singh Yadav.
There is no doubt that there is a new lot waiting in the wings. Many are our own princelings, the progeny of powerful political families that control quasi-independent political machines. That is what we have in common with the Chinese fifth generation. Many have studied in top global universities, like their counterparts across the Himalayas. But what our princelings are lacking is solid administrative experience.
That could be a weak spot. Nothing captures this better than the example of Rahul Gandhi, whose name keeps being mentioned as a future prime minister but whose administrative experience is limited to party affairs. His views of major national challenges are unclear to the general public. For now, he is better known for eye-catching acts such as dining in the huts of the poor, riding pillion through the badlands of Uttar Pradesh or taking the local train in Mumbai.
India has travelled a long distance since 1991, as an economy, as a global player and as a society. Nearly half of our 1.2 billion citizens have been born after 1985; they have few memories of the early hopes of Nehruvian socialism, the institutionalized scarcity of a planned economy, the Hindu mobilization by the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the convulsions before and during the Emergency, the economic crisis of 1991, or any of the other major events that raised political tempers a couple of decades ago.
Inevitably, this new generation has new aspirations, new concerns and new ways of thinking. It will also seek a new set of political leaders.