Monday, June 7, 2010

If youth knew, If age could

The genesis of most problems facing the Indian state today can be traced not as much to the presence of ubiquitous corruption and apathy as to the absence of able stewardship. One of the most denuding commentaries on the miscarriage of democracy in India is perhaps the fact that in the six-odd decades since our independence, the people have not failed the state but have failed themselves. Time and time again, we have chosen for ourselves leaders even the best of whom fall woefully short of the expectations of their respective offices.

A cursory look at the incumbents of high office in India reveals the dismal fact that we seem to prefer age over merit. The youngest of our Presidents has been a sprightly 64 while the oldest of our Prime Ministers was a seasoned 81! With the sole exception of Rajiv Gandhi, who elevation to South Block was for the most part through fortuitous circumstances, there has been no other incumbent to have entered upon either of these august offices even in his fiftieth year. In stark contrast are the relatively diminutive ages of leaders across the globe which, in no small measure, are a reflection of the vitality and dynamism of their growth trajectories. Even Abraham Lincoln, whose visage towers over that of the other occupants of the Oval Office much akin to an aging patriarch, was merely 52 at the time of his inauguration.

This is not to say that an advanced age necessarily implies decrepitude or senility. There are abundant examples strewn about history which lay testimony to the benefits that come with time. However, continual doses of a similar approach towards policy can be detrimental. One of the most evident susceptibilities in such a scenario is the widening chasm between the expectations of the populace and the mindset of the leaders, which is mournfully out of sync with the ground realities. Consider M.K. Gandhi-at a time when the entire world had realised the implications of industrial might, he could not shake off his staunch convictions towards individual and cottage industries; so much so that even Rabindranath Tagore, the very man who had christened him “Mahatama”, wrote a scathing article condemning “The Cult of the Charkha” that Gandhi was perpetrating.

Another problem with choosing leaders approaching the twilight of their lives is the burden of expectations and obligations that they each carry. The road to the top is fraught with many an impediment and in the cumulative journeys of a few decades, any individual would find himself saddled with the ghosts of antiquated aspirations as also the need to oblige those who stood by him along the way. So pervasive is this phenomenon that while the world has long outgrown the traditional “spoils” system, we in India view such instances of nepotism as valid compense for fidelity and support. Perhaps it was similar considerations that led Vajpayee to shower onto Advani the oblivious indulgence that may well have given us, just last year, an 82 year old PM-regardless of his egocentric ambitions, his specious secularism and his middling record as Home Minister.

But the most damning effect of over-ripened leadership is its proclivity towards a patronizingly paternal instinct. Too often have our leaders chosen to direct our destinies onto paths that were in sharp conflict with their mandate. Personal preferences are given the impression of national policy and thrust upon an impotent populace. Nehru gave us dams when we were hungry, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed allowed Indira to rule by decree, Rajiv took us to fight the Tamils and Manmohan Singh feels that focussing solely on the abjectly penurious is adequate. Towering personalities all, their charisma alone nullifies any chance of a protest against their vision, no matter how ill-conceived the intent may be.

Plato, writing at the time of the very inception of democratic ideals, said that the guardians of the state must be unaffected by and impervious to their past. They should, instead, be groomed in the art of administration and taught to apply themselves to the milieu in which they operate. Furthermore, in doing so, they should look upon those who they govern with a certain sense of detachment so as not to yield to sentiments of either dominance or compassion. Naturally, the earlier such incumbents enter upon their office, the lesser their chance of being conditioned by the extant system.

And it is exactly this form of disinterested guardianship that India most severely needs at the moment. A breed of individuals specially reared and trained for the sole purpose of governance. Prepared for the high offices they are ordained to occupy through the rigours of hard study and discipline. Free of prejudice, unencumbered by their precedents. And cognisant of the fact that the foremost task of those who govern is to govern themselves.

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