Indian politics trapped in a Bhishma Pitamah syndrome

Indian politics trapped in a Bhishma Pitamah syndrome

He couldn’t speak, could barely walk, this was a lion in the winter of life being almost pushed to perform one last time on the big stage. He was obviously ill, needed to be cared for, but instead was being asked to defy age and poor health. The only question that many of us who had tracked the controversial, but always charismatic politician could ask was: is this how a senior public figure must fade away?

George Fernandes, after all, is a life story that few Bollywood scripts would be able to match. The teenager who was sent to a seminary to train as a priest, but then rebelled and became a trade union activist instead. The young man who came to Mumbai with eight annas in his pocket, slept on the pavement and then built a workers’ movement that would bring the country’s commercial capital to a halt.
The flamboyant politician who became ‘George, the Giant Killer’ after he defeated Mumbai's reigning political badshah S K Patil in the 1967 elections. The ultimate anti-establishment hero during the Emergency, it was the image of a George in chains that became symbolic of the political repression of the period.

Through all the twists and turns, from being the fiery socialist who drove out Coca Cola to being an NDA fellow-traveller, from leading anti-corruption agitations to being accused of corruption in defence deals, George Fernandes enjoyed the arclights, relished a challenge, took pride in being perhaps the last political iconoclast (who else but George as the country’s defence minister would have allowed his official residence to be used as a home for Burmese and Tibetan rebels?)  And yet, today, at the age of 79, Fernandes is being reduced to a pathetic lonely figure, a cruel reminder of how nothing is permanent in life.

Old age retirement home?
The Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar has hinted that the decision to make ‘Georgesaab’ a Rajya Sabha member was a form of ‘guru-dakshina’ to a mentor. Admirable sentiments, although only a few months earlier, Nitish had refused to give a Lok Sabha ticket to his ‘guru,’ saying he was too ill. Are we then to understand that the Rajya Sabha, or the council of elders, is an old-age retirement home, much like the Raj Bhavans have become? The larger question: do our politicians have a retirement age, or are they expected to soldier on till the very end?

Let me suggest that Indian politics (like much of our society) is trapped in a Bhishma Pitamah syndrome. Many senior citizens may beg to differ, but most Indians do rightfully revere and respect the aged. The idea of a pater familias who will be our compass through life is a powerful one; we expect our elders to offer wisdom gleaned from experience. But an over-emphasis on age is also proving debilitating to a young society.
Take the Indian left for example. Part of the problem is that there has been little attempt to re-energise their leadership, to allow newer voices to emerge. A Jyoti Basu could perhaps have continued as West Bengal chief minister and politburo member for an eternity, simply because there was a lurking fear within the Marxist ranks of what life would be like without Jyotibabu at the helm. The West Bengal left patriarch eventually opted out himself, but how many others are willing to say goodbye?
Family-run regional parties, driven by the cult of personality, are particularly prone to being unable to shake off the burden of age. An octogenarian Karunanidhi must stay on, even if he is confined to a wheelchair, out of concern that his ‘retirement’ from politics will spark off a succession war. A Bal Thackeray must still be the face of the Shiv Sena, even if he is too physically weak to campaign, because he alone commands the authority to hold the party together.

Even the two major national parties are facing a similar predicament. The BJP’s failure to effect a smooth generational transfer of leadership is partly because the party has been so dependent on the Vajpayee-Advani duo for more than four decades that it cannot quite come to terms with a situation where its two principal leaders are no longer around.

The Congress, on the other hand, may have identified Rahul Gandhi as their next generation leader, but the formation of the Manmohan Singh cabinet only confirms the compulsions of having to accommodate political ‘seniors.’ If it was the image of an ageing Arjun Singh which haunted the first UPA government, this time its 77-year-old SM Krishna, who is struggling to cope up with the demands of a high-profile ministry.
This is not to suggest that the answer lies by simply effecting a radical generational shift in our politics. Many of our ‘young’ MPs are still beneficiaries of being members of political dynasties, and have not really earned their spurs in the rough and tumble of public life. Give me a ‘wise’ Pranab Mukherjee any day over some of our camera-friendly but still raw young MPs.

Letting ideas rule
The real solution lies in moving away from a feudal attachment to age to a modern commitment to ideas. Choose MPs, ministers, indeed, any professional leader, on the basis of their ability to generate new thoughts and implement them successfully, irrespective of their age.

A George Fernandes will be remembered because he gave the trade union movement in the 60s a certain dynamism and spirited leadership. A George Fernandes will not be remembered because he chose the sinecure of a Rajya Sabha membership despite failing health.

(The writer is Editor-in-Chief, IBN Network)