Why is a country as young as India ruled by the elderly?
Like most people around the world, I was shocked last month when Pope Benedict XVI said he would step down from the papacy. But his departure, which has opened the way for the first Roman Catholic leader from South America, was principled: Benedict admitted that at age 85, his powers were falling victim to age.
His candour and humility, it seems to me, reflects poorly on India's elderly leaders. After all, politics, too, is stressful and demanding. Yet septuagenarian and octogenarian statesmen run most of India's political parties, and hold important portfolios and offices. President Pranab Mukherjee is 78. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 80, won't retire until elections next year. The three previous prime ministers - PV Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Inder Kumar Gujral - were respectively 75, 79 and 77 when they assumed office.
In comparison, Barack Obama was 47 when he became US president. His French counterpart François Hollande is 58. David Cameron was 43 when sworn in as UK prime minister. Russia's Vladimir Putin is 60.
Indian party leaders, too, seem to have vowed to hang around. Lal Krishna Advani of the BJP refuses to retire at 86. The patriarch of the DMK party in Tamil Nadu, M Karunanidhi, wields his powers at 89. In Kerala, CPM leader VS Achuthanandan is 89. The list goes on.
It is an irony for India, with its median age of 26, to be ruled by men well past 65, the country's average male life expectancy.
One reason for this phenomenon may be that in politics, unlike other professions, success comes relatively late, and the journey seldom follows a smooth logical course.
Also, in India, more than in most democracies, political life is seen as dynastic. The most obvious example is the Nehru-Gandhi family, but other powerful dynastic patriarchs include Mulayem Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party in the north, the Thackerays in the west, Mr Karunanidhi of the DMK in the south, and Naveen Patnaik of the Biju Janata Dal in the east. By one estimate, more than 28 per cent of current legislators are related to previous ones. Also, politics is seen as lucrative. A 2009 survey for the Association for Democratic Reforms found that more than half of candidates for re-election to parliament that year reported a 300 per cent increase in their assets since the previous ballot, in 2004.
In 1993, former union home secretary NN Vohra, in a report on the nexus among criminals, politicians and bureaucrats, cited official agency findings that, taken together, showed that a criminal network was virtually running a parallel government. Some criminal gangs, he added, enjoyed the patronage of politicians - of all parties - and the protection of civil servants.
But the key factor in political gerontocracy is probably the old truth that power is an alluring elixir.
The Los Angeles Times reported last year on a Harvard University study which found that despite all the problems of high office, those at the political helm of a country are less stressed and anxious than others.
The researchers concluded that the leaders they studied enjoyed control over their schedules, their daily living circumstances, their financial security, their enterprises and their lives.
"Leaders possess a particular psychological resource - a sense of control - that may buffer against stress," the team reported.
In India, if not elsewhere, there are also elements of the political culture that encourage long careers. Seniority often outweighs accountability. Loyalty carries greater rewards than performance. Past achievements are given more importance than vision for the future.
And yet age does take a toll on professional performance. Last year for example India's then-foreign minister, age 70, read out his Portuguese counterpart's speech at the United Nations. Another time he grew confused about a Pakistani doctor lodged in an Indian jail, saying that Pakistan must consider his release on humanitarian grounds.
It is time for India to have statutory provisions limiting the terms of holders of important portfolios. In the civil service, after all, retirement is mandatory at 60.
Whatever the merits of the elderly, it is the norm in every society to give younger people with ability, determination and desire a chance to prove themselves.
This is true in business, sports, entertainment, and elsewhere. Why exclude politics?
Updated: March 15, 2013 04:00 AM