November 14, 2008 11:55:01 pm
The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage…” That was a great speech by a great orator and is being quoted again now. At the time of his inaugural address in January 1961, John F. Kennedy was 43. “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.” That’s a quote from another great speech by another great orator. At the time of the “tryst with destiny” speech, Jawaharlal Nehru was 58. Both speeches figure in collections of great 20th century speeches. And who knows? President-elect Barack Obama’s inaugural address might well figure in a collection of great 21st century speeches.
There is no need to restate what has been said several times: forty-seven-year-old Obama’s convincing win was driven by a vote for change by the young. What Obama subsequently does with his policies, economic or otherwise, is a different matter. The Bible says, “Your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions”. There are valid comparisons to be made, not only between Obama and Kennedy, but also between India now and US of the early 1960s. And one doesn’t mean lunar missions alone. As in post-World War II US, the drive, if not the torch, has passed to a new generation of Indians. Quite often, people say India is one of the youngest countries in the world, with a median age of 24.9 and with 70 per cent of the population below 30. Factually, that’s not true. India isn’t one of the youngest countries in the world. Other countries are younger. However, India is one of the youngest among major countries. Just as India isn’t the second-fastest growing economy in the world; it is the second-fastest among large economies. This new generation of Indians wasn’t born in this century. But it was either born after 1991 or grew up in that liberalisation decade, entering either the consumption stream or the work-force in an era of satellite television and globalisation.
This generation is indeed proud of India’s ancient heritage, undistorted by a chip on shoulders about India’s colonial past. It also happens to identify more with the US, though not necessarily with US government policies. This moment of demographic transition does come rarely in history.
In the economic domain India has stepped from the old to the new. The promised tryst with destiny wasn’t fulfilled even in half-measures. But now the pledge might well be redeemed. Assorted estimates float around, explaining India’s movement to a higher growth trajectory since 1991, and especially since 2003. What these still don’t handle satisfactorily is demographic shift and what this does to entrepreneurship. A friend told me he noticed a sharp change in names cited by the young, in a large and robust sample, as role models. Post-1991, business leaders figure prominently. As in China of the 1980s, it may not be glorious to be rich, but one needn’t be defensive about prosperity and opportunities. These young people have dreams. But does political leadership have the vision to sell them a message about India, as Kennedy did and as Obama has now done?
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When was the last time such a message resonated with the young? Within political leadership proper, the last such occasion was Rajiv Gandhi, when he became prime minister at the age of 40. Consequently, the vacuum was filled by President Abdul Kalam, still a role model among the young. A senior economist once told me, “When I was 50, I used to wonder when the old fogeys would get out of the way. When I was 70, I realised I still have a lot to contribute to society.” Increasing life expectancies and no exit policies among politicians is part of the problem, though a premium on age isn’t limited to politics. Dr Manmohan Singh became chief economic adviser at 40, finance secretary at 45, RBI governor at 50 and deputy chairman of the Planning Commission at 53. He may have been exceptional. However, there are other exceptional people too. Are these positions at these ages likely today? The answer is unambiguously no. In policy-making, the age premium was dispensed with in the India of the late 1950s, early 1960s and mid to late 1980s. Rather perversely, in post-reform India, it has crept back again.
If one asks around about turning points in post-Independence Indian history, different people will give different answers, depending partly on their age profiles — Partition, Emergency, Blue Star, Babri Masjid, liberalisation. Obviously, if policy-formulation is coloured by the colonial legacy, partition, Cold War and the non-aligned movement, there will be a disconnect between what young India wants and what political leadership thinks is important. You can’t hope to drive on expressways in fifth gear if the eye is constantly on the rear-view mirror. A political leader who is 65 is typically described as a young leader; rarely does one attain full ministerial positions (ministers of state don’t count) until becoming 65. By that token, we won’t have a post-Independence generation in policy-making positions till 2013. This is in contrast to rest of the world, China included, where gerontocracy doesn’t reign supreme. What is odd is there are plenty of young leaders among all major political parties and average age of MPs has dropped a bit. Unfortunately, inner-party democracy (or its lack) and decision-making processes are such that young leadership isn’t allowed to take over. The torch isn’t passed on.
Left to itself, status quo will continue, as will disconnect, and political leadership won’t be able to sell the Indian dream. As with FRBM or the size of cabinets, should one look for legislative solutions? Perhaps a maximum, rather than minimum age, for being MP or MLA? That isn’t likely to find too many takers. Can one then think of a maximum number of terms as an MP or MLA? If retirement has logic everywhere, why not in politics too?
The writer is a noted economist
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