Of crabbed age and youth
It is not improbable that the age factor will come into play during the decade to come, as a forward-looking generation of leaders, relatively free of the constraints of ethnic and religious feeling, will pitch its claim in the public sphere. India certainly deserves better than a generation of ageing leaders, comments RANJIT HOSKOTE.
THE pot of nectar is worth the cloud of poison. That piece of wisdom, which was good enough for the gods and demons who battled over the spoils while churning the cosmic ocean in the myth of the amrit-manthana, has suited contemporary India's politicians only too well. While the most pressingly material issues have been ritually invoked in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, the first phase of which monumental process begins this Tuesday, the debate has been dominated by a warfare of image and counter-image. The key contenders, the Congress and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), have resorted to a deplorable mutual mud-slinging; the NDA has deployed arguments based on the most appalling inverse racism against Sonia Gandhi. The epic churning of the nectar, it would seem, has degenerated into a crude tug-of-war.
And we, the people, have been urged to subscribe to the dichotomies of this tug-of-war. We are being asked to choose between the cardboard binaries of India Shining and India Whining, the feel-good factor and the all-what-jazz rebuttal. We are being persuaded to select one personality cult over another. Shall we throw in our lot with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, his arm upraised and pointing to unknown horizons in the best traditions of Hitlerite-Stalinist regal portraiture? Or shall we weigh in at the ballot box for Sonia Gandhi, seated among the women of rural India or flanked by her children, aureoled by the still-powerful Nehru-Gandhi charisma?
The National Democratic Alliance, much shrunken, has attempted to veil the aggressive majoritarianism of its main right-wing elements. Its manifesto proposes an international positioning for India; it emphasises the NDA's desire to turn India into a hub for global tourism, the global knowledge industry and global maritime trade, among other dreams. But, at its core, the NDA agenda is still propelled by the imperatives of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the militant symbolism of the Ayodhya issue and the ferocious harping on Sonia Gandhi's foreign origins. The sadhus, with their matted locks and sharpened tridents, are only in abeyance for the duration of the polls. Messrs Togadia, Singhal and Katiyar of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have not abdicated their terrifying claim on India's future; they are merely waiting for the formalities of the electoral process to be concluded.
For its part, the Congress, still the mainstay of liberal-secularist politics, has taken up the cause of the millions deprived of the fruits of globalisation. Its manifesto underscores such goals as a national rainwater harvesting programme, a national irrigation study and low-cost housing. The role reversals involved here are rather entertaining. The globalisation that the BJP now claims as its key plank is the outcome of Congress policy; indeed, in the early 1990s, the current propagandists of India Shining had opposed globalisation bitterly, decrying it in the name of a Swadeshi autonomy. In the meanwhile, the Congress has painted itself into a reactive critique of India's economic gloss; it might at least have affirmed its authorship of the more successful aspects of the present, by way of the Rajiv Gandhi-Manmohan Singh-Narasimha Rao sequence of reforms.
Absorbed as we are in the histrionics of this national-scale tug-of-war, we may have failed to take note of a dimension of the unfolding drama that may, perhaps, bear a far greater significance for India's future. Unremarked, except under the rubric of lineage succession, is the fact that the Congress now boasts a number of young, admittedly untested leaders who bring to the political arena their academic training, their expertise in the corporate world, their engagement with civil-society initiatives; or very simply, if these attributes are lacking, the enduring magic of a charmed genealogy. Among these entrants are Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Milind Deora and, most recently, Rahul Gandhi. Entering the mill of the national elections 20 years after Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister and heralded a transformation of political style and ideological direction in India, these young men re-enact a Rajiv moment in Indian history: like their exemplar, they are, so to speak, dynastic insiders who are outsiders in vision, orientation and practice.
By virtue of their family connections, these young men are bound to the legacy of the Congress; but, from their stated views and their election preparations, they appear not to be hidebound by the grand old party's customary lethargy and inflexibility, its labyrinthine intrigues and satrap sociology. They appear, also, to have improved on their model. Rajiv Gandhi came into a world of khaki-clad and safari-suited politicians with news of the wider universe: an embodiment of buoyant optimism, he favoured gadgetry, sometimes to the point of believing that technology would automatically resolve social disparities; he had to learn how life below the poverty line was led. By contrast, the young Congressmen of today have served their apprenticeship to reality; they seem able to link the urgencies of grass-roots social and political change with evolving global trends in information technology, scientific inquiry, decision-making philosophy and participatory democracy.
Perhaps it is the very fact that the young men of the Congress are untried and inexperienced that makes them so much more appealing, and far more of a source of hope, than the ageing war-leaders on the other side of the amrit-manthana. Perceptions can undergo revolutionary change within a matter of a few brief years. Even in two years' time, for instance, it is difficult to see what India's rapidly greening population could expect of such grey figures as Prime Minister Vajpayee, ever vacillating between vague lyrical moderation and a more hard-line Sangh Parivar attitude, and L.K. Advani, master of the theatrical chariot-pilgrimage, who has had to abandon his hysterical anti-Pakistan position after the U.S. ordered the bellicose South Asian nuclear states to brush aside their differences and make peace. As for the supposedly younger generation of BJP leaders, we are offered Pramod Mahajan and Arun Jaitley, whose gift for rhetorical flourish far outstrips their achievements. And there is Narendra Modi, whose government watched while pogroms of unprecedented brutality were visited upon the Muslim minority in Gujarat after the Godhra episode, and whose vituperations against Sonia Gandhi have shamed even his own party colleagues.
Youth has always been a relative term in Indian political culture, where power has traditionally been wielded by gerontocrats while capable men in their 50s have often been regarded as still too immature to serve the demands of high office. But the younger generation of Congressmen its members are in their 20s and 30s imparts verisimilitude to the definition. These young leaders-in-the-making inspire confidence in the possibility of a liberal-secularist Congress emerging resurgent from its ruins, dedicating itself once more to the ideal of an inclusive and compassionate republic. And even if this is only wishful thinking, only a hope, we must recall that hope is one of those small transcendences of brute necessity that imbue life with meaning.
By contrast with Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Milind Deora and Rahul Gandhi, the BJP's much-vaunted "younger generation" of leaders Mahajan, Jaitley, Modi appears seriously overage. And perhaps we ought, also, to subject to scrutiny the qualitative meaning of the term "experience", as applied to leaders experienced in the ways of Indian political culture. Surely there cannot be very much to cherish in such experience, if we are to judge by the sorry record of misgovernance, unresolved issues of opportunity and entitlement, motivated cultural re-engineering and tacit approval of genocide, variously displayed by the BJP and some of its allies at the centre and at the state level through the last decade.
I am not, for a moment, suggesting that the confrontation between "crabbed age and youth" will feature as one of the more prominent motifs of the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. On the contrary, there is little doubt that these national elections will be fought along the time-honoured and speech-sanctified lines of regional sentiment, caste interest and communitarian insecurity.
But it is not improbable that the age factor will come into play during the decade to come, as a forward-looking generation of leaders, relatively free of the constraints of ethnic and religious feeling, will pitch its claim in the public sphere. India deserves better than what it has got, as we will soon be telling ourselves, once the saturation bombardment of the India Shining ad campaign has receded in memory, and the euphoria of the India-Pakistan cricket series has died down.
We will come round to the realisation that India certainly deserves better than a generation of ageing leaders who remain committed to divisive social agendas and retrograde cultural visions, trapped in an ultra-nationalist rhetoric that compensates for an abject submission before the U.S. imperial mandate.
A widespread and inclusive progress may have eluded India for the greater part of its post-colonial history; but, disempowered as they are, the Indian people cannot long be deluded into mistaking the cloud of poison for the pot of nectar.
The Congress has already learned that humbling and sobering lesson, to its cost, several times over; the NDA may be flushed by a belief in its own infallibility, but its turn will come, in time.
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