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Age-old problems

India's aged rulers don't seem to have cottoned on to the winds of change

Kanika Datta
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Educated Indians are proud of their , and it remains a big selling point in global destinations, especially vis-à-vis China (our own emerging Great Satan). Increasingly, though, it is hard to escape the impression that there's a disconnect between what our elected politicians are offering and what those who elect them really need. Much of that has to do with a glaring demographic mismatch.

The Cabinet Committee on Investment () is a case in point. Set up in January this year to help undo the many glitches that have stalled large projects (those over Rs 1,000 crore), it has been hard at work, going by the Cabinet Secretariat's note (updated only to March 22). None of this appears to have made a significant impression on investor sentiment either in India or abroad, yet.

The "status" note makes depressing reading because many of the problems delineated there are more than two decades old - in resource pricing, for instance, infrastructure subsidies, or compensation norms for land losers to industrial projects and so on. The solutions for many of these problems are obvious too, only in India they appear to acquire an unwarrantedly radical hue because they are rooted in anachronistic politics. And the advanced vintage of the CCI members explains why this institution is unlikely to achieve the kind of drastic improvements the economy badly needs. Now, these members represent key ministries, the ones that can make a difference to . Headed by a prime minister who is 81 years old, seven of the 16 members are over 70. Another six are between 65 and 68 years and the remaining three are between 60 and 63 years.

Note the absence of anyone in their fifties, forties or thirties - in a country in which 65 per cent of the is below 30 years of age. There are, however, three "special invitees" who are slightly younger. One is Jayanthi Natarajan, minister of environment and forests, who is 59. The other two are Jyotiraditya Scindia, minister of state (independent charge) of power, and Manish Tewari, minister of state for information and broadcasting, who, at 42 and 48 respectively, are positive youthful. But this average is skewed by the fourth special invitee, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, who will be 70 this year (though, to be fair, he is not an elected representative).

The contrast with the is striking. A quick list of the heads of the top 10 private sector companies shows an age range between 44 and 68 years. The former is the age of Cyrus Mistry, the new chairman of the country's largest corporate group for whom Ratan Tata made way when he reached 75 years (the upper end of this band is accounted for by Larsen & Toubro's current CEO and managing director, K Venkataramanan, who has the felicity of retiring before his chairman A M Naik.

The managing director of Tata Motors, the largest company in the Tata group, is 51 years old and Sunil Bharti Mittal, who runs the country's largest mobile phone business, is 55 years old. Now, it is fair to say that this age range looks respectable only because most corporations mandate a retirement age for their chief executives under their governance rules. But there's a good reason for these rules; all institutions need fresh ideas and ways of doing things and that applies as much to politics as well.

Readers may point to the fact that Manmohan Singh is considered a reformer. But his best work was over two decades old - when Dr Singh was in his early sixties. When P Chidambaram, another reputed reformer, read his "Dream Budget" of 1997, he was in his early fifties. They have not demonstrated striking new ideas since. Chandrababu Naidu, the first of the truly reform-minded state chief ministers, was 45 when he set about making Hyderabad an infotech hub. By the same token, it could be said that former West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's inability to sell reforms to his party and its left partners had much to do with the patently geriatric state of most of his colleagues.

The fact is that young India, rural and urban, is not interested in the old touchstones of entitlements and identity politics. Like Russia's ancient nomenklatura of the seventies and eighties, India's don't seem to have cottoned on to the winds of change. This is a truth both Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar, now in their early sixties, understood at least a decade ago. Ironically, although they are bidding fair to emerging as implacable enemies (this may change, of course; there are no permanent enemies in politics), both have tried to alter the terms of the political discourse in ways that are more likely to resonate with the people who will be India's future. You may or may not agree with their techniques, but anyone who ignores the waves they're riding are kidding themselves.

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