Pope Benedict shows the way

Pankaj Sharma & Ajay Vaishnav / Zee Research Group

In Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to announce his retirement citing poor health and old age lays a powerful message for India’s aging politicians: don’t hang around till you expire.

The 85-year-old Joseph A Ratzinger, who currently serves as the 265th head of the Catholic Church and sovereign of the Vatican City State, thinks that “both strength of mind and body are necessary” to do the job well, and “I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.”

On a lighter note, the Pope probably wanted to avoid an SM Krishna-type error. For the uninitiated, our former minister of external affairs read out his Portuguese counterpart’s speech at the United Nations.

How many aging patriarchs of Indian politics will think and, more importantly, act like Pope Benedict? Isn’t it ironical that despite having one of the youngest populations in the world, India continues to be ruled by gerontocratic elites?

Octogenarian and septuagenarian politicians run most of our political outfits and hold important portfolios and offices across the country. While the Republic’s President Pranab Mukherjee is 78, incumbent Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh is 80 years old. Three of our last four prime ministers before Dr Singh were septuagenarians when they demitted office. While PV Narasimha Rao was 75, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Inder Kumar Gujral were 79 and 77 respectively.

Compare that to Britain’s David Cameron who was 43 when sworn in as prime minister in 2010. At 43, Cameron’s predecessor Tony Blair became Britain’s youngest prime minister since Lord Liverpool in 1812.

US President Barack Obama was 47 when he entered the White House while his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin is currently 60. Putin, when he first became Russian president, was 48. Even the average age of communist China’s top leadership has reduced in recent years. Chinese President Hu Jintao will be 69 when he hands over the reins of power to the 59-year-old Xi Jinping in March later this year.

The average age of UPA-II’s council of ministers has hovered around 59 to 60 with mostly septuagenarians occupying key portfolios like defence, finance, home and external affairs in recent years. Thanks to the last Cabinet reshuffle, the finance and external affairs can now boast of slightly younger ministers at the helm.

The state of provincial governments and politics in India isn’t too different. Whether it is 88 years old DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi or 89 years old Kerala CPM leader VS Achuthanandan or Akali Dal’s 85 year old Prakash Singh Badal, elderly politicians dominate the scene.

The definition of ‘young’ in the context of the Indian Cabinet comes by default. Those who are not in septuagenarian or octogenarian age bracket automatically are considered young ministers. Therefore, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid at 60 or Finance Minister P Chidambaram at 67 are considered relatively younger.

The lack of enabling statutory provisions limiting terms for important offices and positions has further helped elderly politicians retain the grip on the polity. Shouldn’t we start questioning, if the standard retirement age for government personnel is around 60, why our politicians be an exception? Shouldn’t there be physical fitness and health benchmarks to assess the suitability of a candidate for the ministerial job at hand?