Sucheta Dalal :A retirement plan for Indian politicians
Sucheta Dalal

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A retirement plan for Indian politicians  

October 10, 2001

A good head-hunter will tell you that anyone who is 55-plus is no longer in the reckoning for coveted posts to head multi-billion global corporations.

You could call it an after-effect of the dot-com era when CEO-entrepreneurs floating mega plans were in their twenties and thirties, but the fact is that an ideal age for today's CEO is his/her forties.

Human resource experts around the world have set exacting standards for CEOs; and the process of identifying and grooming a suitable CEO is down to a science.

The qualifications are daunting - they must be dynamic, must be visionaries and strategic thinkers, and be able to handle high-pressure situations.

In addition, they have to be risk-takers who can make lightning-fast decisions which turn out right -- as they preside over empires that source goods, services and raw material from around the globe and deal with a few hundred thousand employees of diverse cultural, social and ethnic backgrounds.

Yet, all these requirements pale in comparison with what is expected from a political Head of State. Apart from managing the politics of simply hanging on to the posts, s/he is expected to provide economic leadership, be skilled at economic diplomacy, plan strategic defense initiatives and at the same time manage a nation's internal issues such as social and civic welfare, health, education, labour and unemployment management.

Simply put, the job requirement of a Head of State is far more exacting than that of a corporate CEO.

Most successful nations have grasped this reality and select their leaders accordingly. Just as corporate CEOs are getting younger, political heads of state are also getting younger and being retired well before they are sixty.

Bill Clinton completed two successful terms as the most powerful man in the world before he was 52 and seems to have gone into quiet retirement.

His successor George Bush is also in his fifties. Tony Blair took over as prime minister in his early forties - and he did not need to have the dynastic background of a young Benazir Bhutto.

The leaders of Russia, Japan and even Pakistan are also younger people - and the difference is beginning to show.

When the world, as we knew it changed, after September 11, it also put on display the quality of world leadership --their ability to think clearly and deal with the consequences of fanatical terrorism carried out in the name of a holy war.

Even the insular Americans were learning their geography as they tried to figure out why their country had attracted such a hate-attack.

All of us were jolted into the realisation that Star Wars-type defense shields and high technology are no protection against suicide attacks aimed at mass destruction of people and crippling economic development.

We have watched with interest how leaders of different nations dealt with a never-before situation; how they talked to their people; whether they reassured them, if they succeeded in conveying their national concerns and or spell out their determination to root out terrorism.

The verdict is that the heads of most leading nations have come out with flying colours. Not everyone achieved the heights of New York Mayor Rudolph W Giuliani, but President George Bush certainly grew in stature.

Tony Blair seemed to have embarked on his own jihad against terrorism as he went around the world co-opting support for America's military action against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Pervez Musharraf too came out well.

Not content with telling India to lay off, he used an untenable situation to extract monetary advantages for Pakistan. Moreover, he also kept Pakistan from being officially tagged a 'terrorist state' in the face of ever mounting evidence of its close nexus with deadly terrorist groups.

Contrast this with our leadership. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the ripe age of 76-plus simply seems way beyond what his job demands of him. Whether he is addressing the nation or attending the late
Madhav Rao Scindia's funeral - the prime minister looks ill and tired.

There is no sign of the charismatic poet and orator with an unblemished record of always being a gentleman, who strode the political arena for half a century. In his place is someone who seems to be holding on to the job, only because the hotchpotch coalition that his party leads, cannot find a suitable replacement.

Our policies reflect this lethargy and disinterest. We appear to be whining and bleating about Pakistan and Islamic terrorism when we cannot control a single forest brigand who kills and kidnaps people in the relatively peaceful jungles that divide Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

We rush off to support America's war without being asked and retreat into a petulant sulk when rebuffed. When Pakistan holds out for a multi-billion dollar aid package in exchange for its support, we look foolish again and cover up by adopting the high moral ground (we have not attached conditions for our support).

Things are so bad, that the young Omar Abdullah (Minister of State for External Affairs) always sounds more articulate and appears more statesman-like than Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh (Minister for External Affairs). Whether it was Kandahar, where we released terrorists and also apparently paid them off, or the Agra Summit - we have been incompetent. And it does not diminish anybody's national pride or patriotism to criticise incompetence. India has a lot to be proud about, but our leaders need to give us a chance to be proud of their leadership.

We, in India, believe that age brings wisdom with it - that may well be true, but a PM's job requires more than wisdom - it requires dynamism, swift decision-making and the ability to convey confidence. Also, we can always access the wisdom and experience of senior leaders by seeking their advice on issues.

India is a large and populous nation whose prime minister presides over more ethnic, social and religious diversities and inequalities than any other world leader. Yet, while we retire our best bureaucrats and corporate CEOs at 60 or 65, we allow our prime ministers and Presidents to continue for decades after a logical retirement. Which is probably why, for all our potential, we are singularly lacking in dynamism and decision-making.

Would we have tolerated some of our prime ministers if they had been the CEOs of a billion-person professionally managed company?

If India has to get out of the economic rut that it finds itself in, we need high quality leadership and we need it quickly. We need prime ministers who will focus on national interest and groom suitable successors rather than suppress young talent and leadership because they want to hang on to their jobs forever.

Let us not mourn anymore 'future prime ministers', but elect them to the job when they are still alive. And for heaven's sake let us stop describing politicians in their mid to late fifties as youthful politicians who will be ripe for leadership a couple of decades later.

-- Sucheta Dalal