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  India   All India  09 Nov 2017  As youthful Indian states go to polls, elderly leaders enjoy political power

As youthful Indian states go to polls, elderly leaders enjoy political power

AFP
Published : Nov 9, 2017, 5:29 pm IST
Updated : Nov 9, 2017, 5:29 pm IST

Personal networks and relationships nurtured by politicians over a long time are trusted more by people over youth and the system.

 India's oldest chief minister Virbhadra Singh is on the campaign trail, one of a number of ageing men still clinging to power in the youthful country. (Photo: File)
  India's oldest chief minister Virbhadra Singh is on the campaign trail, one of a number of ageing men still clinging to power in the youthful country. (Photo: File)

Paonta Sahib (Himachal Pradesh): At an age when most people are enjoying retirement, country's oldest chief minister Virbhadra Singh is on the campaign trail, one of a number of ageing men still clinging to power in the youthful country.

At 83, he is hoping to snare a seventh term at the helm of Himachal Pradesh when the state that he has ruled for years, goes to the polls on Thursday.

Singh, a stalwart of the Congress Party that has held national power for much of independent India's history, is far from alone.

Around two-thirds of India's population is aged under 35, making it one of the youngest countries in the world.

But many of the its top regional leaders are elderly products of a quasi-dynastic system of rule that took root in the twentieth century and now appears at odds with its youthful population.

Earlier this year, the neighbouring state of Punjab, home to 28 million people, voted out its 89-year-old five-time chief minister Prakash Singh Badal.

His successor, Amarinder Singh, is the 75-year-old scion of a family that once ruled the princely state of Patiala -- now part of Punjab.

Virbhadra Singh is himself descended from the royal family that ruled a part of Himachal Pradesh until independence, and he admits his heritage has helped his political career.

"The people respect me. They respect my family and lineage," he said during a brief break from campaigning in the state, where campaign hoardings refer to him as Raja Sahib -- a royal title.

Nistula Hebbar, political editor of The Hindu, said older candidates had a natural advantage because personal relationships were still hugely important in getting things done on the ground.

"As a society, we are a gerontocracy that still worships the grey and considers its advice sagely. And this clearly reflects in our politics too," Hebbar said.

"Our state's poor record in delivery (of services) also ensures that the personal networks and relationships nurtured by politicians over a long time are still trusted more by the people over youth and the system," he added.

Political patricide

Most of the leaders do not have royal titles, but a large number are the products of political dynasties that have proved remarkably resilient.

At 94, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, five-time former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, remains a key political player as leader of the opposition DMK.

His 64-year-old son, MK Stalin, is positioning himself as the political heir -- and appears to have met little popular resistance.

Meanwhile campaigning for elections in Uttar Pradesh was dominated by a bitter intergenerational power struggle earlier this year.

Akhilesh Yadav, 44, carried out a hostile takeover of Samajwadi Party formed by his 77-year-old father, Mulayam Singh Yadav -- a manoeuvre that some termed as political patricide.

Rahul Gandhi is reported to have tried to push for younger regional leaders after the Congress Party suffered a heavy defeat to the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2014 national election. But he was eventually forced to back down in the face of stiff internal resistance. His 70-year-old mother, Sonia Gandhi remains party president despite persistent rumours of her imminent retirement.

"Sadly, we don't believe in graceful retirement or riding into the sunset after a well-played innings," said veteran journalist Kanchan Gupta.

"Also linked to this is the fact that our politics is about patronising and favour dispensation. It is all about why I am voting for someone and what I can get out of it," he said.

The views of voters at a rally for Singh in Paonta Sahib, an industrial town in Himachal Pradesh, appear to bear that out.

"We back anyone he says as he is someone who stays reachable and gets our issues resolved even when other local officials don't listen," one said.

At the end of a packed day the octogenarian appeared tired, but he insisted he could still cope with the gruelling demands of the campaign trail.

Besides, at 73, his main challenger, Prem Kumar Dhumal of BJP, is no spring chicken either.

"I still campaign with all my seriousness and participate till the very last programme," Singh said, "Whatever I do, I do it slow and steady."

Tags: virbhadra singh, rahul gandhi, sonia gandhi, akhilesh yadav, elder leaders, dynastic rule
Location: India, Himachal Pradesh