Age no bar
While the approaching US Presidential Elections have brought the factor of age to the centre stage, innumerable examples show that it is moral leadership and not age that matters
If candidates to the 59th US Presidential inauguration on January 20, 2021, were to belong to the ruling party of India, neither would make the 'age' cut. Republican nominee, Donald Trump, would turn 75 in a few months thereafter, whereas the Democrat Nominee, Joe Biden, would be 78 by then — both would be candidates for 'Mardarshak Mandal' in the Indian political context. Ironically, the 5000-year-old civilization whose foundational shastras insisted on age-acquired wisdom for leadership has made 'youthfulness' the definitive political currency, whereas 'Young America' is comfortable persisting with geriatrics either continuing 'rebuilding the nation' or battling to 'save the soul of the nation'. Globally, there is a wide disparity with the likes of the 33-year-old Chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, or the 34-year-old Finnish Prime Minister, Sanna Marin — whereas the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Ahmad and Cuban President Raul Castro are going strong at 91 and 89 years, respectively. Meanwhile intrigues and tensions between the so-called 'old guard' and the 'new guard' play out subliminally within India's principal opposition party. So far 'age' is more tactically important for the dominant Indian politicians within their own parties, then perhaps for the citizenry, in equal intensity.
Age is not an irrelevant question, given that high political offices are responsible for the most transformational and impactful decisions or indecisions. Cognitive health, energy levels and mental acuity do matter. In parallel, it is scientifically proven that wisdom comes with age and experience as 'seniors' are usually more adept at taking strategic and complex decisions, which necessitate a holistic and futuristic perspective, at all times. The mercurial Mahathir Mohamad, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia who stormed back to office a nonagenarian, and only resigned a few months back at 95 is working on yet another comeback with his recently launched, Party of Homeland Fighter's (PEJUANG). Malaysia's infamy as the most obese nation in Asia is contradicted by the ramrod straight, wiry and quintessential grand old man of politics, Mahathir, who insists, 'To prevent deterioration of the brain, be active, talk, read and write, solve problems, argue and debate'. Clearly, age is but a number for some and yet, a political consideration for others.
President Donald Trump has focused his campaign assault on rival Joe Biden's purportedly diminished mental capacity by routinely calling him 'Sleepy Joe'. Trump's friendly troll-army is targeting Biden, potentially the oldest US President-to-be, with insinuations from progressive senility, Alzheimer, dementia to sheer physical incapability to withstand the pressures of the still most important office in the world. It does not help matters that Joe Biden is occasionally gaffe-prone, but how much of that has to do with age or with a momentary lapse of better judgement or fluency, is a matter of opinion. Donald Trump (oldest first-term President in US history) himself is no poster boy for good health or fitness — last year 350 psychiatrists and mental professionals had taken out a medical statement concerning Trump's 'destructive impulses', 'narcissistic rages' and an overall mental status that 'could lead to catastrophic outcomes'. Beyond the shrill competitive rhetoric that is deeply personal and accusative, both the candidates are dialling up their physical optics to suggest, otherwise. Given that both are beyond the prime of their youth, perhaps the domain of maturity, empathy and professionalism are more relevant leadership traits that need consideration.
Age is also often oversimplified to suggest lacking progressive ideas and administrative creativity. The undisputable youth icon in American Politics is the also-ran Democrat candidate, 78 years 'young' Bernie Sanders with two stents, after a heart attack. Sanders champions the issues that matter to the youth like education costs, healthcare costs, green new deal legislation, labour rights, international pacifism and dialogue etc., and despite his throwing in the towel in the Presidential race, his appeal amongst the youth for his progressive positions remains durable. President Donald Trump inadvertently paid Bernie Sanders an unintentional left-handed compliment when he railed against Joe Biden's running mate, Kamala Harris when he said Kamala is 'more liberal than Bernie Sanders'!
In India too, the economic progress was the doings of the 71-year 'Father of economic reforms', PV Narasimha Rao whereas the progressively inclusive and healing political creativity of a 'Kashmiriyat, Insaniyat, Jamhoriyat' was the brainchild of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, inching then towards 80. Whereas the much-bandied youth leaders of all political parties in the last couple of years have failed to sustain the expectations based on their performance, progressive ideas or creativity. Most recent political success, be it at the national level or at the regional level is attributable to appealing to the revisionist, religion-ethnic or regional instincts as opposed to firing the imagination with ideas that are either original, path-breaking or those that push the societal envelope of evolution. Today, there is a smattering of relatively young chief ministers in various states, but it would be a struggle to qualitatively differentiate their administrative ingenuity, from those in higher age brackets.
Conversely, wisdom and statesmanship are not the exclusive preserve of geriatrics or above, as exemplified by the leadership of the 40-year-old New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Arden. At the end of the day, it is not age, but 'relatability' and 'suitability' that matters. If Jacinda Arden insists on her now-famous refrain to 'be kind' to suggest emotional maturity, then Angela Merkel's unflappable, sober and controlled minimalism is the required tonic to pull a nation through the unprecedented pandemic. Suitably, Angela Merkel was also a scientific researcher and that perhaps nuanced her actions to the betterment of Germany, whereas Bernie Sanders said that Donald Trump, 'rejected science' and that, 'Nero fiddled while Rome burned; Trump golfs'. Thus, age is not the most relevant factor and as the former US President, Franklin Roosevelt, presciently noted that 'moral leadership' was the most important presidential attribute — this is what the leadership of Jacinda Arden and Angela Merkel demonstrated recently, and this is what even Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, would probably agree.
The writer is the former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. Views expressed are personal