India's leaders-in-waiting

Shashi Tharoor induces a dozen young parliamentarians to embark on this visioning exercise. Digging deep into their textbooks, the youthful politicians outline their dreams for India. Informatively, they list developmental challenges and, with sincerity and passion, prescribe solutions. The end result is a reflection of the thinking of leaders of tomorrow and a thorough, if somewhat simplistic, wish-list of interventions to advance India on the path to their utopia.

Democracy’s strength lies in its capacity to build and adapt institutions. Tharoor himself has in the past challenged the prevailing “dysfunctional institutional equilibrium” (in the words of Francis Fukuyama) and called for systemic reform to meet the need of the times. In his preface to the book under review, Tharoor points to the putative regression of India from ‘emerging market’ to ‘submerging polity’, and wonders: “Where do young political leaders in India fit into this uncertain future?” If this book comprises of pious platitudes of political naifs, it must be held against Tharoor that he did not goad his contributors to introspect deeply enough.

True, a couple of writers voice concerns about corruption and express discomfort at rubbing shoulders with alleged criminals in Parliament. Some lament the increasing divisiveness and sectarianism of political mobilisation. Kalikesh Singh Deo worries that “the credibility of the political class is at its lowest” and mentions the “crying need for introspection”. Milind Deora upbraids “parties that stratify societies for electoral gain”. Jay Panda is confident that the dynamics of politics will be determined in the future by development and governance. Many argue for inclusiveness and empowerment. But all seem chary of touching on how to fix the rot in the innards of the system.

Nine of the 12 parliamentarians in the book are from so-called political families. Understandably, they do not ask nor explain why talented young people with less helpful lineage shun politics. While their visions for India are no doubt sincere and laudable, they are not best placed to address the inherent and inherited flaws in the present scheme of things. Given the public cynicism, verging on revulsion, of politics, and the impasse in our parliamentary system in recent times, it would be reasonable to expect a book like this one to reflect on the future of parliamentary democracy in India. Disappointingly, tomorrow’s leaders have side-stepped the tough questions that will determine the future of our polity, choosing not to reveal their thinking on issues that they themselves will be called upon to arbitrate. Most of the contributing parliamentarians are from the major national parties. Predictably, they toe their respective party lines. BJP members dwell on reclaiming the lost glory of India and are confident that “India can go back to being the power that it once was — some 500 years ago”. Congress representatives faithfully tout the mantras of inclusiveness and participation. Members of the BJD rationalise coalition politics. The lone communist contributor expounds on economic liberalisation being responsible for widening inequalities. Voices of the Dravidian parties, caste-based outfits and tribal regions are missing, which is a pity.

Well-researched and cogently argued, the articles present the principal concerns of the young leaders. Education is discussed by more than a couple of them: the crucial importance of universal enrolment and completion of basic schooling, the need to develop employable skills and to enhance the overall quality of education. Young Hamdullah Sayeed underscores that education “makes Indians sensitive, tolerant and respectful of differences” — essential elements of a successful democracy. Hunger and widespread malnourishment are seen as a disgrace to a country aspiring to be a superpower, and regarded as issues deserving the highest priority. Increased and meaningful participation of women in the democratic process is to be fostered. Scindia reminds us that “there are more elected women in India alone than in the rest of the world put together”. The continuing importance of agriculture to the economy and to livelihoods is emphasised, especially the need for research and modernisation. Anantkumar Hegde argues that the lack of a comprehensive agriculture policy is a major drawback, forgetting that it was the NDA government that formulated the first ever national policy on agriculture. The comparative neglect of urban planning is regretted and the Chinese experience cited as a template for infrastructure development. Some contributors have been outspoken on the touchy matter of cas