Gerontocracy marches on

Yesterday we noted the extraordinary persistence of Mahathir Mohamad, seeking re-election at the age of 97. But he is merely the most extreme example of a worldwide phenomenon. The United States goes to mid-term elections in two and a half weeks in what is widely seen as a duel between president Joe Biden, who is about to turn 80, and his predecessor, Donald Trump, who is 76.

And now there’s India, where the opposition Indian National Congress yesterday announced the result of its election for a new party president. Coming off its worst-ever election results in 2014 and 2019, one might have thought it would be looking for invigoration. But the winner was veteran Mallikarjun Kharge, aged 80, who won with nearly eight times the vote of his rival, Shashi Tharoor.

Kharge therefore replaces Sonia Gandhi, who held the position from 1998 to 2017 and then returned on a temporary basis in 2019 on the resignation of her son, Rahul Gandhi. Sonia is the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, who led Congress from 1966 until her assassination in 1983; she in turn was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister.

The president of the party and the actual leader have not always been the same person; Manmohan Singh was Congress prime minister for ten years while Sonia Gandhi was party president. Nonetheless, it’s fair to say that the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has dominated the party for the life of independent India, and there’s no real reason to think that Kharge, described as the “Gandhi-approved” candidate, intends that to change.

He takes the job at a time when India desperately needs Congress to start making an impression. The Hindu nationalist government of of Narendra Modi, which faces the polls in the first half of 2024, has been taking India towards some very dark places, threatening the secular and democratic heritage of which Congress has been the traditional (if sometimes inept) custodian.

But it will be a long road back. After repeated defeats in recent years, Congress now governs in only two of the country’s 28 states and holds only 53 of the 543 seats in the lower house of parliament. Without wanting to suggest that being an octogenarian precludes dynamic leadership, Kharge is going to have his work cut out; it may have made more sense to take the risk of a less conventional choice.

Meanwhile in neighboring Pakistan, the next election is due in a year’s time but may well happen sooner. Former test cricketer Imran Khan, who formed government following the 2018 election, was removed by a vote of no confidence last April after the other two major parties, despite their historic enmity, agreed to combine against him – a move that Khan blames on the powerful Pakistan military (which had originally supported him) and ultimately on the United States.

Khan has since boycotted parliament and has organised for several of his MPs to strategically resign their seats, forcing by-elections as a test of his popularity. A string of victories last weekend demonstrated that he retains significant support, but it remains to be seen whether that will be sufficient to force an early poll.

2 thoughts on “Gerontocracy marches on

  1. Pakistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Behind a civilian facade the army has always run the country, very badly. They spent 20 years covertly aiding the al-Qaeda and the Taliban against the US and its allies, including Australia, in Afghanistan. India would make a much more useful and reliable ally.

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