Are India’s leaders too old?

Indian writer and top intellectual Ramachandra Guha has a piece in the Hindustan Times with a novel argument for why India’s foreign policy seems so dysfunctional: the people making it are just too old. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna and National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan are all in their late 70s. Guha ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
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New Delhi, INDIA: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (R) reads a document as National Security Advisor M K Narayanan (C) and Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister Dr. R. Chidambaram (L) look on during a meeting with nuclear scientists in New Delhi, 26 August 2006.The meeting with the nuclear scientists is taking place at a time when the agreement with the United States on civil nuclear cooperation has come under attack from political parties and the scientific community. AFP PHOTO/Prakash SINGH (Photo credit should read PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)

Indian writer and top intellectual Ramachandra Guha has a piece in the Hindustan Times with a novel argument for why India's foreign policy seems so dysfunctional: the people making it are just too old. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna and National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan are all in their late 70s. Guha writes:

By way of comparison, consider the ages of those with principal responsibility for foreign policy in other countries. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is 61. British Foreign Secretary David Milliband is 44. His German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is nine years older. Also 53 years of age is Pakistani Foreign Minister Makhdoom Qureshi. I suspect that the equivalent of our NSA in these (and other countries) is likewise in his 50s or 60s. Age apart, the videshi equivalents of our foreign minister and NSA often also have better credentials in the field.

Indian writer and top intellectual Ramachandra Guha has a piece in the Hindustan Times with a novel argument for why India’s foreign policy seems so dysfunctional: the people making it are just too old. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna and National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan are all in their late 70s. Guha writes:

By way of comparison, consider the ages of those with principal responsibility for foreign policy in other countries. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is 61. British Foreign Secretary David Milliband is 44. His German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is nine years older. Also 53 years of age is Pakistani Foreign Minister Makhdoom Qureshi. I suspect that the equivalent of our NSA in these (and other countries) is likewise in his 50s or 60s. Age apart, the videshi equivalents of our foreign minister and NSA often also have better credentials in the field.

To work in foreign affairs or national security requires one to be awake at all hours and alert to all possibilities, to be comfortable with modern technology and to be interested even in obscure parts of the world, and, finally, to be willing to travel long distances at the drop of a hat. To be sure, youth by itself does not qualify one to be a good diplomat, foreign policy expert, or strategic thinker. (Consider the callowness of David Milliband). Energy and alertness do need to be accompanied by wisdom and experience. But the latter without the former can be equally unhelpful. A useful rule of thumb may be to get someone more than 50 but less than 70.

At the risk of being accused of ‘age-ism’, one must ask whether the recent misjudgements in our dealings with Pakistan and the United States are completely unconnected with the age of our principal negotiators. For the worrying thing is that the prime minister, the foreign minister and the NSA are all the wrong side of 75. In the rocky ocean of global politics, the Indian ship of State can carry one old man, perhaps even two. But three?

I’m not quite sure that the spring chickens who run Pakistan have quite as much of an intellectual advantage as Guha is suggesting, but his larger point is interesting. While it’s generally acceptable to question a politician’s youth and inexperience, saying they’re too old to handle the responsibilities of the job is a little dicier. (Remember the uproar when Barack Obama suggested that John McCain has “lost his bearings”?)

Why shouldn’t Indians to ask whether they really want a 77-year old who’s had two bypass surgeries answering the 3 a.m. phone call?

PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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