IN ONE of the more delicious ironies of Indian politics, a recent opinion poll revealed that Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who will be 80 on Dec 25, was the most preferred candidate of the young voters between the age of 18 and 35 for continuing in his present job.
Seeking a second five-year term in office, the Bharatiya Janata Party leader was ahead of his closest rival, Opposition Leader and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, by a good 27%.
Other contenders for the highest executive office were nowhere in reckoning, with Vajpayees deputy, Home Minister L. K. Advani, polling 3% and others less than 1% in the survey of the young voters conducted on the eve of the 14th parliamentary elections in free India.
The significance of the young voters polling preferences lay in the fact that they constitute nearly 60% of the total electorate of over 675 million.
It is, however, paradoxical that their preferred candidate to lead India happens to be nearly 80-years-old and who has difficulty walking due to a severe knee problem despite his having undergone a much-advertised knee operation a couple of years ago.
His main challenger, the Italian-born Sonia, a sprightly 57-year-old, surprisingly does not relate to the young and old voters alike due to her foreign birth and lack of political experience.
Curiously, while the majority of Indian voters are in the 18-25 age group, the reins of the administration at the centre and in the states are in the hands of politicians well past their prime.
The average age of the members of the first Indian parliament constituted in 1952 was a little over 47. The average age of the members of the just-dissolved 13th parliament was over 55 years.
The prime minister himself is nearing 80. Deputy Prime Minister Advani is no spring chicken at 76, while Defence Minister George Fernandes is 73 and Finance Minister Jaswant Singh and Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha are touching 70.
The relatively young ministers like the Law Minister Arun Jetlie and Communications and Disinvestment Minister Arun Shourie are in their mid-50s.
The point is that India is a young democracy led by old people.
The fascination of the young voters with the grandfatherly Vajpayee is not hard to comprehend.
His silver-tongued oratory stands in sharp contrast to Sonia Gandhis clumsy public speaking which consists of reading in her heavily foreign-accented Hindi from a prepared script.
Not for nothing, therefore, they derisively call her the Opposition reader in spite of her being in politics for more than six years.
A life-long bachelor from the RSS-Jana Sangh-BJP school of pro-Hindu nationalist politics, Vajpayees adopted family nonetheless has a markedly high presence in the capitals power circuit, but this has not dented his teflon image.
In a land where politics and politicians have become pejorative terms, Vajpayees clean image has been his greatest asset.
The young voters are as much impressed by his untainted reputation, as are their more experienced elders.
Besides, he has all along tried to steer clear of the more extreme fringes of the RSS-BJP while plumping for liberal political, social and economic policies.
His opposition critics have often accused him of being double-faced insofar as some of his party colleagues are hard-line Hindu fanatics while he has been ambivalent on most critical issues.
But like a veteran trapeze artist, Vajpayee has negotiated the extremes in his party to emerge as the countrys most acceptable face today.
Admittedly, till he became the prime minister Vajpayee was as much dependent on the RSS-BJP for his political survival as they were on him for staying relevant in the Indian polity.
However, since he became prime minister, his public stature has grown phenomenally, making him the sole arbiter of the RSS-BJP.
Today, he is the mascot of the BJP, nay, the NDA without whom the 24-party NDA would disintegrate, making the return to power of the Congress, the original party of governance, that much easier.
The widespread fear that a loose coalition of so many small groups would not hold together to provide a stable government has been found to be baseless thanks to Vajpayees consensual leadership these past five years at the helm of the NDA.
He is widely said to be leading the NDA back to power for a second five-year term.
Opinion polls justify that belief.
So do the survey of young voters who while holding most politicians in contempt regard the outgoing prime minister highly.
Two- thirds of the educated young polled in the urban centres revealed they intended to exercise their right to choose the next government, another indicator that Vajpayee was set for a second term in power.
It is a tribute to Vajpayees leadership that this is the first election after the death of Indias first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in 1964, in which the agenda is being set by the ruling party, and not the opposition.
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