‘Metroman’ Sreedharan, a former Railways official known for building many complex bridges and much more famously, the Delhi metro system, has now joined the BJP. He is 88, but that has not deterred him from starting a new innings in his life. His step is a courageous one and therefore commendable, especially in view of the fact that the BJP has only one MLA in Kerala and therefore still far away from capturing power in that state. But in the Ashwamedha Yajna that Prime Minister Modi has launched, it is important to capture power in Kerala, one of the last bastions in the country to hold out against his all-conquering hordes. So, Kerala has to be conquered and Sreedharan could be the general who could do it for him. He has already said that he is not interested in a gubernatorial position but would not mind being taking over as Chief Minister of Kerala, should the BJP win the next election. So far, so good, because after all, why should age stand in the way of his ambition?
But there is a catch. In 2014, before Modi became Prime Minister, a rumour was deliberately spread that BJP member above the age of 75 would not be considered eligible for a ministerial berth in the new government which was sure to be formed after the elections. However, there was no age limit for contesting the Lok Sabha elections, so the likes of LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi were allowed to run with the clear understanding that no ministerial posts would come their way. They won their constituencies and spent a lacklustre five years in parliament until they were finally retired in 2019 by the powers-that-be. They were made members of the famous Margdarshak Mandal, which, of course, never met. That is how their illustrious career in politics were ended by their most famous Chela (disciple). The Akbar/Bairam Khan story was repeated once again. But unlike Bairam Khan, they were not banished from Delhi – they have been allowed to stay there in government accommodation with full facilities and the fullest security. I have not heard of them or met them lately. Hope they are doing well.
Let us return to Sreedharan, however. He is no doubt an outstanding professional, though he is starting his political career a little late in the day. He may not be aware, though he should be, that the rule of 75 operates in the BJP. But exceptions make the rule, as the saying goes. After all, the rule was not applied when Yediyurappa was made Chief Minister of Karnataka. He is well over 75 but his appointment was unavoidable. Nobody else could fill the post. Some people also offer the weak and somewhat specious argument that the rule applies only at the centre and not to the provinces.
Some years ago, when Modi was not yet the master of the party, the BJP decided that like the Left parties, it would also limit the term of its members in Rajya Sabha to two. The rule was used to deny a third term to the likes of Arun Shourie and Shatrughan Sinha. But when circumstances changed and the turn of the rule-makers themselves came, the rule was changed again and forget three, even a fourth term was given to these incumbents. The list included the late-lamented Arun Jaitley. So much for the rules and their observance. So, Sreedharan still has a chance, the age bar notwithstanding. It should be noted that in contrast, the Left parties have strictly observed this rule. I know of many distinguished Left leaders who made an outstanding contribution to the Upper House and then quietly bowed out when their two terms came to an end. Sitaram Yechury is the latest in that long line. I have great admiration for the fact that the Left parties have not only made this rule, but they also adhere to it strictly, unlike the BJP where the motto is “You show me the face and I shall show you the rule”.
The 75-year rule was not made by the BJP through any institutional process. It was the result of one man’s fiat. And at that time, it was the easiest way to retire a lot of senior people who might have been thorns in the flesh of the new rulers, or at least been inconvenient to them. The rule can be easily dispensed with, now that its purpose has been served. After all, rules are made for men, not men for the rules.
In the USA, a president is not eligible for a third term. We have therefore had many presidents who occupied that office at a very young age, unlike the present incumbent Joe Biden whose term has begun at the age of 78.
In India, we have no limitation of terms, so we can carry on undeterred both as far as age and terms of office are concerned. Should we have such a limitation? I am not too sure. After all, in a democracy should we not leave these things to be decided by the people? But it is equally true that as long as these matters are left to parties, they will frame rules only to break them. As far as Sreedharan is concerned, there is nothing to hold him back, including his age. So if the people of Kerala want, he can become their Chief Minister, but they must vote BJP to power in the coming elections. Let us see whether the BJP’s gamble pays off.
Yashwant Sinha, former BJP leader, was Minister of Finance (1998-2002) and Minister of External Affairs (2002-2004)
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