As usual, we have to turn to the Bard to articulate what many of our netas seem to believe in so devoutly. In his immortal play Antony and Cleopatra, it was said of the beautiful Queen of Egypt, “Age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety.” But alas, the vagaries of age catch up with the best of us. And so, maverick Congress leader Jairam Ramesh was perhaps not off the mark when he prescribed a retirement age of 70 for politicians. Now we know that no one is going to take the slightest jot of notice of this very meritorious suggestion. Rather, the first reactions were to pillory Ramesh for talking out of turn.
Those of us who work for a living know and are resigned to the fact that when we reach 58, 60 or, in some cases, 65, we have to fold up our tent and go into the gentle night. Of course, we can make ourselves useful but there is no guarantee that we are assured of a paid job. There is a sound logic to this. As we age, our faculties also dim, our physical personages slow down. And our politicians are not a different species from you and me.
Yet, there is a marked reluctance among many of them to call it a day. Fine, I say, continue in office or public life if you want. But as a paid up member of the voting public, I would like to know if you are fit for the job. The president of the United States of America, arguably the most powerful man in the world, has to undergo periodic health checks and the results are made public. The corporate suits whom we all so love to hate have to undergo rigorous medical tests each year. In other words, they have to prove that they are up to the job they are in.
Politics is a demanding and gruelling job. Our politicians frame the laws by which our lives are governed. They have an effect on the taxes we pay, the power and water we get, the quality air we breathe, the businesses we set up, the homes we buy, the schools we can get our children into, how we conduct ourselves in public, and in some cases even what we read and which films we see. In short, they govern almost all aspects of our lives. So, is it too much to ask that the persons who have such a hold over us are of sound mind and body? I think not.
I know you may think me unfeeling but I don’t feel too sorry for LK Advani. He is 86 years old, he has had a good long innings in politics. He should now retire and write his memoirs or grow roses instead of hanging in there to satisfy his ego. The same is the case with Jaswant Singh, Murli Manohar Joshi and M Karunanidhi, Murli Deora, I could go on. But politics is apparently the art of never having to say goodbye until you are carried out feet first.
The late MG Ramachandran stayed in office long after he had lost most of his faculties. Shadowy aides interpreted his gestures to suit themselves. No one had the courage to tell him, if he could understand anything, or his family that enough was enough. To come back to Jaswant Singh, it may be laudatory that he has decided to take on the party leadership and go it alone. But given that he needs help to get around, perhaps, Rajnath Singh did him a favour by not giving him a ticket. It is pitiful to see once great leaders still carrying on as though they were in the prime of their youth.
ND Tiwari, fresh from a paternity suit, has hit the campaign trail firmly ensconced in a car. He cannot walk so he addresses the faithful from the confines of his vehicle. He needs help to eat, he needs help to dress. He is hoping, as of now, that some party, any party, will bestow a ticket on him. Now I ask you, would it not be infinitely more dignified to retire and make way for the younger generation. The elderly may be wise but the young are not exactly without knowledge and wisdom. It is not necessary that the old have to be so revered that they get pride of place even when they are no longer able to do a job well.
George Fernandes, even after a debilitating stroke, tried to hang on to his seat. In the end, what happens is that a once great leader goes out in a blaze of inglory, his triumphs obscured by the pathetic spectacle of this diminished exit. But, if the good of the people are so dear to the hearts of our politicians, and they tell us this is so day in and day out, then they ought not to make crucial decisions while somewhat incapacitated.
There is, of course, the remarkably healthy yet old politician. But then we need to be privy to their medical condition. This may seem intrusive but it is only fair that we know all about those who we have entrusted our destinies with. After all, they have to tell us about their material assets so why not their health parameters? We have all grown with the dictum that politics is the art of the possible. But when ill health makes things impossible, the real art lies in knowing when to make a graceful exit.