Asking whether our politicians are fit to do their jobs would be considered blasphemy.
Speaking in Mumbai Monday, NCP chief Sharad Pawar said he wished someone had stopped him from consuming tobacco 40 years ago. He has survived oral cancer but lost his teeth, has trouble eating and talking. He is 77.
It’s the sort of question we don’t ask of India’s politicians: Is Mr Pawar really fit to be a Rajya Sabha member?
It’s considered an impolite question in India. We’re supposed to respect the elderly and not ask them to sit home and watch TV when they want to be out and about. We’ll express sympathy about their health condition but never, never ask if they’re fit to hold office.
Mostly away from the public eye, the age and health of politicians strongly affect their ability to be full-time politicians and govern well.
Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar, 62, is suffering from a pancreatic ailment so serious he’s gone to the United States for treatment for weeks. In his absence, the state’s administration has slowed down. He told the Goa governor he’d chair the cabinet meeting, “whenever it is held”, by video conferencing.
“If that is not possible for any reason, or I may decide at a later point of time, the minister nominated by me shall preside (sic) the meeting and I will separately instruct the chief secretary in such exigency,” Parrikar’s letter to the governor said. His ministers can take financial decisions up to Rs 5 crore in his absence.
We finally know what rare disease has struck Irrfan Khan, the Bollywood actor, but we are not going to be told what pancreatic ailment Mr Parrikar is suffering from.
The United States example
In 2002, Time magazine’s Delhi correspondent Alex Perry published a story that asked if Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then 77, was fit to preside over India’s nuclear button given he allegedly fell asleep in cabinet meetings. The government was so aghast it threatened to deport Perry. Vajpayee had had knee replacement surgery in 2001 and his health deteriorated quickly after he demitted office in 2004.
In the United States, it is a question asked routinely of politicians. In fact, the candidate’s health is a major issue in US elections. A cough, a sneeze, a fall, and Hillary Clinton’s health became an issue in the 2016 presidential race.
For a while, the corridors of power were abuzz with rumours that Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik was seriously unwell. Those close to him now claim a party rebel maliciously spread the false information to undermine his hold over Odisha politics.
Sleeping at the wheel?
It is a scientific fact that age makes your mind less sharp, and reduction in physical strength takes a toll on your ability to work. That’s why we have the concept of retirement but that doesn’t seem to apply to politicians. Prime Minister Modi, 67, imposed the age limit of 75 for anyone to be a minister in his cabinet — making it the oldest retirement age for any profession in the country.
Did his health affect his ability to govern? We can’t say. What we did see was that the UPA-II faltered so badly that it damaged the Congress’ claim to be a party of governance for a long time.
Meanwhile, UPA chairperson and the then Congress party president Sonia Gandhi suffered from cervical cancer in 2011. The then party vice-president Rahul Gandhi, also her son, often travelled abroad to be by her side during treatment. There has, to date, not been an official word on what cancer she suffered. It was around this time that the party and the government alike began to falter.
When Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram was in hospital, her ministers lied about her recovery. When she was in hospital from September to December 2016, the state’s functioning came to a standstill, while she was writing letters from hospital. Many doubted the signatures.
Most don’t give up despite going and coming out of hospital, despite age catching on, and indeed, some like Lalu Yadav put up a brave fight even after bypass surgeries. Others are just pushed aside.
Lal Krishna Advani, 90, is the oldest member of Parliament ever and still hopes to be re-elected from Gandhinagar. Age must definitely have been a factor in how easily he was sidelined by Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi for the Prime Minister’s job. His wife Kamla Advani had been unwell for many years when she died in 2016. A lot of Mr Advani’s time, energy and emotional investment went towards looking after her in her last years, affecting his ability to be active in politics.
Mulayam Singh Yadav, 78, suffers from short-term memory loss. In 2015, pneumonia took him to the ICU in Gurgaon’s Medanta hospital. His age and health were likely among the factors why and how his son Akhilesh Yadav did a coup and ousted his own father from the post of party president on 1 January last year.
The diabetes epidemic
It is a tiring, stressful and tedious job to be a full-time politician, especially if you’re holding an office. It should worry Indians that Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, 76, is suffering from diabetes. As do Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and so many others.
Finance minister Arun Jaitley, 65, and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, 66, have both spent time in hospital while being in the Modi government’s cabinet.
There were concerns about the health of AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal, 49, when he would sit on a fast to demand the Lokpal bill. He is also diabetic.
Diabetes is an epidemic among the Indian elite. Which one of us hasn’t had a dear one in that age suffer from that disease? We’ve seen how it weakens people. Yet, asking whether Swaraj and Jaitley are fit to do their jobs would be considered blasphemy.
Many VIPs hide their bariatric surgeries. They want it known they are fit as a fiddle to govern us. The people of India deserve to know more about that.