The nearness of the end of life, in effect, makes the leader, however powerful he or she might seem, a lame duck leader.
In the last question to Yudhishthira at the lakeside, the Yaksha asks: “What is the greatest wonder?” Yudhishthira replies: “Day after day countless people die. Yet the living wish to live forever. O Lord, what can be a greater wonder?” This wisdom seems to elude our political leaders. The waning days of a leader’s life are always plagued with questions of the individual’s health and, by implication, longevity.
The nearness of the end of life, in effect, makes the leader, however powerful he or she might seem, a lame duck leader. The term “lame duck” is an Americanism that refers to an elected official who is approaching the end of his or her tenure, and especially an official whose successor has already been elected.
A “lame duck” status invariably entails a swift loss of political legitimacy and authority, making official power a weak instrument. Most leaders fear this more than death itself.
Not long ago the official website of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he went hiking in the mountains north of Tehran just one month after undergoing prostate surgery. It reported: “The septuagenarian ayatollah, who is known to be fond of walks and hiking, was accompanied by his entourage on the hike early on Friday morning.” It also quotes the top leader as saying that the hike was arranged on the recommendations of his physicians as “physical exercise is beneficial to the recovery process”.
Ayatollah Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters, has been Iran’s top leader since 1989. He is a powerful defender of Iran’s theocracy established by his predecessor, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The purpose of this little peep into the ayatollah’s otherwise strictly guarded privacy is meant to send a message — that nothing has changed and that he is still the man to do business with in Iran.
The ayatollah’s hike brings to mind Mao Zedong’s famous swim in the Yangtze, also when he was well into his 70s. In the early 1960s, after the chairman’s disastrous “Great Leap Forward”, China faced an economic catastrophe and a famine that was taking millions of lives. Mao had to contend with mounting criticism from within the party and Beijing swirled with rumours about his health.
The Great Helmsman then retreated to Hangzhou to plot his strategy to regain political legitimacy and full authority. He came up with the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” to deal with his rivals and once again seize full control of the Communist Party. But first he had to show that he was well and kicking. Mao resurfaced in Wuhan in the summer of 1966 to stage one of his greatest acts of political theatre.
On July 16, he “took” a vigorous and well-reported swim in the Yangtze river by the Wuhan Bridge. It was to signal that Mao was in robust health and that his rivals had better take note. Although Mao was in his early 70s, party propagandists claimed that the chairman had swum nearly 15 km in a record 65 minutes. Even if the speed was believable, the crude cut-and-paste photograph that was shared made sure that outside China, it was taken as political buffoonery and a sign that China was soon to descend into a new madness.
Then why go to this extent when all that it usually does is to raise more questions? That has more to do with the desires of those close to the leadership to retain the power that closeness confers and the jockeying for better positioning after a succession that also happens simultaneously.
Yuri Andropov became general secretary of the CPSU and President of the USSR after the death Leonid Brezhnev in November 1982. Andropov was the first Russian leader to realise how precarious the economic position of the USSR actually was and how untenable its claims to be a superpower were. Andropov also realised how former US President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” programme was actually an elaborate hoax to drive the USSR into economic ruination by trying to develop costly weapons to match those that weren’t there. In August 1983, Andropov called off the Soviet space weapons programme.
But earlier that year Andropov suffered a total renal failure. It was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the Cold War. The Soviet leader had to be tethered to a dialysis machine and was actually living in a Moscow hospital.
This made a mountain hike or a swim in a river in full flow an impossibility. No one is still quite sure when Andropov actually died. He officially died on February 9, 1984.
He didn’t go gently, but in the end the night takes us all. Closer to home we have the case of former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. He was diagnosed as stricken with Alzheimer’s soon after he lost the 2004 elections. But Alzheimer’s is not a sudden onset ailment. All through the preceding few years there were signs of a fading memory. He kept calling Jaswant Singh Yashwant Sinha, and vice versa. He forgot Pramod Mahajan’s name at a public meeting. He would suddenly go blank during meetings. But clearly there were many vested interests in keeping the charade going. Ranjan Bhattacharya and Brijesh Mishra were the obvious beneficiaries. Pecuniary and otherwise.
There were many others in India and abroad who were entirely too happy with the situation. The Americans fawned upon Brijesh Mishra. Lal Krishna Advani was happy as the succession line was made clear with him being named deputy prime minister. All that was needed was to keep the play going till the 2004 elections, which the BJP expected to win, with Vajpayee as its flag-bearer. Now consider this too. Not long after the 2004 debacle, the then defence minister, George Fernandes, was also detected to be suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Now think of this alarming situation. The Prime Minister and the defence minister, the top two in the nuclear command chain, are afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Yet they are vested with war and holocaust powers? It was also the same in the case of US President Ronald Reagan.
That’s why I like Narendra Modi’s announced 75-year age cut-off for politicians. I would actually prefer a 70-year cut-off. Narendra Modi is now 73.
He is at a chronological age which is past the average Indian life expectancy and his electoral life is very finite given present trends.
It’s time for him to say: “Chal Khusrau ghar aapnay, saanjh bhayee chahu des.” (Let us, Oh Khusrau go back now, the dark dusk settles in the four hours corners.)