“You are old, father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head —
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”
“In my youth,” father William replied to his son,
“I feared it would injure the brain;
But now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.”
– Lewis Carroll.
Should politicians retire? The controversy started when Sudarshan, the head honcho at RSS, (India’s premier ultra-right-wing party) suggested that ex-PM Vajpayee and his man-Friday Advani should retire. Politicans cut across party lines to give a resounding thumbs down to the idea. Not that Vajpayee and Advani should not retire but that there should be a retirement age for politicians.
Keen and not-so-keen observers of the Indian political landscape know one fact. Indian politicians are dreadfully old. All of them lived through the Cold War, most of them had Hitler as their contemporary—-some of them may have even been present on earth when Archduke Ferdinand was bumped off. Had they been in any other profession, they would have been laid out on easychairs doing nothing, enjoying a pensioned life .
Well as politicians, they also do practically nothing. But they enjoy a 5-star lifestyle on taxpayer’s money—-and wasting someone else’s cash and doing nothing—-there is no upper age limit for that. So by that logic, there is no need to retire.
Case in point, Atal-ji, the great poet Prime Minister. As long as he spoke like an ex-boxer who had one too many upper cuts, we were fine. A good politician deliberates before speaking—even in the middle of the sentence. When we learnt that he would have one-too-many drinks in the evening while he was the Prime Mininster, we were aghast. Not at him but at the Time reporter who dared call the supersage “asleep at the wheel”. A little alcohol is good for an old man’s heart—we know that.
When Atal-ji came out to address the nation wearing one shoe—-even then we do not think him too old for the job. After all don’t even toddlers often rush out to play in unmatched footwear? Falling asleep during meetings of the committee for national security —-ook how many of us young people can stay awake at office meetings? So let’s not point fingers here.
However, the problem starts when senility reaches such an advanced stage that politicians start speaking the truth inadvertently. If there is one thing that symbolizes the total breaking-down of a politician’s grip on reality, it is this. In parliament, Atal Bihari Vajpayee said that in his over five decades of tenure in Parliament,
“I have continuously violated the dignity and decorum of the House.”
What he meant to say was exactly the opposite but Mr Vajpayee, no doubt on account of his advanced age, had a rare moment of epiphany. Which is a sure sign he should retire.
Of course, Mr Vajpayee can take comfort from the case of Siddhartha Shankar Ray, ex- Chief Minister of West Bengal. Mr Ray had been with the Congress for ages and then left it. Only to come back to it again like a true-blue politician. However, age had taken toll of his faculties. So one day, standing in the floor of the State Assembly he yelled to the amused treasury and stunned opposition benches—” I shall rip the mask off the face of the Congress Party.” Now that is standard rhetoric. What was non-standard was that Mr Ray was then the president of the Congress Party in Bengal. Which of course he had forgotten.
So where is the comfort? Well Mr Ray did this almost 15 years ago and he is still going strong—acting as Sourav Ganguly’s lawyer.
So buck up Mr Vajpayee. Though common wisdom would dictate a life of booze and poetry from now on, it is still not time for you to stop serving the country. Just go a little bit easy on the truth and we will all be fine.