By M J Akbar
Indian politicians are never tired enough to retire. They do not leave the chair even when it has become a wheelchair. Old age has been famously described as being fifteen older than your age.
It is reassuring that Paul the Octopus, arguably now the most famous contemporary resident of Germany, has entered the Indian political discourse. When the revolutionary leader Jayalalitha promised at a spirited rally in Coimbatore this week that the end of DMK rule in Tamil Nadu was nigh, a government spokesman asked whether she thought she had become Paul the Octopus. Paul, as our learned readers will fondly recall, predicted the results of eight World Cup matches on the trot. Had Paul been a betting man instead of a playful ink-squirter, he would have been a millionaire.
The DMK, however, might have missed the moral embedded in the crowning glory of Paul's fabulous achievements: he retired at the peak of his career. Paul knew when to stop. A statement has been issued from Paul's home, the Sea Life Aquarium at Oberhausen: "He won't give any more oracle predictions either in football, in politics, in lifestyle or economy. Paul will get back to his former job, namely making children laugh." It was news to me that Paul was giving lifestyle tips, but who can argue with the multiple collateral benefits of success? If the judicious display of cleavage can make you a sports commentator, why can't Paul provide some thoughtful advice on the hemline?
However, we are wandering from the point. Paul has said goodbye from the pinnacle. His memory will never be tarnished by the possibility that while sketching out a scenario on the economy he messed up on the prospective value of the euro in 2011, thereby tanking Europe's economy, sabotaging the re-election of Nicolas Sarkozy and driving Greece out of the European Union.
A perfectly timed exit is the key to history's judgment. How much greater would India's greatest Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, have seemed today if he had announced, just after he won his third consecutive general election in early 1962, that the time had come to write a few more books (which he did superbly; he and Churchill were in the same class as writer-politicians). Instead, wooed by suggestions of indispensability, he hung around till October and got clobbered by China in a war. Jawaharlal was already in the last phase of a long life; he would die in another 20 months. Two years of defeat, dismay and decline marred an epic career spread that had begun before the Khilafat movement.
Consider how much more glorious would have been the image of his daughter Indira Gandhi had she resigned as Prime Minister in the second week of June 1975 after the Allahabad high court judgment, and gone to the people instead of imposing an Emergency. She would have been re-elected by an unprecedented margin. Or if Vajpayee had trusted his instincts and told his coalition that poetry was preferable to politics after the Gujarat riots. All these were rational options. One does not include Narasimha Rao, who should have quit after abdicating his Constitutional responsibility on December 6, 1992, because India's most ruthless Prime Minister did not have regret in his DNA.
Witness Nelson Mandela: he topped a life of supreme courage and commitment by leaving office after one term of five years. The most charismatic visionary of our age had no delusions of grandeur, unlike far lesser leaders in Africa who destroyed the very freedom they won from colonial rule. Mandela placed his party and country above himself. He understood that institutions secure the future; individuals can only serve as the spur.
Indian politicians are never tired enough to retire. They do not leave the chair even when it has become a wheelchair. Old age has been famously described as being fifteen older than your age. This happy law keeps Karunanidhi in office. He has done great service to his state; time has eroded his physical strength. This is his moment to laugh with children, not wait until children begin to laugh at you. His own children are untroubled by sentiment. They want him to campaign in a wheelchair because his charisma is their only insurance against defeat; and they want to win so that they can indulge in the unchecked appropriation of wealth that has become a privilege of power — for all parties.
This is a central dilemma: power is too lucrative for anyone to walk away without a shove from the electorate. Some parties have also begun to believe that they can purchase enough voters to ensure victory, but such are the illusions that money tends to induce.
Perhaps our politicians should learn to laugh. It is a good antidote to self-importance. Clemenceau, prime minister of France during World War 1 and a hero to his nation, said, wistfully, upon seeing a pretty girl when he was 80, "Oh to be 70 again!"
Like a good Frenchman, Clemenceau had interests that were larger than politics.