Uttar Pradesh is only a vicious example of a curse that plagues India—politicians’ refusal to retire. Politicians want power, fair enough. But, after a state leader becomes chief minister, then what? After he becomes chief minister three times and four times, then what? The ambition never stops. This is a sickness of the mind which, over a period of time, has become a sickness of Indian public life and of India itself.
Compared to L K Advani, 87, and Murali Manohar Joshi, 82, Mulayam Singh is young at 77. But the older men retired gracefully when the tide turned in a different direction in their party. By doing so, they retained their dignity. Today, on the rare occasions when Advani speaks, he gets the attention due to an elder statesman.
Mulayam Singh had more pressing reasons to retire. He is infirm, his speech is often slurring, his memory plays tricks with him. With all that, he has the gall to say that the party is his, that he is strong enough to become chief minister again. Obviously, he suffers from the affliction common to most fossilised minds—the conviction that they are irreplaceable, that “after me, the deluge”.
He is not alone. K R Gowriamma, a communist revolutionary and member of Kerala’s first elected ministry, is 98 today. She is beset by illness, cannot speak properly because of voice problems and looks her age. But she manoeuvres for positions of importance with a handful of followers, bargaining, arguing and “disciplining” her ranks.
The veteran, multi-talented warhorse of Tamil Nadu, M Karunanidhi, is 93. He has been chief minister five times and still leads his party, unsure whether his chosen son and heir has acquired the strength to take over. Recently hospitalised, he made his son working president of the party. At 83, Deve Gowda in Karnataka is a spent force with nothing new to offer. But he spends his time working out permutations and combinations, losing no opportunity to refer to himself as the former Prime Minister and getting nowhere.
Democracy stops these men from doing what Robert Mugabe did in Zimbabwe. Having captured power in his hapless country way back in 1980, he is still the unchallenged boss at age 93. His technique was simple: Eliminate everyone who disagreed, change the constitution as often and as comprehensively as he thought fit and ignore world opinion.
Something comparable was tried out in India with the declaration of Emergency. But Indira Gandhi was brought up in a tradition that would not accept the wholesale elimination of rivals. Indeed, her political culture pushed her into seeking popular mandate after two years of Emergency. And she came a cropper. Eventually she resorted to dynasty to perpetuate her hold. It worked briefly, then became counterproductive against India’s ingrained democratic DNA.
One of the ways in which Deng Xiaoping transformed China was by introducing two fixed terms of five years each for the President. The US had a similar system as part of its early constitution. Deng’s achievement is that he ended the tradition, sustained by Mao Zedong, of an autocratic presidency of indefinite duration. His followers imbibed the spirit of the reform. Even Jiang Zemin remitted power when his term ended in 2003 although he was considered a king of corruption. Hu Jintao, president till 2013, remains in the background while Xi Jinping, current president, exercises power in his own style.
What our politicians do is humiliating by contrast. Consider Kerala. The last Congress government was enmeshed in corruption that was unprecedented in scale. The electorate defeated the Congress resoundingly. The proper thing in a democracy would have been for the disgraced leaders to quietly retire. Not in Kerala. The man who presided over the shoddy performance as chief minister, Oommen Chandy, now wants to capture the party. Public fisticuffs have occurred, leaders have hurled abuses at one another and the party has been reduced to an object of ridicule. All this for the ego satisfaction of a man who has been minister four times and chief minister twice.
Imagine Barack Obama plunging into group manipulations in the Democratic Party in order to become President again. Imagine David Cameron manoeuvring to get back into the Prime Minister’s chair in Britain.
In grownup societies, people retire. It is ordained by nature, law and tradition. In the Indian tradition vaanaprastha is a Vedic duty. Chandy would know that the Lord rested on the seventh day after completing his labours.
Rest, gentlemen, rest. Let the world move on.