The unending saga of accusing the other of ill health, neurological disorder and therefore unfit to occupy the office of the President of the United States, continues with two geriatrics in the fray. While the incumbent Donald Trump leaves no stone unturned to insinuate about ‘Sleeping Joe’ (read Joe Biden), it is Trump himself who is at the centre of the storm with the latest book by Michael Schmidt, who (as per Trump) claimed that Trump actually had ‘mini strokes’ and that Vice President Mike Pence was on standby after an unusually early annual medical checkup, last year.
Giving credence to whispers about the President’s health were the increasingly garbled, slurred and incoherent statements by Trump, as also his tottering steps with the effortful usage of two hands to lift and drink water from a bottle. In a bid to ‘out-healthy’ his elder rival, Joe Biden, not only had Trump slammed accusations as ‘fake news’, but had insisted falsely, “Final ten feet I ran down to level ground. Momentum!.” The vanity and desperation to project his fitness was so compelling that Trump had supposedly dictated his physician to declare incredously that Trump was, ‘the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency’!
The American soap opera is in sharp contrast to the happenings in Japan, where the longest serving Prime Minister ever, Shinzo Abe, voluntarily resigned for health reasons, as he did not want his illness to get in the way of decision-making.
Abe had done so earlier also in 2007, when he had publicly declared his struggles with ulcerative colitis, and yet again, the Japanese nationalist threw in the towel, a year before the end of his tenure. He claims that the treatment that he is undergoing will not allow him adequate time to carry out his Prime Ministerial functions and therefore, ‘I made the judgment I should not continue my job as the Prime Minister’. It was refreshingly honest, rare and significant for a man famous for his ‘Abenomics’ and a hawkish reputation of a strongman.
But somewhere perhaps, an overriding sense of countrybeforeself or even beyond partisan politics, must have prodded Shinzo Abe to take a step that is seldomly seen in democracies. The world’s third biggest economy and Abe would be well versed with ‘calling it a day’ with them having seen the recent case of Japan’s Emperor Akihito declaring his abdication after a 30-year reign. The 85-year-old former Emperor had had surgery for prostate cancer and heart bypass, and therefore thought it best to pass the sacred sword and jewel on to someone who was fit enough to bear the responsibility.
No such selfless renunciation or retirement owing to illhealth occurs in the Indian political context, where instances of clearly unwell leaders continuing their positions unquestionably, is the definitive norm. The pretext of pressures from irreconcilable ‘party cadres’ or pliant ‘party leadership’ ensures that moreoftenthan-not, these politicians pass away only in harness. Such political desperation is perhaps imbibed from our past colonial masters like Winston Churchill who personified the ‘never say die’ spirit despite suffering from depression and stress, that he sought to compensate publicly with whisky and cigars. Churchill had suffered a heart attack as early as 1941 and caught pneumonia thereafter. His biographer, Roy Jenkins, had famously called him, ‘gloriously unfit for office’. In his second Prime Ministerial term in 1953 he again had a stroke, which was deliberately kept away from the public, as Churchill went about his stuttering ways without making an apparent fuss about obvious illhealth. Not coming clean on one’s health is often the trait that is displayed by political leaders who have dictatorial streaks. Konstantin Chernenko took over the leadership role in the USSR, knowing fully well that he was terminally ill. He essentially remained in the secretive Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow for most of his 13-month term, which ended with him slipping into a coma and death, soon thereafter. Even the ageless Cuban revolutionary, Fidel Castro, was nearly 90 years old before he less than enthusiastically stood down by saying, ‘It would betray my conscience to take up a responsibility that requires mobility and total devotion, that I am not in a physical condition to offer’. Today, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba is Fidel’s ‘younger’ brother Raul Castro, aged 89!
Politicians lust for power in the same manner as business managers crave profits i.e. insatiably. The road to the top of the political pyramid is usually mired with intrigues, deceit and plain hard work, that makes it impossible for them to give up once achieved. Therefore the ‘passing on’ of the mantle or sharing of power if ever, assumes the form of dynastic or loyalist preferences, as opposed to competency being the primary consideration. In the Indian context, the political parties (both national and regional) have sham ‘internal democracy’ with deliberately suppressed bench-strength of possible successors, as the portents of any potential ‘successor’ can be suicidal for any upcoming leader in a party. The insecurities are institutionalised.
It takes a statesman to recognise the inevitability of age and the withering of faculties, Nelson Mandela was one such singularity. Well before the completion of his first (and only 5 years) tenure as the President of South Africa after the end of apartheid, and when his popularity was at an alltime high, Mandela ruled out serving a potential second term. He had sagely said, ‘I will be available for advice if they want me, but to occupy a position as a Head of State, definitely, I won’t take that risk’! But most politicians are not Mandela (even in terms of good health) and yet insist on occupying the high offices, nevertheless.
Sound health is not just dependent on age or some concerns of physical abilities; more often it is a question of mental health and having the heart at the right place, metaphorically. Therefore, if tested sincerely, then many political leaders across the leadership roles in states, countries and political parties would be found unfit to occupy their posts.
The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd) and former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry