A cousin who had a brief brush with politics once said to my surprise that politicians are one of the most hardworking professionals.
The remark stuck in my mind. It comes back, every time Narendra Modi’s work routine and Rahul Gandhi’s vacations are discussed. Mostly, it is part of my therapeutic self-talk, when I wallow in self-pity for my own punishing schedule.
But let us take this a little further.
By definition, politics is all about being connected with people. Media can be an auxiliary vehicle for the outreach — but there is absolutely no substitute for personal contact. It is a two-way process. Once people lose interest in a politician, his career is all but finished.
Thus, all politicians, small or big, netas or flunkies, keep incredibly long hours.
No posh diets here! Say no and you could remain hungry (for votes!). (Photo: PTI)
Their mornings start early with a flurry of phone calls and visitors, which only show the day packed with activities. Travel has always been an integral part of a politician’s life — and it’s not just during election season. And no, not everyone has the luxury of air-travel, even in cattle-class or air-conditioned limousines.
The second big challenge for politicians must be food.
I suspect that an average politician must have a very high intake of junk food. Add to that their irregular hours for meals and it makes quite a lethal combination. It is only very few who would have control over their diet — often forced to eat whatever offered by the hosts or available at party offices and pitstops on the road.
Senior leaders would have the added problem of being offered “local specialities” wherever they go, which they cannot turn down out of politeness. Then, if the person is a foodie — like Arun Jaitley — then he/she would seek out the best of the place.
Till not so long ago, the concept of exercising regularly was alien to our politicians.
Perfunctory yoga at home or morning walks at Lodhi Gardens or its equivalent in other cities was the maximum they could think of. It is only in the last few years that one sees the younger politicians visiting health-clubs at five-star hotels or hears of fully equipped gyms at their residences.
Rahul Gandhi talks openly about his fitness regime, cycling, Aikido black belt and does not mind showing off his biceps a little. But still, most Indian politicians do not exactly look like Men’s World cover material.
But does an active politician have the luxury of leisure?
Making it your cup of tea: Because snacking is unavoidable when you are campaigning. (Photo: Twitter)
Privacy is the price a leader has to pay for popularity and being in the public gaze. Unlike other celebrities, say, movie stars or sportsmen, politicians do not have the luxury of withdrawing behind closed doors or shutting themselves inside vanity vans. Rahul Gandhi may be an exception (ahem). Perhaps in the South, politicians cannot even wear shades — eye contact is important in politics.
The psychological impact of living constantly under this glare would make an interesting study — it must take a toll on their personal and family life. That by any measure is a huge sacrifice all politicians make for their career. One often wonders from where they draw this emotional sustenance.
In a highly judgemental and conservative society like ours, relationships come under close scrutiny. Though Indians are coy about discussing personal lives of public figures, salacious whispers do make the rounds. Not everyone can brazen it out. So, life must be claustrophobic for many of them.
Indian politicians must be having one of the worse “work-life balance” for sure.
But that is true for Indians at large.
It is probably a corollary effect of the skewed work ethics we are brought up on, where there is no premium on ‘me-time’. That is why Indian employees across the globe are known to put in crazy hours. Some attribute the success of the Indian diaspora to this work culture.
In contrast, see how world leaders are unapologetic about taking breaks.
US President Donald Trump likes his golf and even indulges in golf diplomacy while travelling. The Obamas loved their vacations with the kids. Bush would run away to the Presidential ranch often. Of course, Justin Trudeau takes his holidays to an entirely different level. One has not read much about Xi Jinping, but Putin takes regular time off.
In India, too, it was not always an “all work, no play” life for politicians.
Politicians were not known for their commitment to health. Until a few years ago. (Photo: Twitter)
It is well-known that Nehru had the taste for a good life. One sees some delightful pictures of his daughter, Indira, on holidays with her children and their families. Rajiv Gandhi’s vacations are the talk of society even after two decades.
Even the ‘bhadralok’ communist, Jyoti Basu, in his later years would go to London for a month every summer.
So, has anything changed?
One can offer two hypotheses off the cuff. First, like every other walk of life, a career in politics has become highly insecure. Like at any other workplace, even politicians are wary of being away from their seat or the power corridors for too long in a highly competitive and cut-throat world.
Work-plus-pleasure: Politicians of other countries often combine the two — and shut their eyes facing criticism! (Photo: Reuters)
Second is the emergence of the apparently subaltern and ‘non-elite’ classes in the upper rungs of the political echelons. These are people who have worked their way up in extreme hardship. As Narendra Modi keeps reminding us, an RSS pracharak hardly ever spends two nights at one place. The same is true for the Lohiaties like Mulayam Singh, Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar. A Mamata Banerjee has been the quintessential ‘street fighter’. So are the many tall leaders who have risen through trade unions and student activism. For these people, rest, diet, exercise and holidays are alien terms.
But still, the longevity of the average Indian politician has been relatively high and, by and large, a majority of them have led very healthy lives — so much so that they have actively resisted retirement even in their eighties.
So, power, as they say, is the ultimate elixir.
Or, maybe, they all take a dip in Asterix’s magic potion before embarking on a political career. Whatever it is, each one to her/his own.
We wish them a happy, healthy and hearty long life.