Do not go gentle into that good night, Modiji

Mohan Guruswamy
Mohan GuruswamyOct 16, 2016 | 15:33

Do not go gentle into that good night, Modiji

When his father lay dying, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote one of the immortal poems of our time, "Do not go gentle into that good night." In it he urges his father:

  • Do not go gentle into that good night,
  • Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
  • Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
  • Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
  • Because their words had forked no lightning they
  • Do not go gentle into that good night."

In the last question to Yudhishtra at the lakeside, the Yaksha asks: “What is the greatest wonder?” Yudhishtra replies: “Day after day countless people die. Yet the living wish to live forever. O Lord, what can be a greater wonder?”

I like Narendra Modi’s 75-year age cut-off for politicians. I would actually prefer a 65-year cut-off. Narendra Modi is now 65. Photo credit: Reuters

This wisdom seems to elude leaders. The waning days of a leader's life are always plagued with questions of the individual’s health and, by implication, longevity. The nearness of the end of life, in effect, makes the leader, however powerful he or she might seem, a lame duck leader.

The term lame duck is an Americanism that refers to an elected official who is approaching the end of his or her tenure, and especially an official whose successor has already been elected. A lame duck status invariably entails a swift loss of political legitimacy and authority, making official power a weak instrument. Leaders fear this more than death itself.

Today, the official website of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says he went hiking in the mountains north of Tehran just one month after undergoing prostate surgery. It reports: "The 75-year-old Ayatollah, who is known to be fond of walks and hiking, was accompanied by his entourage on the hike early on Friday morning. “It also quotes the top leader as saying the hike was arranged on the recommendations of his physicians as physical exercise beneficial to the recovery process.”


Ayatollah Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters, has been Iran’s top leader since 1989. He is a powerful defender of Iran’s theocracy established by his predecessor, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The purpose of this little peep into the Ayatollah's otherwise strictly guarded privacy is meant to send a message — that nothing has changed and that he is still the man to do business with in Iran.

The Ayatollah's hike brings to mind Mao Zedong's famous swim in the Yangtze, also when he was well into his 70s. In the early 1960, after the chairman's disastrous "Great Leap Forward", China faced an economic catastrophe and a famine that was taking millions of lives. Mao had to contend with mounting criticism from within the party and Beijing swirled with rumours about his health. The Great Helmsman then retreated to Hangzhou to plot his regain political legitimacy and full authority. He came up with the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" to deal with his rivals and once again seize full control of the Communist Party. But first he had to show he was well and kicking.

Mao resurfaced in Wuhan in the summer of 1966 to stage one of his greatest acts of political theatre. On July 16, he “took” a vigorous and well-reported swim in the Yangtze River by the Wuhan Bridge. It was to signal that Mao was in robust health and that his rivals had better take note.


Although Mao was in his early 70s, party propagandists claimed that the Chairman had swum nearly 15 km in a record 65 minutes. Even if the speed was believable, the crude cut and paste photograph that was shared, made sure that outside China, it was taken as political buffoonery and a sign that China was soon to descend into a new madness.

Then why go to this extent when all that it usually does is to raise more questions? That has more to do with the desires of those close to the leadership to retain the power that closeness confers and the jockeying for better positioning after a succession that also happens simultaneously.

The story of Empress Nur Jahan is well known. As the emperor grew increasingly addicted to liquor and opium, she ran the empire in his name. Nur Jahan struck coins in her own name during the last years of Jahangir's reign when he was totally incapacitated. She was in charge when the Persians besieged Kandahar. She ordered Prince Khurram (later Emperor Shah Jahan) to march for Kandahar, but the latter refused to do so. The prince suspected that the Empress was sending to his doom and also to distance him from Agra. He rightly suspected that she was favouring her stepson and son-in-law, Prince Shahryar.

The future Shah Jahan rebelled against his father and abandoned Kandahar to the Persians. Jahangir died on the way back from Kashmir near Sarai Saadabad in 1627. To preserve his body, the entrails were removed and buried in the Chingus Fort, near Rajouri. The legend is that, to keep her political rivals at bay, the Emperor’s preserved body was displayed as if he was still alive as the royal caravan made its way to Lahore. She failed to do so and Khurram succeeded to the throne. The rest of Jahangir is now buried in a rather elegant mausoleum at Shahdara Bagh in Lahore.

Yuri Andropov became general secretary of the CPSU and president of the USSR after the death Leonid Brezhnev in November 1982. Andropov was the first Russian leader to realise how precarious the economic position of the USSR actually was and how untenable its claims to be a superpower were. Andropov also realised how former US president Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" program was actually an elaborate hoax to drive the USSR into economic ruination by trying to develop costly weapons to match those that weren’t there. In August 1983 Andropov called off the Soviet space-weapons program.

But earlier that year Andropov suffered a total renal failure. It was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the Cold War. The Soviet leader had to be tethered to a dialysis machine and was actually living in a Moscow Hospital. This made a mountain hike or a swim in a river in full flow impossibility. No one is still quite sure when Andropov actually died. He officially died on February 9, 1984. He didn’t go gently, but in the end the night takes us all.

Closer to home we have the case of former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. He was diagnosed as stricken with Alzheimer’s soon after he lost the 2004 elections. But Alzheimer’s is not a sudden onset ailment. All through the preceding few years there were signs of a fading memory. He kept calling Jaswant Singh Yashwant Sinha and vice versa. He forgot Pramod Mahajan’s name at a public meeting. He would suddenly go blank in meetings.

But clearly there were many vested interests in keeping the charade going. Ranjan Bhattacharya and Brijesh Mishra were the obvious beneficiaries. There were many others in India and abroad who were entirely too happy with the situation. The Americans fawned upon Brijesh Mishra. LK Advani was happy as the succession line was made clear with him being named the deputy prime minister. All that was needed to keep the play going till the 2004 elections, which the BJP expected to win with Vajpayee as its flag-bearer. Now consider this too. Not long after the 2004 debacle, the then defence minister George Fernandes too was detected to be suffering from Alzheimer’s. Now think of this alarming situation. The prime minister and the defence minister, the top two in the nuclear command chain are afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Yet they are vested with war and holocaust powers? It was also so in the case of US president Ronald Reagan.

That’s why I like Narendra Modi’s 75-year age cut-off for politicians. I would actually prefer a 65-year cut-off. Narendra Modi is now 65. Chal Khusrau ghar aapnay, saanjh bhayee chahu des. (Let us, Oh Khusrau go back now, the dark dusk settles in the four corners.)

Last updated: October 17, 2016 | 13:57
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