This article appeared in Mail Today (New Delhi)November 21, 2007
September-October 2007: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, former finance minister, former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, economic bureaucrat and economist, confronted the worst moment of his career. The man whose personal integrity is a byword in India’s dirty politics and whose personal reputation helped crisis-hit India change directions in 1991, found himself battling with enemies from the right and left, as well as from within. An angry prime minister dared the Left to withdraw support on the issue of the Indo-US nuclear deal, and the doctrinaire anti-American CPI(M) General Secretary, Prakash Karat, took the opportunity to tug that rug under the government’s feet. After a show of determination, the government retreated in panic and froze the process. The spat and its outcome resulted in his reputation suffering the worst buffeting it had ever got in his otherwise sterling career.
The Prime Minister’s behaviour pattern was uncharacteristic even though the provocation from the Left was great. His apogee was the August 6 interview to The Telegraph, “I told them to do whatever they want to do; if they want to withdraw support, so be it”. But then came the perigee on October 12 at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit when he said, “If the deal does not come through, it will be a disappointment. But sometimes in life you have to live with them. It is not the end of life”.
Many explanations have been put forward for the Prime Minister’s behaviour — pique, intolerance, arrogance and so on. Few have bothered to look at another factor which was no secret, but whose significance has been grossly underestimated.
The Prime Minister was being bothered by that nagging, sometimes dangerous, problem of age — an enlarged prostate gland. According to doctors, the PM had been suffering from benign prostatic condition for the past three years. Prostate surgery is usually an elective procedure. But if the PM had the surgery at the time he did, Saturday, September 15 — in the midst of a full-blown political crisis — it is clear that his condition was not good and that either he, or his doctors, felt there was some urgency. Undoubtedly his doctors would have told him that it was a minor procedure and that he would be fit as a fiddle in no time. Fortunately, the surgery went well and the growth was benign. But the recovery may not have been as smooth as he had been told it would be. One reason is, as appearances show, the Prime Minister is a somewhat fragile person. He is also old and he celebrated his 75th birthday while convalescing on September 26. The first indication that things were not going as per schedule was when the PM was not discharged on Monday, as planned, but a day later. The next indication came on September 28, when a terse note issued by the PMO said that the PM was still recovering and that his visit to Punjab and Himachal was cancelled. On Air Force Day — October 8, three weeks after the surgery, the Prime Minister was clearly not well. He sat out the entire reception on the sofa, while President Pratibha Patil and Ms Sonia Gandhi mixed with the assemblage. It is difficult to believe that the PM's frame of mind was not affected by his illness and surgery, minor though both were mooted to be.
Only in the last fifty years, when hair-trigger decision-making became an issue, has the subject been studied by social historians and what it reveals is not pleasant. According to one, Bert Park, notwithstanding what his physicians said, President Franklin Roosevelt was seriously ill between 1940-44 and it affected his performance as a war leader; he has also linked Hitler’s rise to the age-related dementia of British Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald and German Chancellor Paul von Hindenburg who, as one story goes, signed everything that his staff placed before him, including a packet of sandwiches. Even today it is not clear as to the degree to which Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s serious illness affected his political judgment and attitude in the crucial months of January-August 1947 .
Perhaps the most dramatic impact of illness on public affairs was the influenza pandemic of 1918 which killed more people than the Great War of 1914-1918. It ran its course through most of 1919, the first half of which took up the Paris Peace Conference that gave the world the terribly flawed Treaty of Versailles. Many negotiators were struck down by the flu, and nearly one-third died. President Woodrow Wilson’s chief of staff Colonel Edward House was struck down and as he noted in his diary in late February, “When I fell ill in January, I lost the thread of affairs and I am not sure that I have ever gotten fully back.” Wilson arrived in mid-March, at the final stages of the negotiations, and was struck down by the flu. The Treaty of Versailles has been called the worst treaty in the world, ever. It imposed punitive terms on Germany, leading to the rise of Hitler and World War II, it delayed the US’s entry into the world as a great power, and gave us the flawed League of Nations that did little to avert the catastrophe.
In India, things have not reached that stage, though we do not know how ill Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri was at the time of the Tashkent Conference, dying soon after. But you have to only recall a couple of instances of the Vajpayee prime ministership to realise that it is not that far-fetched. Vajpayee had a number of ongoing problems when he became PM — prostate, kidney, but after he took office, his most nagging ones were his arthritic knees.
For almost a year before the surgery, on June 7, 2001, Vajpayee was down and out. People who met the septuagenarian leader him found him listless and inattentive and prone to long silences. Whether or not the long healing process was the cause, is difficult to say, but the surgery was followed by the disastrous Agra Summit with President Pervez Musharraf on July 14-16 and the threat, shortly thereafter, by Vajpayee to resign because of allegations that his kin may have been involved in a scam. Unfortunately, the surgery did not help him as much as he expected, and the then 74-year old leader took more than a year to regain his composure, having the indignity of being attacked for being “asleep at the wheel” in a Time magazine article in June 2002.
The problem with doctors attending prime ministers, and of PMs listening to doctors, is that they think that the aura of the office will somehow make recovery and convalescence different. You may get world-class medical treatment and care, but the human body does not know whether you are the PM or his driver. What matters are the laws of nature and your age.
In a country with a tradition of geriatric leadership, the issue of the impact of illness on decision-making should be a serious one. The idea that one man’s illness can change history may appear somewhat far-fetched. But it would be difficult to deny that when a leader as crucial as a president or a prime minister undergoes illness and recovery, his or her state of mind is not normal and can impair their judgment. To believe otherwise would be to believe they are not human, and that, of course, is not the case.