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The ruling elite: 
Overweight, Overage, Overpaid

A fumbling, bumbling gerontocracy rules India with disastrous consequences, writes M Mazharul Haque

Imagine the prime minister of a country being carried around on a wheelchair. Or being helped by aides to stand on his feet. The top-most leader of a country stuttering incoherently, barely able to carry himself around. How will the public perceive these images?

Will it be like this: If he is not able to look after himself, how can he take care of the entire nation? A nation constituting 1 billion people.

Time magazine’s story on the failing health and habits of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is a common knowledge. Time wrote that Vajpayee had only one kidney, replaced knees and high cholesterol. He took a three-hour snooze in the afternoon and showed signs of mental fatigue because he slurred his way through press conferences, stumbled to the podiums and fell asleep in cabinet meetings. The reporter Alex Perry had to bear the brunt of the Indian establishment for his audacity. He was unnecessarily queried about his passport, and summoned by pokey officials.

Time’ s story initiated a debate about aged politicians of India, who were also overweight and overpaid. The "weighty problems" Vajpayee is said to be coping with in the Time story do not relate to the state, but to his obesity. BBC online conducted an opinion poll. The respondents were non-resident Indians based in Britain, Canada and US. The poll asked people their opinion on the age of Indian politicians. The Asian Age, the Indian Express and the Hindustan Times carried articles on aged politicians.

Most of the top Indian leaders are in their late 60s or 70s. Atal Behari Vajpayee is 78. Lal Krishna Advani is around 75, Yashwant Sinha 65. Jyoti Basu and Harkishan Singh Surjeet of Communist Party of India Marxist (CPIM) are in their 80s. Former Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao and Inder Kumar Gujral are in their late 70s.

Some politicians who went abroad for treatment 
on government expenditure




Late Sitaram Kesari


15 lakh


heart disease

10 lakh

Ajit Panja

burning in Pancreas

48 lakh

Arjun Singh

heart disease

9 lakh

Sheela Kaul

Eye disease

5.2 lakh

Ram Nivas Mirdha

not stated

15.88 lakh


not stated

23.21 lakh

K. Rammurti 

not stated

11.46 lakh

S. Jaipal Reddy

not stated

16.11 lakh

C.K. Jaffar Sharief

not stated

37.68 lakh

These leaders despite medical facilities available in India go to the US or England for treatment on public expense. In 1991, Narasimha Rao went to Texas for heart surgery. In 1994, late Sitaram Kesari, then Union social welfare minister, travelled to England and the US for the treatment of asthma. During 1991-1997, more than 80 VIPs went to foreign countries for treatment--most of them to the US or England. As many as 65 attendants and nine doctors accompanied them. Government spent Rs. 8 crore on the health of these politicians.

In contrast to India's gerontocracy, there is a worldwide trend for having young leaders. British prime minister Tony Blair, US president George W. Bush, Russian president Valadimir Putin and Sri Lankan president Chandrika Kumaratunga are examples of youthful exuberance and dynamism. Former US President Bill Clinton ascended to American presidency at the age of 45 and retired at 53.

Why people want young persons as their representatives? Old leaders represent their own generation rather than the younger generations. They are influenced by the values and ethos of their own time. They can take such decisions which may be contrary to the aspirations of young people. When everyone is talking about information technology, globalisation and genome, such leaders talk about bullock cart, spinning wheel and cow urine.

People like seeing dynamic leaders executing programmes and policies and being with them on occasions. Old age prevents this kind of dynamism which is expected from people sitting at the helm of affairs.

A long stint in power breeds corruption. When they know that they have to stay long in power, their attention is diverted from performance to corrupt practices for amassing wealth. This is hated by the public. The people don't want their money eaten up by someone else. If the top level politician remains too long in the saddle, the junior ranks may stagnate.

In old age, faculties like listening, remembering and vision become weak. Vajpayee once forgot the name of Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, then a Union minister of state for home.

The history of India is replete with old and ailing leaders. The second president of India Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was almost blind a year after he took over as President of India. During the last year of his presidency, the 78-year old president suffered a stroke which numbed his right hand and slurred his speech. President Shankar Dayal Sharma suffered from acute arthritis. Jawaharlal Nehru remained in the saddle for many months in 1964 after he suffered a stroke. Lal Bahadur Shastri suffered a heart attack soon after he took over as prime minister. Sardar Patel died from a heart attack. His adversaries Jaya Prakash Narayan and other socialists demanded his resignation for security failure in protecting Mahatma Gandhi. The critics said that a man of 74 should not look after departments which a person of 30 would find difficult to handle.

There is increasing awareness among people about the age of politicians in India. Old age does not bar one from occupying a political position anywhere in the world. However, there is no need for the old guard to stay too long in the saddle. After 65, they should quit politics and enjoy the serenity of their homes and take care of their grandchildren. Till this age a politician can render worthwhile service to the nation and society. 

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