Mallikarjun Kharge, Sonia Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, and Dr. Manmohan Singh Image Credit: ANI

Politics is addictive. I have never heard of a politician or leader opting for voluntary retirement. Power in India is an elixir. I have seen decrepit ageing leaders literally come back to the pink of health at the first sniff of heady power and office.

Your average Indian in his 80s, mid or later, will be living a quiet life, eating a careful diet, and making trips to the doctors and specialists they have on their speed dial. Now take your average politician in his 80s: a vital, engaged, powerful person, meeting up to 60-70 people a day, and in election times, the average just explodes.

Leaders like Mallikarjun Kharge, who is an active Congress President at the age of 81, Sonia Gandhi, 77, Sidaramiah, 75, Pinarayi Vijayan, 78, Kapil Sibal, who is 75, and is active in politics as well as top drawer counsel in the Supreme Court arguing important constitutional cases such as the recent electoral bonds matter. Take Sharad Pawar, Nationalist Congress Party founder, who is fighting an existential political war at the age of 83 after having beaten cancer.

Former Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh is the exception to the political rule as usual. Singh formally bowed out of politics at the ripe old age of 91.

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And, as age becomes a huge factor in the American elections with President, Joe Biden, 81, considered “old” by the Republicans and some voters squaring off against Donald Trump, who is no spring chicken at 77 years of age. Both leaders have taken performative health checks and rush to do things that make them seem vital and the elusive young.

Biden tried to dismiss such talk but then was forced to put on a display of physical activities. Aides grew concerned about his speech “gaffes” which had earlier been dismissed with a laugh. Even Dr Jill Biden gave interviews saying her husband was hyper fit to lead the American people.

In the USA good looks and seeming youth in candidates running for President alongside a “perfect family” is prized and is part of the deal. Take the Obama family: young, beautiful, and photogenic with Michele Obama, a high powered lawyer, the perfect photogenic First Lady flanked by her two beautiful daughters.

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'Youth leaders'

In India, we don’t place such a premium on youth and showcasing a perfect nuclear family as they do in the oldest democracy in the world. Most of India’s top leaders are single like Modi, Mamata Banerjee, Rahul Gandhi, Nitish Kumar. Age and physical fitness are not considered an entry barrier in Indian politics. In fact, middle-aged leaders like Rahul Gandhi, 53, are destined to always be referred to as youth leaders.

In fact, one of the Gandhi brigade leaders who crossed over to the BJP complained to me once that his son was a teenager and he was still being considered a youth leader in the Congress. This is a regular complaint of the now scattered RG brigade.

So while the Indian voter is forgiving of age, the big fight of 2024 will inevitably see some leaders retire to their own party’s version of the Margdarshak Mandal conceived of by Modi and Shah to end the careers of BJP’s founders L K Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi.

The Maharashtra public knows instinctively that this could be “Saheb” as Pawar is called all across the state’s last election and knowing that he is fighting with his back to the wall are sympathetic. I was told by one Maratha voter “it is not right for ungrateful children to usurp all that the father has created in his lifetime. If you can’t be faithful to your uncle who has given you everything you will think of the voter as nothing.”.

Retirement from politics?

Pawar, a doughty Maratha, understands this yet makes no overt references to it.

But, consider this contradiction in Indian politics: Rahul Gandhi is physically fit, did a daunting Yatra across India where his tight white fitted T-shirt became something of a symbol yet somehow he’s not struck a chord with the youth which 73-year-old Narendra Modi has.

So is SWAT analysis predicting any leader’s retirement post elections. No chance.