Time was when LK Advani zipped across the country on his yatras, meeting people and addressing meetings at all times of the day. The Advani who hit the campaign trail last Saturday in Gandhinagar, a seat that's sent him to the Lok Sabha since 1991, is a very different man. At 86 years of age, that's only to be expected. These days, BJP's seniormost leader starts his campaign at 8 in the morning, and ends — if it's elsewhere by 5.30-6 in the evening and till 9-10 pm if he's within the city.
No wonder Advani's contender in the Aam Admi Party in Gandhinagar Rituraj Mehta is making capital of what the media terms the 'age factor' — large posters all over ask voters whom they'd prefer, a 49-year-old or an 85-year-old?
Old is gold?
AAP's Mehta may be expecting his voters to answer the question in his favour, but the truth of the matter is that old age has never really been a qualifer for us Indians. According to a 2011 study on age and leadership in The Economist, the median age of our politicians is 68 years — the fourth-highest among the 20 countries for which it gave data (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Cuba figured before India). Those figures may be somewhat dated but the general drift remains true — old is gold in Indian politics.
Even in these elections, when political parties are hoping that young voters, especially the estimated '150 million first-time voters', will make a difference in several constituencies, there are as many as 41 candidates who are 76 years or older in the fray in the first five phases of the elections, shows analysis by the Association of Democratic Reforms, an organisation that conducts and puts out election-watch reports.
In some cases like that of Ram Sundar Das, the 93-year-old who is contesting on a Janata Dal (United) ticket from Bihar's Hajipur constituency, old age can be a real handicap. Das, the sitting MP, faces a strong opponent in Lok Janshakti Party-chief Ram Vilas Paswan, who hopes to benefit from his tie-up with BJP, prepped to be on a winning streak with Narendra Modi as its PM candidate.
Be it the anxiety of a tough fight, or the debilitating heat of the Bihar plains, or just plain age — Das can frequently be seen sitting down while those close to him fetch water or juice. The officer on special duty, who goes everywhere with him, can often be spotted helping him climb and get down from the stage. Quite often, he ends his public meetings midway and takes a nap. "He came for a public meeting in Bhagwanpur. He spoke for some time and then went away to take rest in a roadside hotel," a resident of Lalganj recalls. Das could attend the second meeting only after a two-hour nap.
Similarly, E Ahamed, the Indian Union Muslim League's 76-year-old candidate from Malappuram in Kerala and minister of state for external affairs in the outgoing government, only starts campaigning by 9-9.30 am and winds up by 5 pm. He avoids campaigning on foot, and can only walk with the support of his aides; he does not address meetings from podiums but speaks to people leaning on the Innova in which he travels. It's not just age, of course, but also a fractured leg. "The other day, when he arrived for a meeting at around five in the evening, his feet were so swollen that he could hardly stand. He somehow finished speaking and rushed home,'' says a reporter of a national daily.
Exceptions to the rule
But Das and Ahamed are exceptions; most senior Indian politicians are extraordinarily well preserved for their age and keep up a punishing schedule.
Murli Manohar Joshi, the BJP's other senior leader who is contesting from Kanpur this time, keeps a long campaigning day that usually starts at 6 am with an informal meeting with morning walkers. Later, there's meetings with party workers to decide the day's programme followed by morning puja, which lasts for an hour and sometimes an hour-and-a-half. The 79-year-old who suffers from no major ailment then has breakfast at 9.30-10 am — mainly poha (rice flakes), dalia (wheat-based cereal), and sometimes the regular north Indian morning fare of poori and sabzi. Lunch is at home, again the simple fare of chapati, dal, rice and curd. Joshi is particular about eating at home, or home-cooked food, endless cups of tea and namkeen keep him going on the way. Campaigning ends around 10-11 pm — a long day of 16-17 hours.
A healthy regimen
A fixed daily routine, light food and some exercise — these are the factors that keep our septuagenarian and octogenarian candidates going. O Rajagopal, the BJP's 85-year-old candidate from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, for instance, starts his day at 5 am, with twenty minutes of surya namaskara, followed by meditation for an hour. Soon after, there're confabulations with his campaign managers over a cup of light black tea and the day's papers, to decide on the day's programme. A light breakfast of idlis or dosas, Rajagopal sets off on the campaign at 8 am and continues until 11 am, addressing meetings, attending receptions, visiting housing colonies, markets and other public places. Over a short, five-minute break and a few tender coconuts, he joins the waiting party workers and continues until 2.30-3 pm, after which the entourage breaks for a pure vegetarian lunch at a party worker's home. Next, a 30-minute nap which his personal aide Ramesh calls "shavasana'' before he plunges into the bustle of campaign which ends only at 11-11.30 pm, with only a break at 7 in the evening for a cup of tea and some snacks. Most of the senior candidates seem to be frugal eaters. Advani, for instance, is a small eater, and eats only vegetarian food. Roti is his staple — no rice. And no aerated cold drinks for refreshment, but copious quantities of milk in various forms through the day, either cold coffee, buttermilk, or flavoured milk.
Das, too, is vegetarian and specially likes fruits and green vegetables. His daughters-in-law — he is a widower — take every care to provide home-cooked meals and water in his vehicle.
In Bengal, the BJP's candidate from Krishnanagar Satyabrata Mookherjee, swears by the yoga asanas he does before venturing out to campaign. Yoga which keeps away diseases and ailments that comes with advancing age, believes 82-year-old Mookherjee.
Similarly, Nimu Bhowmik, 79, the party's candidate from Raiganj constituency in West Bengal, abjures cooked food altogether on the campaign trail. "I start off early in the day after having a bowl of milk and cornflakes," he says, with a light snack of chhana (cottage cheese), raisins and cashews, giving him enough carbohydrates to keep him going through the day.
A well-known character actor in Bengali films, Bhowmik has a rather innovative method of handling the potholes on the roads in his constituency where he faces a tough challenge from Satya Ranjan Das Munshi of Trinamool Congress, who is ailing Congress leader Priya Ranjan Das Munshi's brother, and Deepa Das Munshi, Priya Ranjan's wife and the sitting MP. He wears a harness around his waist on roads trips — not the usual orthopedic belt but a special one given to him by his nephew Jashadeep, a commercial pilot. "Pilots, particularly those who are senior and flying non-stop for eight-nine hours sometimes wear this harness. I have given this to Nimu uncle and he finds it useful particularly while driving for hours on broken village roads," says Jashadeep, who's taken leave to help Bhowmik campaign.
Despite the brave front the elderly candidates put up on the campaign trail, it isn't easy being out in the heat in the middle of summer. So what keeps them going? Rajagopal has been contesting elections for the past 25 years, and has stood for assembly and Lok Sabha elections, but luck has eluded him every time. "Contesting the elections is a party assignment. So I am not bothered about the outcome. This is the party strategy to make inroads in the state where it has failed to win a single assembly or a parliamentary seat so far. If the party asks me to contest in the next elections also, being a disciplined party worker, I have no choice."
Ahamed in Malappuram, however, had difficulty getting a ticket. His party workers wanted him replaced with someone younger, saying he had failed to deliver. He was almost denied the seat, but the party leadership had to yield when the general secretary of the IUML threatened to split the party. Ahamed does not say whether he will contest in future but insiders say he will never say no. "He will never vacate the safe Malappuram seat. Being a Parliamentarian gives him a lot of clout ," says a party district functionary.
So if voters are looking for young fresh faces on the campaign trail, they may have to wait another five years. Or maybe not.
Weight of years, wealth of political experience
Ram Sundar Das, 93 JD(U)
Currently contesting from Hajipur, Bihar, Das (above)represented the seat in Lok Sabha in 1991 and 2009. He was the chief minister of the state from April 21, 1979 to February 17, 1980.
Das is a vegetarian and likes fruits and green vegetables. His daughters-in-law take every care to provide home-cooked meals and water in his vehicle.
O Rajagopal, 85 BJP
Rajagopal is currently contesting from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. His maiden contest for Lok Sabha was from Manjeri in Malappuram district in 1989. He tried his luck again in 1991 and 1999 from Thiruvananthapruam, but to no success.
He starts his day at 5 am with 20 minutes of surya namaskara followed by an hour of meditation.
Satyabrata Mookherjee, 82 BJP
Mookherjee is contesting from Krishnanagar, West Bengal. He previously contested for Lok Sabha in 1999. He believes yoga keeps away diseases and ailments that comes with advancing age.
Nimu Bhowmik, 79 BJP
Bhowmik currently is contesting from Raiganj, West Bengal. He starts his day with a bowl of milk and cornflakes. He has a rather innovative way of dealing with potholes on the roads of his constituency. He wears a harness around his waist on roads trips— not the usual orthopedic belt, but a special one given to him by his nephew Jashadeep, a commercial pilot.
E Ahamed, 76 Indian Union Muslim League
He is currently contesting from Malappuram, Kerala. He contested and was elected to Lok Sabha in 1991, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2004 and 2009.
Ahamed avoids campaigning on foot, and can only walk with the support of his aides; he does not address meetings from podiums but speaks to people leaning on the Innova in which he travels.