Illustration by Suneesh K
Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin recently took a four-week summer holiday. In a country whose people have been voted the happiest in the world, this isn’t unusual at all. And Marin isn’t being selfish about it. According to a Bloomberg report, she wants to push for shorter hours for all employees in this country of 5.5 million along with fair employment rules to stop work creeping into people’s free time.
Over the years we have seen pictures of a shirtless Vladimir Putin, spearfishing, hunting and boating while on vacation. Angela Merkel, no slouch at work, has at times headed off to Italy for a hiking holiday with her husband, Joachim Sauer. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau may have overdone it on his kitschy Taj holiday to India in 2018 but that’s not stopped him from taking more impromptu breaks.
It is the way of all flesh. The body needs rest, the brain some diversion. P.G. Wodehouse put it simply “Change of scene is the thing.” The gossip columnist Earl Wilson made it a bit more complex though the idea is the same: “A vacation is what you take when you can no longer take what you’ve been taking.”
Unfortunately, that’s not a dictum followed by our political worthies. In fact, such holidays are taboo in India, where our leaders can’t afford to give the impression they have families and friends. Spending time with them, as Marin apparently did, is considered blasphemous; going on vacations, even worse.
Those who have dared, have been branded as slackers and sniggered at even if it was behind their backs or a few safe decades later. Rajiv Gandhi, as prime minister, did go on a couple of well-documented Lakshadweep and Andaman & Nicobar Islands vacations with his extended family and friends. But that was early on in his tenure when he was still naïve enough to believe such indulgences were kosher and before he was howitzered by Bofors. Among other prime ministers, Atal Behari Vajpayee would often go to Manali for some R&R while Jawaharlal Nehru was known to go for an occasional dip in Dal Lake. More recently, B.S. Yediyurappa, went for a holiday to the Maldives with his family members but that was after he stepped down as chief minister of Karnataka.
But these are the honourable exceptions. Mostly it is all work and no play for India’s political leaders. Even when they travel abroad, which till the pandemic hit, was quite often, they shy away from giving the impression they are there to do any sightseeing. Formal visits to well-chosen spots are the best they let themselves be drawn into. And retail therapy, that opium of the well-heeled, is a strict no-no.
Forget vacations, India’s politicians don’t even take an evening off. Even if going for a drink, like a lot of us do, would be considered utterly sacrilegious, how about an occasional meal at a restaurant with friends and family? Arvind Kejriwal is known to visit a certain Chinese restaurant on anniversaries and birthdays, but your chances of spotting the Delhi CM there are now quite low. At one time L.K. Advani, accompanied by his family, would often go to Woodlands at the Ambassador Hotel in Delhi and Advani and Vajpayee would often wash away the disappointment of an electoral reverse by taking in a film at a local theatre. We didn’t think any the worse of them for such indulgences.
Over the last two decades, however, such minor luxuries have been completely eliminated. The pressures of office have kept both Manmohan Singh and the present Prime Minister Narendra Modi tied to their work with no time for fun and frolic.
Of course, it has been a difficult time and an elaborate holiday or even a frequent one of the kind that a certain Donald Trump came to be known for, would be completely out of line. But a short break, with some time off from work, might just be what the doctor ordered to get the doshas back into shape.