What happens when the people in charge get sick?
n the early 1950s, an ailing Ghulam Mohammad, governor general of Pakistan, handed over charge of the country to Major General Iskandar Mirza. It is said he was not only physically unwell but had also been suffering from problems necessitating psychiatric treatment. Ghulam Mohammad’s case is one of the many instances of politicians’ ailments that have raised public concerns in a number of countries over the years.
The point is that not even men and women in political authority are free of physical and even mental illnesses. The worries that have been generated by Donald Trump’s falling prey to the novel coronavirus ought, therefore, to be observed from the perspective of recent history. What has been happening to him is what has laid to rest more than a million people across the globe.
But, then, he is president of his country. Any president or prime minister who falls ill becomes a subject of national and sometimes global worry. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already moved to invoke the 25th amendment against presidential incapacity to govern, given the erratic manner in which Trump has been functioning since returning from hospital.
Going back to Pakistan, its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah suffered acutely from cancer in the run-up to the partition of India. He and his doctor managed to keep the malady a secret, for fear that a disclosure of it would wreck his political plans. Jinnah was eventually to succumb to cancer 13 months after the creation of Pakistan. The astute Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, in his final years, was not in very good health. Put in prison by the Ayub Khan regime, he was freed after quite some time and flew off to Beirut, where he died in December 1963. Despite suspicions that his death was a well-contrived murder, there are many who believe that a cardiac arrest killed him.
Much a similar tale is related to Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, whose life came to a sudden end hours after he signed the Tashkent Declaration with Pakistan’s president in January 1966. The president, of course, was Ayub Khan. In 1968, Ayub fell seriously ill and was not seen in public for months. His medical team carefully concealed information about his illness and it is thought he was almost on the verge of death. But he did recover, and was to live till April 1974. His successor Yahya Khan died of ailments in August 1980, nine years after he left office following the break-up of Pakistan in the Bangladesh war.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman suffered from beriberi in his boyhood, which resulted in his eyesight getting affected. In adulthood, he remained free of ailments, except for problems with his gall bladder soon after Bangladesh’s emergence as a sovereign nation. He was operated on in London in July 1972. Jawaharlal Nehru was in acute illness in 1964 but managed to carry on with his functions as India’s prime minister. He finally collapsed in May of the year.
Harold Macmillan left 10 Downing Street owing to prostate-related problems in October 1963 but would live on for many more years. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto underwent a hernia operation in 1971. In the weeks before his execution in April 1979, he suffered from acute gum and teeth problems in solitary confinement. He lost health badly during his incarceration.
Richard Nixon did not have any visible ailments in office, but within weeks of resigning the presidency in August 1974, he developed an acute form of phlebitis which seriously impaired his movements. He slowly recovered and died 20 years later. John F Kennedy, because of his recurring back problems, which in fact were compounded by Addison’s disease, suffered badly in the thousand days he was president of the United States. The rocking chair he used in the White House was one of the ways in which he tried to keep his backache from worsening.
In their old age, a number of Soviet leaders were reduced to a state which undercut their ability to move physically with ease and psychologically focus on the issues they were expected to deal with. Leonid Brezhnev and Konstantin Chernenko were doddering old men toward the end of their lives. Yuri Andropov was slightly better, but not enough to survive. In later times, Russian leader Boris Yeltsin demonstrated not just the effects of his alcoholism but also his bad heart condition. He died of a heart failure, but that was when he was no more president of Russia.
Ronald Reagan spent some time in hospital after an assassination attempt on him in March 1981. He joked about it, telling wife Nancy: “Honey, I forgot to duck.” Reagan was eventually to succumb to Alzheimer’s disease, dying with no remembrance of his past. Decades before Reagan, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served for 12 years in the White House, spent a major part of his adult life in a wheelchair. Polio had deprived him of normal physical movement, but that did little to affect his intellect, as was to be demonstrated through his leadership in steering his country out of the Great Depression and then propelling it to victory, with America’s allies, over the Nazis.
In his years on Iran’s throne, Reza Shah Pahlavi gave little sign of suffering from any illness. However, soon after he was dethroned, revelations emerged of the cancer that would soon put an end to his life. Exiled from his country, he would be buried in Cairo. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser succumbed to a heart attack in September 1970. In 1955, US President Dwight Eisenhower suffered a major heart attack but would not transfer provisional authority to Vice President Richard Nixon. Eisenhower fell ill again in 1957, but this time he prepared a note saying that in the event of his inability to carry out his functions, the vice president would be in charge. That moment did not, though, come to pass, as the president soon recovered.
Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro have survived the coronavirus. Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza was not so lucky. The coronavirus claimed him in June this year.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s illness was brushed off by his colleagues as nothing that could generate worry. And then he died of an infection in Belgium in 2012. Turkish President Turgut Ozal’s death in 1993 was sudden, though it has been suggested it was caused by poisoning. No definitive conclusions have yet been drawn. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin died of a massive stroke in 1924.
The narrative goes on.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.