Last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj aggressively took on the Congress on the Lalit Modi issue. Her scathing attack ended with a reference to Rahul Gandhi’s now legendary, two-month long sabbatical. “Since you like holidaying so much, next time please read up on your family history,” spoke Swaraj in a tone of withering scorn. Senior minister Arun Jaitley also took a swipe: “There are people who, for generations in politics, have not worked for a living. They have learnt the art of living comfortably without working.”
Whichever side of the political debate one is on, the unambiguous message supported by mostly all Indians is, if you’re in the running for the top job in the country you don’t have the luxury of taking time off. In this case, I find myself somewhat sympathetic towards Rahul. Grudging him a holiday after a gruelling election which his party lost magnificently, and bringing it up repeatedly, smacks of an oversensitivity to the finer nuances of living. To survive in politics, it appears, one has to maintain and show off a bleary state of overwork at all times, no matter how unsustainable or unnecessary.
The greatest patriots of India subscribe to this. It is said the late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam only took two holidays in his life, both for deaths, of his mother and father. The current President, Pranab Mukerjee, allows himself only a day or two off to meet family during Durga Puja. Contrast this with UK Prime Minister David Cameron who is taking three holidays in August, very wisely, only after he was re-elected. So far President Obama has taken 180 days off in his two terms in office.
India has among the largest number of public holidays in the world at 21, but there is a tendency to frown upon leisure as unproductive downtime. Our culture of toiling and striving has produced many corporate stars like the new Google head, Sundar Pichai. This diligence has stood us in good stead as many governments in the world’s richest economies struggle to reform their welfare systems and motivate citizens to work more than 35 hours a week. One must acknowledge all the earnest and hard working Indians who make this world a better place. However, it doesn’t augur well for those of us who need an occasional goof off to survive.
Despite all those aggravating truisms about work being worship and that if you enjoy what you do it isn’t work, the best days of my life are, and always have been, the days I’m on holiday. Luckily, since I’m aware of my penchant for leisure I opted out of lofty ambitions like changing the destiny of mankind or running for office. You can genuinely enjoy what you do but not want to do it everyday. The aristocratic philosopher Aristotle recognised in 350 BC that life begins where work ends when he wrote, “Happiness is thought to depend on leisure; for we are busy that we may have leisure and make war that we may live in peace.”
Leisure, not necessarily meaning killing time, rather time for self cultivation, and to choose the best life out of the options available to us.
It’s only tech companies that depend and thrive on creative, unconventional ideas that actively encourage holidays and a break from mundane routine. Google has for long had a day a week devoted to focused free thinking to allow employees to turn their imagination on new ways to do things. Taking a step out is sometimes essential to see your role in the world. Rahul dared to claim some time for himself. Whether it was to contemplate the nature of the universe or to gain clarity on his party’s political future remains to be seen.