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Two Indians Who Just Won't Quit

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Will he retire? Will he resign? India waits with baited breath. The first question pertains to god himself, India's idol, love, and obsession rolled into one, the cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. The second is about India's lame-duck prime minister, Manmohan Singh.

Both have seen better days. Tendulkar, a national addiction since the early nineties, was, in his pomp, the best batsman in the world. He has been playing international cricket for almost a quarter-century, longevity unmatched in modern times. For the first fifteen years of his career, he was so buccaneering in his batting, so impudent to the bowling, that Indians would rub their eyes in disbelief that he was Indian.

Then injuries set in. First the back, then tennis elbow, finally the shoulder. His career seemed at an end. India's fickle press called him Endulkar. But he bounced back, changing his style from power to touch. Rafael Nadal had become Roger Federer. India was beside itself with joy. Its favorite son, given up for dead, had resurrected himself.

Singh and Tendulkar are fellow-travelers. Singh as finance minister had revived India's economy in the early nineties. Tendulkar's emergence just then imbued the country with self-belief. Generations before him had suffered from an inferiority complex of the West. But Tendulkar would take on white men twice his size and beard them in their own den. A professional class, liberated by Singh's reforms, felt that it too could do likewise. Numerous IT companies sprouted, becoming world-beaters. While Singh was looked up to, Tendulkar, almost to a man, was worshiped.

Singh receded into the shadows, and then re-emerged to become the country's prime minister in 2004, although bossed around by his party leader, Sonia Gandhi. The nation still expected him to match his record as finance minister and make India an economic giant. He started meekly but realized that the best way to tame Sonia was with the threat of resignation. She had no choice but to back off because she needed him until her son, Rahul, came of age. Thus emboldened, he signed a nuclear deal with the U.S.

His shining moment came when he won reelection in 2009. He was 76 and if he had quit then, he would have gone down as a successful prime minister. But Rahul was still raw, as well as reluctant, so Singh soldiered on.

Tendulkar meanwhile reverted to type. Rid of pain, he started pulverizing bowlers once again. Cricket pundits started calling him the greatest batter ever, heresy in a sport where the pedestal is reserved, for eternity, for the Australian Donald Bradman. Such accolades though were music to Indian ears. In 2011, he powered his team to victory in cricket's world cup, which had eluded him five teams before. The country exulted in his triumph. Had he retired then, India would quite likely have bestowed upon him its highest civilian honor, never before given to a sportsperson.

But both Tendulkar and Singh wanted to leave a bigger legacy. Singh though failed to realize that in the success of his first term lay the seeds of his downfall. Sonia Gandhi still wanted to retain him, but only after demolishing any hubris that he might have acquired. Attack dogs were let loose, and quit only when Singh was restrained. His government's coalition allies, knowing that he could be pushed around, started to loot the state. His party men too took the cue.

Just a year into his second term, Singh was besieged by scandal. His personal integrity being above reproach, people were perplexed how he had allowed corruption to become a tidal wave. Instead of taking corrective action, he dilly-dallied. His government became a tinderbox. If one fire was put out, another erupted. The country wondered why he did not pack it all in while he still retained some credibility.

In contrast, Tendulkar's world cup high had given his fans such a high that, like opium addicts, they kept asking for more. An unprecedented bar, a century of international centuries (a century is 100 runs) was set for him. He started groaning under the pressure, and took a year to achieve the landmark, to India's collective sigh. Was this the grand finale?

Of course not. The 38-year old, ancient in the world of modern cricket, was now tasked with inspiring cricketers unborn or sullying their diapers when he started playing. But just as his wards started flourishing, he wobbled. For over two decades, India had demanded from him, as one can only demand of god, a century each time he walked out to bat. Now his fans tremble, praying that he just stay put at the crease. Seldom lately has he kept the contract between man and god.

Lost perhaps on both Singh and Tendulkar is that their legacy is already secure, and the more they try to recover lost ground, the more they slip. Surely the time has come to take a bow and walk away, Singh into the sunset, Tendulkar into a new avatar.