Sunday, June 16, 2013

On Mandela, Nehru, and Washington ...

Given the news about Nelson Mandela, here is a re-post from a few months ago:

Every year, it seems like I always end up remembering that November 14th is Jawaharlal Nehru's birth anniversary.  It is etched so deep in my memory that it can never get erased perhaps?  Maybe it is also because it comes only days before the birthday of my closest friend from high school?  

When India became independent in 1947 and, became, thereby, the world’s largest democracy, Jawaharlal Nehru became the first prime minister.  While India continues to function as a democracy, there is a distinct possibility that Nehru’s continuation in that office until his death in 1964 precluded a natural growth of leadership and made possible, though not by his design, the family dynastic politics which characterizes the country now.

Nehru, his daughter—Indira Gandhi—and grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, have all together governed India for 37 of the 65 years!  Nehru’s great-grandson, Rahul Gandhi, is currently being actively groomed for the premiership even as his Italian-born mother, Sonia Gandhi, serves as the party chief.

But, at least, throughout all these, India plods along in its experiments in democracy.  India’s sibling, Pakistan, has had more years under military rule than as a free society.  In the years since the end of the Second World War, which rapidly terminated European rule over colonies in Asia and Africa, very few countries have had democratic governments.

In contemporary times, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela does appear to be a rare founding president.  In 1994, Mandela became the president after the collapse of the apartheid regime that had imprisoned him for almost three decades.  With all the national and local goodwill behind him, Mandela, too, could have remained in office for a long time.  Yet, he opted to exit the stage in 1999 after serving only one term.  Mandela’s shine becomes infinitely brighter against the backdrop of the likes of Mubarak, who was the president of Egypt for 31 years, and Ben Ali’s 24-year reign over Tunisia! 

As we scan the rest of Africa, half the sub-Saharan African countries are authoritarian regimes.  The most notorious among the rest is Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who has been the country’s leader ever since he successfully led the country to its independence in 1980.  In the process of cementing his rule, Mugabe has managed to convert what was the breadbasket of southern Africa into a living hell. 

The fact that democratic governance cannot be taken for granted even a decade into the twenty-first century, is quite a reminder of how much the eighteenth-century thinking of the framers of the American Constitution was way ahead of its time. 

America was an untested political experiment in the final decades of the 18th century.  In a world that was defined by kings and queens who claimed that divine right granted them the authority to rule over people and wage wars, America was setting up something completely different.  

Even in this setup, in a time period when victorious generals automatically became kings, George Washington, as America’s general who led the war to secure its independence and firm it up, made it clear that he would be no king. 

As if that much trailblazing was not enough, Washington, unlike his contemporaries who died on their beds as kings, unless defeated in wars, voluntarily walked away from the presidency even though there wasn’t any real threat to his office.  When Washington officially retired, it was not only from the presidency but, for all practical purposes, from politics itself. 

Washington's farewell address is a testament to his humility that comes from strength; he notes that he might have made mistakes, which were unintentional, and hoped that “after forty five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.”   


I wonder how India's story might have been if after completing two terms, in 1957, Nehru had walked away from the office of the prime minister and from politics itself. Given that he was a serious student of politics, I wonder why Nehru didn't draw that lesson from Washington.

1 comment:

Ramesh said...

Mandela is unique in this world. Unlike Gandhi, he did not refuse power, because he realised that as President he could do more to stabilise his country than to be outside. But then, once he had achieved stability and transition, he gracefully stepped aside and has not interfered at all. No wonder he is virtually sainted. And to think that he started life as a revolutionary believing in violence.

Nehru did stabilise free India, but as you observe, he could have stepped aside and the story of India might have been different. The grace to step aside, and then not to interfere is a very rare quality in life.

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