LEADERS AND LEGACY
Poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota has this to say about enlightenment at the end of his life: “Neither did I accumulate devotion, nor did I acquire acumen; nothing matters but Lord Krishna, as I approach the life’s end.”
We human beings are wired to mellow with advancing age. Atheists in their youth become religious in old age; the religious become devout; the greedy become generous; the fiery become gentle; the sinner become pious; and non-charitable become charitable. We worry more about legacy and afterlife, as we get closer to the eternal journey, as Devkota has so nicely said. But by the time we realize, it would usually be too late to do good deeds to build better legacy or better afterlife.
Let me illustrate this point citing two events in April 2013. British Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher died and Pakistani Iron Man Pervez Muserraf was arrested. Both events have stoked strong passion for and against these once remarkable politicians, imparting a lesson to all others that what you do to make yourself iron man or iron lady eventually comes back to haunt and does not give you a second chance to rectify your mistakes.
For starters, Thatcher was the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom who served from 1979 to 1990. Elected as Member of Parliament in 1959, Prime Minister Edward Heath appointed her as the secretary of state for education and science in 1970. She would earn the nickname of ‘Thatcher the milk snatcher’ for cutting funding for milk made available to children at school. After her party lost the election, she defeated her mentor and became leader of the opposition in 1975.
As leader of the opposition, Thatcher vehemently criticized the Soviet system in 1976, and a Russian journalist gave her the nickname of Iron Lady in Krasnaya Zvezda, a Soviet government newspaper. She became prime minister in 1979 after winning the general elections and went on to win two more polls and lead the government. She was a strong opponent of welfare state and Keynesian economics.
As a prime minister, she relentlessly denationalized public enterprises, deregulated the private sector, cut public spending, destroyed the power of trade unions, and fought the Falkland War against Argentina. Thatcher increased indirect taxes and reduced direct ones, paving the way for the biggest transfer of wealth from the poor and the middle class to the rich. The poll tax—a flat-rate tax introduced to fund local government activities—sank her popularity and forced her to resign. After resigning as prime minister, she led a mostly secluded life.
When I met her in 2008 at a royal reception, she was suffering from severe dementia. As she came around with her daughter, she fancied my son and talked with him for half an hour in the Buckingham Palace Gardens. She asked him about his school and life in the United Kingdom. As soon as my son answered, she asked the same question again, forgetting her earlier enquiry. To us, she seemed like a warm and compassionate human being, not the milk snatching iron lady.
When she died at the age of 87, one group of people mourned and the other celebrated. While mourning is a spontaneous and appropriate human reaction when someone dies, jubilation is not. But those who lost their jobs and whose lives were ruined by her policy as well as their children who suffered the consequences celebrated her death. Out in the streets, people carried banners that depicted her as a Satan. They burnt her effigies and chanted slogans against her. A song about her—Ding dong the witch is dead—hit number two spot in the national chart.
General Pervez Musharraf, as chief of the army staff, deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a coup in September 1999 and appointed himself chief executive a month later. In 2001, he became the president. Under orders from the Supreme Court, Musharraf conducted general elections and his party emerged as the largest outfit in the parliament, though it fell short of an outright majority. He ruled the country with an iron fist appointing compliant prime ministers.
In the face of his party’s loss in the general elections of 2008, his declining popularity, corruption cases, confrontation with the judiciary, and criticism from Western countries for transferring nuclear technology to North Korea, Musharraf’s position became precarious. The court denied him another term as president and put the final nail on his ambition for reelection. As Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of the Benazir Bhutto, and Nawaz Sharif, agreed to impeach him in the parliament, Musharraf resigned and went into exile.
Pakistani officials served in fear under Musharraf. For instance, at a breakfast in Washington DC, I asked Pakistani Ambassador to the United Nations Shamsad Ahmed to go and greet Benazir Bhutto, in exile then, who was seated next to our table. But he could not muster the courage and advised me to do it alone. I greeted her and spoke for a few minutes before the breakfast.
In March 2013, Musharraf returned from exile to “save Pakistan.” However, the court disqualified him for parliamentary elections from four constituencies due to the criminal cases against him. He then fled the court and went to his villa. But two days later, the police arrested him from his villa near Islamabad. In the latest development, the Peshawar High Court has barred him from running for office for life. This is the first time such a senior army figure has faced justice in Pakistan, where the army has a country rather than the country an army. Iron Man Musharraf could land in jail for many years to come.
Thatcher and Musharraf were at one time the most powerful people of their countries, and they ruled ruthlessly. By the time they realized that they had to mend their ways, they were unceremoniously kicked out. Now the ghost of their past has been haunting them—Thatcher after her death and Musharraf after his return to Pakistan from exile.
The experience of these two leaders must remind leaders of Nepal and elsewhere that history could be cruel to them as well. Even if they escape justice in court, they will have to face the court of public opinion at a time when they would have no power or no life.
Well, those leaders who have done nothing deserving to be remembered by posterity do not need to fear history. They will evoke neither accolade nor vilification after they retire or die. The challenge is for those who have wronged people and the nation or who have tried to shape history the wrong way. People might not have the guts to ridicule such leaders when they still exercise power directly or indirectly. But these leaders face public justice without fear or favor after they retire or die.
For politicians, janata is Janardan (the people are Krishna). People can bless and condemn them alive or dead. Neither power, nor money, nor relatives, nor the items of luxury they accumulate through fair or foul means can save their legacy. What can is people’s love and respect, even after they set out in the eternal journey. Life is ephemeral and may not give you a second chance to mend fences. The sooner the leaders realize this and do some good, the better for them and for Janardan janata
Published on 2013-05-05 01:15:06