Satendra Nandan is Fiji’s leading writer. Satendra Nandan’s Gandhianjali will be launched in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in July at an international conference on Literatures in English. Last Friday I attended a
20 Feb 2018 16:50

Satendra Nandan is Fiji’s leading writer. Satendra Nandan’s Gandhianjali will be launched in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in July at an international conference on Literatures in English.

Last Friday I attended a discussion on Rhetoric and Political Leadership. It was mainly about Australian politics. The seminar was held at the ANU where former politicians, including prime ministers, often are or were seen trudging the corridors of lost power.

My interest was to listen to Professor John Hewson, a former Leader of the Liberal Party, currently at the ANU. His dubious claim to fame is that he lost an ‘unlosable election’ to Paul Keating in 1993.

Keating, who never even attended a university, out-manoeuvred former academic Hewson when the latter introduced GST. Many believed that Mr Hewson would have been a good prime minister with a sense of political decency and an intellectual understanding and respect for the democratic processes by which institutions exist and are strengthened, including the Parliament.

Politics, he argued, in the evening discussion with four other speakers, is a serious business and not a game. Of course, more than ever it’s dominated by some very Big Business.

From my personal experience academics do not always make good political leaders. Admittedly, writers can be worse.

But they do bring ideas and depth to issues, even knowledge and wisdom, in their fields of expertise. Knowledge is not wisdom but it can help.

Mr Hewson felt that the ordinary voter had lost faith in the political process–this has been the degradation of democracy.

He gave the example of several current leaders, all elected. Several have blood on their hands.

In between Mr Barnaby Joyce, the Leader of the Nationals and the Deputy prime minister of Australia, featured prominently.

Mr Joyce is caught in a scandal–having impregnated one of his staffers and betrayed his wife of 25 years, with four adult daughters.

The story caught the salacious imagination of a certain section of the media, some parliamentarians, and, of course, retired readers and TV watchers.

It also raised the crucial questions of a leader’s public morality and private life. After all, they make laws that affect us all.

Every other major issue has been on the back burners, while Mr Joyce’s escapades found front page headlines like ‘A Bundle of Joyce’, ‘The Joyce of Sex’, and many others.

James Joyce, the great Irish novelist, would rejoice to see the inventiveness of headline giving sub-editors.

Satirists have had a field day. One feels some sympathy for a beleaguered leader.  Normally the private life of a person is private.

Except that Mr Joyce comes out as a profoundly deceptive hypocrite. During the same sex marriage campaign, he was for family values and the sanctity of the tradition of marriage between a man and a woman.

The prime minister, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, under enormous pressure has decreed in the new ministerial code of conduct: No sexual relationship between his ministers and their staffers.

One political Labor leader described it as worthless–‘not worth the paper it’s written on’.

Perhaps it should be inscribed in a stone-tablet and hung around the neck of some people like the putrid albatross in ‘The Ancient Mariner’, one of the greatest poems of English literature, set in the South Pacific.

In all this unseemly tamasha the burning issues of Australian politics were lost: the Stolen Generation, the Aboriginal cry to be recognized in the nation’s constitution; the spreading poverty and homelessness in an increasingly uneven society of barely 25 million people and one of the richest in the world; the plight of refugees and their desperate journeys; climate change; Australia trying to become one of the leading exporters of weapons, etc.

As I drove back in the twilight, I wondered what’s leadership all about? In my reading experience, all the leaders I admired and was even inspired by, have been seeming failures.

Hardly anyone succeeded unblemished in their life-time but the standard they believed in, the quality of their thinking, the empathy of their imagination, the compassion of their hearts, touch us even today.

Is politics a game as Mr Hewson decried quoting Paul Keating? Is winning everything? 

The price of victory often is not too different. As the Duke of Wellington remarked after the Battle of Waterloo, having defeated the invincible Napolean: ‘Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won’.

Every nation has its small and big Waterloo, Civil War, Holocaust, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Partition , Coups– now from Mugabe’s Zimbabwe to Jacob Zuma.

You look around and see what indigenous leaders have done to their own peoples.

These thoughts raise the issues of Leadership to the forefront. What makes a leader? A question raised by Plato and many philosophers, who thrived on slavery, since then.

Unfortunately, the speakers didn’t show any meaningful knowledge of the world outside the Euro-centric universe of discourse.

How much the ideas of freedom, human rights, human dignity, have been  shaped by battles against the racial bigotry and barbed wires of European  xenophobia outside Europe.

One speaker dwelt on Francis Bacon, a contemporary of Shakespeare. I raised the issue that Shakespeare knew more about politics, power, ambition, corruption, the fickleness of the mob: you just have to read Julius Caesar, Macbeth,  King Lear.

But it did make me think of the journeys we’ve made in Fiji through our uneven political landscape and fluctuating fortunes.

However, despite some terrible mistakes, we’ve kept some sense of decency going and our heads steady in the devastating winds and above the drowning waves of Cyclone Gita.

That’s what the Bhagawad Gita is about as an introduction to the battles to come of the Mahabharata.

No more celestial poem or a greater doomsday epic exists in human culture than the Mahabharata.

Its one lesson is: Is winning Everything when you lose Everything? Is Duty one’s Dharma? Or is there something more precious than one’s Duty assigned by one’s caste?  Like life and goodness?

Where were the ‘heroes’ of Mahabharata when Draupadi was being disrobed in public exhibiting the terrible treatment of women from time immemorial?

And ordinary people scarcely find a voice or identity in the epic.

That fabled world has taken millennia to disappear but its essential tensions remain: the evil that men do to each other.

These thoughts will haunt the minds of many even in our islands, tragically hit by cyclone Gita.

We’ve three ex-prime-ministers currently in Fiji. Some have done their penance; some could have been the ‘heroes’ of the people. Some have caused suffering; some have suffered. And all, I’m told, want some form of political power, once again.

But is politics the only form of power that we ought to seek? Imagine if these three gentlemen could do something together like creating a civic forum for the young and gave them the benefit of their experience: the good, the bad, the ugly. You take your pick!

Or took up the cause of violence against women; or education of our children?

They may contribute more meaningfully and enduringly to the growth of the Fijian society than trying to enter the Parliament.

Ironically one of them is eligible for the impending election: the man who darkened the Parliamentary chambers on 14 May, 1987.

Listening to John Hewson, one of Australia’s most thoughtful former Leaders, I wondered if Fiji perhaps ought to create a place for these men to think and contemplate and leave behind their thoughts on their achievements and failures as warnings to the younger generations.

The Great Soul Mohandas Gandhi was never even a Member of Parliament. He never raised a gun or even his voice at anyone. But he became the unsurpassed voice of the voiceless: the dumb millions of more than India.

He keeps inspiring millions around the world who are dispossessed, who are poor and downtrodden, who wish to breathe the air of a free country and share the bread of equality, common human dignity and humane charities of the mind.

If India survives today after Partition, it’s because of this one soul who was different, so radically different that some people just couldn’t bear such a light in their darkened world. They shot him dead. And thought they had killed him. But he continues to illuminate the world as no one else.

There may be some lessons from his life that may be especially relevant to the islands battered by Cyclone Gita: a warning to our ethical world of climate and people, sea and the land, politics and poetry of living together.

Nature is ultimately more ethical than our man-forged manacles of racial bigotry and religious communalism.


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