When politics worked on a higher plane
When was the last time we had political leaders whose minds were exercised by questions of public interest? And can you think back on an era where it was in the nature of politicians to dwell exclusively and purposefully on matters relating to the constitution, to the future of their nations, indeed to an adherence to principles they thought ought to define their own places in history? In Bangladesh -- and that means we are speaking of the last forty years -- do you recall the last time you came across a leader who could reach out to an entire nation and shape dreams for them?
Give your memories a jog. Or go back to a recapitulation of history. In the 1940s, as the struggle for Indian independence took an increasingly concrete shape, there was noticed a stridency of purpose in the way nationalist politicians conducted themselves. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru went to prison, over and over again, because of their refusal to compromise on the issues they thought were fundamental to the struggle for freedom. Other men shared their concerns, even if not everyone agreed with their strategy.
Subhas Chandra Bose, snubbed by Gandhi and others in the Congress, eventually set out on a course he thought would take India swiftly to freedom. You may not agree with the way in which he sought to accomplish his mission, but you will certainly acknowledge the sheer patriotism which defined Bose, a trait he shared with Gandhi, Nehru and Moulana Abul Kalam Azad.
In the old days, principle was of essence. Politics was everything with it and nothing without it. For all your reservations about the movement for Pakistan waged by the All-India Muslim League, you cannot but agree that Mohammad Ali Jinnah and all the men around him were driven by a cause.
You could suggest that the arguments they placed in defence of the so-called two-nation theory were flawed in many places. You could even be absolutely dismissive of it, given that what followed the creation of Pakistan was not exactly edifying for the Muslims of the subcontinent. But what you cannot brush away is the serious academic debate that Jinnah and his colleagues in the Muslim League engaged in with the British colonial power and the Indian National Congress in their struggle for Pakistan.
The issues in the decade of the 1940s were of a kind that would have a bearing on history; and every politician involved in negotiating them stayed well above the petty and the personal as he sought a way out of the impasse.
The underlying principle that defines politics is a commitment to people's welfare. It was precisely such an underpinning which kept politics and politicians going in the 1960s and 1970s in Pakistan. A throbbing was what characterised the profession, a particular reason being that most of the men (there were precious few women, if at all, in politics in those days) who pursued politics as a vocation, indeed as public service, happened to be lawyers or had studied it.
Even the authoritarian class, exemplified by the likes of Field Marshal Ayub Khan, knew it would in the end be a mistake to ignore such men. And that is how you come to reflect on the deliberations at the Round Table Conference in early 1969. The issues dwelt upon concerned every Pakistani -- the Six Points of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the demand for a return to parliamentary government, the need for a break-up of One Unit in West Pakistan and the right of adult franchise.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman did not refuse to meet Ayub Khan, the man who had tormented him through the years. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was willing to forge an alliance with the Awami League as a way of forcing the regime from power.
The negotiations were to prove abortive, of course. But they did point the way to some new and important configurations in history. Every participant at the RTC knew that on the shoulders of the politicians depended the shape of things to come. It was a thought which was plainly carried over to the talks that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and General Yahya Khan conducted among themselves in March 1971.
It was a constitutional crisis they were up against. It was the future of a country that hung in the balance. It is another matter that in the end both Bhutto and Yahya stabbed Mujib in the back. The point here is that all these men happened to be around at a defining moment in history -- Mujib in the making of it, Bhutto in trying to thwart its natural course and Yahya in molesting it altogether. For Pakistan, a world was destroyed in that year of grave discontent. For Bengalis, tragedy would pave the way to a new day in the sun.
Observe, now, how politics gasps for breath in these times of unmitigated monotony. Khaleda Zia demonstrates a clear and telling inability to rise above the personal and attempts to convince us that her lost home in the cantonment can be a spur to social and political revolution.
For her part, Sheikh Hasina keeps faltering, keeps failing to reach out to those who have either been alienated by her politics or have not felt drawn to it. In the old days, the men around Bangabandhu were not afraid to disagree with him. These days, Begum Zia throws out anyone who refuses to be pliant. The men and women around Sheikh Hasina do not see beyond their leader.
It is not politics. It is a world where sublimity has fallen prey to the mediocre.