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Why are we still continuing with a 'viceregal' political system? - Rounaq Jahan

Eroding democratic values and Constitution - Dr. M Zahir

Democracy: An unfinished agenda - Dr Kamal Hossain

A case for proportional representation - Rashed Khan Menon

Is majority rule same as democratic rule? - Kazi Anwarul Masud

Responsibilities of majority rule - Muhammad Zamir

The issue is democratic culture - Emajuddin Ahamed

Leaders and politicians - Mohammad Badrul Ahsan

Black money in electioneering - Inam Ahmed

Party nomination on sale - Rezaul Karim

The tale of limping parliament - Reaz Ahmed

Politicians hindering progress - AH Jaffor Ullah

Whither parliamentary standing committees - Shakhawat Liton

Politicians must take blame for failures - Syed Ashfaqul Haque


Antagonism takes precedence over understanding Shakhawat Liton

Thirteen years of democratic experience: Strengths and weaknesses Reaz Ahmad

Distorted political culture Shameem Mahmud

Party constitutions: Rarely followed Rezaul Karim



Leaders and politicians

Mohammad Badrul Ahsan

Clement Atlee, the British Prime Minister, once remarked that Charles de Gaulle of France was a very good soldier but a very bad politician. De Gaulle responded by saying that politics was too serious a matter to be left to the politicians. The great French statesman basically implied that politicians weren't always good leaders.

Syllogistically, all politicians aren't good leaders, but all leaders are good politicians. Leaders need to combine their pragmatism and political skills to have their ideals prevail. Abraham Lincoln broke laws, violated the Constitution, usurped arbitrary power and trampled individual liberties; he did all of these for the singular purpose of saving the Union. A politician would do all of these and more to stay in power. Thus one of the distinguishing elements between leaders and politicians is whether they use power as a means or an end.

But there are other differences as well. Leaders stand up for principle, and they must serve a purpose, which is linked to the welfare of the country and the people. Whereas politicians are chameleons, ready to compromise whenever it is convenient. If leaders are compared to water, they give shape to the pot, which holds them. Politicians, on the other hand, take the shape of the pot without hesitation. Leaders would be steadfast in their ambition to struggle for change. Politicians change their struggle to remain steadfast in their ambition for gains.

The French philosopher Henri Bergson once advised, "Act as men of thought. Think as men of action." Politicians are mostly men of action, but they aren't always men of thoughts. They are demagogic in nature, capable of whipping millions into frenzy, but they cannot appeal to the people as a moral force. Both politicians and leaders are calculated, but while politicians can be phony, leaders are profound.

What are the characteristics of a leader? General de Gaulle argued that the basis of leadership is charisma, which is a personal magnetism that enables an individual to attract or influence people. Charisma gives prestige, which gives authority that makes a politician feared, and a leader revered. Three concrete things support prestige: mystery, character and grandeur. There can be no prestige without mystery, so a leader must always have something which others cannot altogether fathom. He also must be laconic and exercise silence where appropriate to enhance that mystery.

But while mystery intrigues people, it doesn't always attract them. For this a leader needs character. While most people think of character as moral strength and fortitude, de Gaulle defined character as the fervent desire and inner power to exert one's will. The man of character doesn't seek above all to please his superiors, but rather aims to be true to himself.

A leader must also show grandeur. He must aim high, show that he has vision, act on the grand scale and so establish his authority over his followers. He must mark and symbolize a grand-national ambition to draw to himself the faith and dreams of people. He must show the will for the wish of his followers.

"We are all worms," said Winston Churchill in a discussion with friends about the meaning of life. Then he added, "But I do think that I am a glowworm." Leaders are glowworms who stand out and lead, while the politicians are worms, who wiggle and mislead. In Greek mythology, Apollo gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy, but also a curse so that people didn't believe her warnings. One of the contradictions of democracy is that people give their votes to the politicians, but refuse to be led by them.

Perhaps one of the failures of modern politics is rooted in that contradiction. People who win the election aren't always the right selection. They win by various means, not because they are the best choice. And the people vote for them for money, sometimes under coercion and many times because they don't have better choice.

Which explains the disarray in our politics, where money and muscle count more than anything. Hence, you may have politicians with charisma, but not leaders with prestige, the transition to authority somewhat hazed by lack of character, grandeur and mystery. Today's politicians look diminished, their minds congested by the narrow lanes of paltry interests instead of the thoroughfare of magnanimity.

Therefore, politics is no longer synonymous with leadership. Anybody can become a politician, anybody who has money. Money comes from unfair means, and people who adopt unfair means do not have character. People, who do not have character, do not have prestige, and the only way they can have authority is by unleashing terror. Thus three concrete things of modern politics are corruption, crime and violence. Corruption leads to crime and crime leads to violence, the vicious circle of grim politics perpetuated in that motion.

The result is a deadlock that gets repeated. Politicians sustain that deadlock because it suits them and at the end of their term in power, they leave with more money than they brought in. You need money to be in politics and you make money if you are in politics. The government of the money, by the money and for the money has turned democracy into plutocracy with a sadistic twist: people choose the hands, which oppress them.

One of the myths of leadership is that the leader must be seen ahead of the rest. Politics often turns into nothing but a mere struggle to stay ahead of others. True leadership is not about that. Zhou Enlai of China was a great leader himself, but he lived in the shadow of Chairman Mao. He knew his place and wanted to be where he belonged. Mahatma Gandhi made Nehru the Prime Minister of India like Gokhele made Gandhi the leader of the Indian movement.

Thus leaders can also lead by virtue of being led. And the greatest amongst the leaders are also the greatest amongst the followers. Gandhi followed the common people of India as he traveled across the country and lived unostentatiously like them. Winston Churchill followed events, first to become the Chancellor of the Exchequer through a fluke, and then Prime Minister at the age of sixty-five through another fluke after it had been reluctantly decided not to appoint a Prime Minister from the House of Lords.

Former U.S. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey observed, "To err is human, but to blame it on someone else is politics." Leadership comes from the realization of the first half of that statement. Politics is the work of the second half. Leadership rises from the deep understanding of the human condition. Politics thrives in the misunderstanding of it. Leaders converge on people, politicians diverge from them.

Clement Atlee retired as an earl and died in 1967. Charles de Gaulle died in 1970 and wished a simple funeral for himself. He would be buried in his village in a seventy-two dollar oak coffin, borne to his grave by his fellow villagers-a butcher's assistant, a cheesemaker, and a farmhand. In the end the soldier proved more politically correct than the politician, and thus a better politician.
Mohammad Badrul Ahsan is a banker.

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