The birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, October 2, is a good time to reflect on the theme of leadership and how politics can be a great force for good.
I write as a bitterly divided US congress has led to the first Government shut-down in 17 years with both Democrats and Republicans hoping that the public will blame the other side more than it hurts their own. And here in Australia we have just had an election which both major parties said would be fought on the question of trust. The result is that the public’s trust in politicians is at an all-time low.
Last February I took part in a Dialogue on Democracy in Panchgani, India. It was the second such conference. Participants came from several countries struggling – often painfully – towards greater participation by citizens in how their countries are run. We heard people from Syria, Egypt, Burma/Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Tibet express how it sometimes seemed that for every step forward there were two steps back.
The spirit of Mahatma Gandhi was a guiding force in our deliberations. Gandhi’s grandson and biographer, Rajmohan Gandhi, was our host in Asia Plateau, an oasis-like conference and training centre he had inspired and help create over 40 years ago. On the opening evening Rajmohan invited us to reflect on what had made it possible for India to survive as a democracy, imperfect though it is, for over 60 years. And this despite the fact that India has many different religions and languages and cultures.
One thing that really sets Gandhi apart from many present-day politicians is that Gandhi never, ever, sought to divide people on the basis of religion, language, gender, social status (caste) or ethnicity. He always fought for principle, for freedom and justice for all. He was deeply distressed when Jinnah and others in the Freedom struggle started to press the Muslim cause against the majority Hindus. But even then Gandhi did not respond in kind and he successfully fought those in the Congress Party who wanted to make Congress the party of Hindus. Instead, Gandhi shone the searchlight inwards and invited Hindus to join him in soul-searching about their own actions and responsibility which had led to Muslims feeling threatened.
Divide and Rule is a strategy as old as politics itself. The British imperialists were experts at it and today we don’t have to look very far to find examples of politicians stirring up fear and distrust in order to further their own careers.
But the legacy of ‘divide and rule’ is toxic. The person who continually says that you can’t trust others sooner or later finds that they also are not trusted. And while fear and blame may be a shortcut to political power, most reforms that are worthwhile and lasting require a bipartisan and trust-building approach.
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