Political leaders are, like the rest of us, less than perfect
The world in our time has been shaped by ideas ceaselessly refined and constantly put to the test. It has also been upended by mistakes made by political leaders who ought to have known better. Modern history is replete with instances of the pain, sometimes the trauma, which has been the consequence of misplaced moves.
Let us sit back and reflect on the mistakes, or you could call them blunders, that are now part of history.
A serious mistake was made by Jawaharlal Nehru when in July 1946, within days of the Congress and the Muslim League having accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan envisaging a united India following the departure of the British colonial power, he astounded people by his strange interpretation of the deal.
The Congress, he asserted, was not bound to accept the plan for it had promised nothing that could be construed as an acceptance of it. The statement was a blow to the last chance for India to remain united. Mohammad Ali Jinnah thus found a perfect excuse to wriggle out of a plan to which he had earlier reluctantly agreed.
Sticking to India, Jinnah himself made the unwise move of declaring August 16, 1946 as “Direct Action Day” as a way of forcing the partition of India. He did not spell out at whom or what the action was aimed. His loyalist Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, prime minister of Bengal, organized a huge rally of Muslim League workers and followers in Kolkata on the day.
Fiery speeches in defense of the creation of Pakistan were made. Once the rally was over, Muslim mobs went about attacking Hindu and Sikh homes and business establishments.
Two days into the rioting, Hindus and Sikhs struck back. Disaster struck with greater malevolent force, leaving anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 people dead on the streets in four days of communal strife.
A serious blunder was committed by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev when he ordered a stealthy deployment of nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba in October 1962. Once the missiles were detected, it was suddenly a world teetering on the brink of a nuclear apocalypse. The Americans contemplated taking out the missiles in surprise raids on Cuba and even invading the island nation. For a good number of days, Khrushchev and Kennedy looked eyeball to eyeball, until the Soviets eventually blinked, though on condition that a withdrawal of the missiles by Moscow would be followed by Washington’s recall of its own armaments in Turkey.
President John F Kennedy remains notorious for his own carelessness. Within months of coming to power in 1961, he collaborated with anti-Castro forces in their plans for an invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles that would result in the overthrow of Fidel Castro, who had seized power in January 1959. Washington promised air cover to the anti-Castro forces. The Cuban authorities, having come to know of the conspiracy, waited for the intruders on the beach.
Once they landed, scores of them were swiftly cut down. The rest were carted off to Havana’s prisons. America’s promised air cover did not materialize. Kennedy’s humiliation was complete.
In 1975, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi misjudged political reality when she clamped a state of emergency on the country. When the Allahabad high court deprived her of her seat in parliament, she could or should have resigned, contested the judgment, perhaps triumphantly, and return to office. When she moved to declare the emergency, she put a brake on independent India’s democratic traditions. The emergency remains a blemish on Mrs Gandhi’s otherwise good reputation, despite her later return to power and assassination.
When in early March 1971, General Yahya Khan postponed the planned session of the newly elected Pakistan national assembly without consulting the leader of the majority party, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, he clearly pushed his country on a course to disaster. He had blundered into taking the step after consulting minority leader ZA Bhutto and his fellow generals. He and his country would pay an enormous price nine months later. Pakistan would break up, a mere 23 years into its tenuous existence.
Richard Nixon was a shrewd politician whose comprehension of diplomacy was brilliant by any means. Having lost the race for the White House to John Kennedy in 1960 and then to Pat Brown in the gubernatorial race in 1962, he reinvented himself.
In 1966 he barnstormed America campaigning for Republicans at the mid-term elections, with remarkable success. A large number of the candidates he supported won and gave him credit for their success. Nixon then went on to write articles on foreign policy and tour the world. French President Charles de Gaulle made the clear prediction that the future belonged to Nixon. In 1968, Nixon was elected president of the United States. And then Watergate happened. It ruined him.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise in March 1985 as the Soviet Union’s new leader was looked upon as a renaissance for his country and for communism. There were many who thought that the West would now have to deal with a Soviet leader who was modern, young, and clearly a great Marxist hope. The hope was belied when Gorbachev, eager to reshape the Soviet Union in his own image, launched the twin programs of perestroika and glasnost. He was unable to contain the fallout, ending up as the last leader of a Soviet Union that was clearly falling apart.
Mistakes were made by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Salvador Allende, and Mohammed Morsi when they appointed men to powerful positions in the naïve belief that they would be loyal to them. Bhutto was hanged by his hand-picked army chief Zia ul-Haq; Allende’s life came to an end when Augusto Pinochet, whom he had appointed army chief only weeks earlier, led a violent coup against him; and Morsi’s fate was sealed when his own defense minister and army chief Abdel Fattah al Sisi overthrew him and eventually pushed him to death.
Political leaders are, like the rest of us, less than perfect. Like the rest of us, they make mistakes. Unlike the rest of us, they sometimes lead nations down the road to perdition when they take decisions which eventually turn out to have been without substance and minus the wisdom leadership calls for.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.